By Tom Zenner
Growing up in Ohio, John DePalma knew he wanted to see the world, but unlike most other teenagers who dream about their future, John had a plan to do it. And he was certain from an early age that it was going to happen from an elevation of over 30,000 feet.
"When I was young, I used to build model airplanes. I was just fascinated for about as long as I can remember by aviation, and what really got me going was the fact my next door neighbor one day asked me to go out to the airport and he gave me a ride on a plane. That was when I was 16 years old. After that, I took a flying lesson, and I literally have been hooked ever since. I went to Ohio State University, which has an outstanding flight school, and so my transformation by the time I got out of college was complete as I evolved from a pre-law program to aviation. I've been doing it the rest of my life."
That he has. In fact, John's career path has gained altitude every step of the way, going from commercial pilot, flight instructor, and corporate pilot to the spot in his life and career where he has landed now, as a major player and one of the most forward-thinking executives in corporate jet leasing and sales. John is President of Caliber Jet, a Cleveland-based company that caters to their clients' every little detail, allowing for the most productive, enjoyable, and cost-effective trips that are all just one phone call away. Simply put, you won't find a level of customer service that exceeds what John and his team at Caliber can provide. Including their own impressive fleet that includes a Lear-35A passenger jet, Citation, and Hawker 800, Caliber Jet has access to over 4,000 executive jets of every size. Any trip can be accommodated. Any time. John has built his reputation and a thriving charter operation because he combines his unique business acumen and an encyclopedic knowledge of aircraft. No detail is too small, taken for granted, or overlooked, because there literally isn't much John hasn't seen or experienced in the past three decades of flying, selling and leasing private jets.
"Early in my career, I was an airline pilot, and to be honest, it just didn't fulfill me. While I enjoyed the job and found it satisfying on some levels, it didn't keep me as busy as I would have liked. When you are an airline pilot for a large commercial carrier, you're basically regimented, both for your safety and just the overall process. It just doesn't allow for much creativity. You obviously can't just do your own thing. But the part of the business that I have evolved into feeds that interest in me. After flying commercially, I shifted gears and went into aircraft sales, so for most of my career now I've sold business jets. Even now, I still see myself as a business jet salesman who happens to have an aircraft management charter business."
There has been no shortage of "fly by night" charter flight companies that have come and gone over the years. What John set out to build with Caliber Jet is a business that will consistently fly high. His industry is a highly competitive one, where vision and a laser-like strategic gameplan are truly necessary to succeed. To be different requires that you act different. To be special requires you to provide something special. And that is what John set out to do with Caliber Jet.
"You know, what I think makes us special at Caliber Jet is that in a deflationary cycle with the aircraft, we're building our business model by setting out to own about half the airplanes and we're going to manage the other half of the airplanes. And what that affords us is the ability to meet the customer's needs. If you're strictly managing aircraft all the time, the access to the airplanes for charter is very limited, because many times you have to call the owner of the aircraft and get permission to use their airplane for a charter flight. Usually it doesn't work out, and I'd say about half the time the trip doesn't work out because the owner has a use for the airplane. So, by owning half of the fleet, we can always fulfill that on-demand market for our charter clients. And at the same time, by managing aircraft, we can lower our overhead capital because we're really sharing that cost with the aircraft owners. That's what makes us unique. I think a lot of management companies currently are just strictly into management. They don't want to own the aircraft, and in a deflationary cycle, our model is better. I'll give you an example. A Hawker that we're looking at now is priced at $1.5 million, where just four years ago the price for that same jet was more than double."
From a glass-enclosed office on a spectacular sun-kissed day in a busy terminal at the Scottsdale Airport recently, John explained to Jetset the type of consumer that finds Caliber Jet the right choice for their private jet needs. "The sweet spot for us is the customer that really doesn't particularly want to own an airplane, or maybe they do buy an airplane but they don't want to be bothered with any of the details. They trust us to hire the pilots, decide on where to have the maintenance done on the aircraft and do the accounting for it. So our sweet spot is that type of customer, plus a customer that just says, 'Look, I'm a 50 hours to 100 hours a year utilization customer, anywhere from $200,000 to half a million dollars a year. You arrange it for me, you set everything up.' What we call ourselves is really a high-end boutique aircraft management company. We're going to try and keep ourselves not too big, so that every customer knows me personally. If they have an issue, or they have a thought, they can call me. That's the way I've always run my business, but we've kind of modernized it, to suit the current economic times." John's worked with his share of famous clients, including athletes, performers and celebrities in almost every spectrum of pop culture. But it's the personal touch that truly sets him apart from his competitors.
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