Making the most of empty legs

Business Jet Traveler » December 2009
Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 4:00am

"Empty legs," the so-called repositioning flights that have no passengers, represent a growing marketplace of bargain charter opportunities, and it's easy to see why. Many charter flights carry only crew because the aircraft is on its way to pick up travelers or going somewhere empty after dropping them off. Meanwhile, charter companies are hungry for revenue, travelers are eager to save money and Web-based software is making it easier for them to find empty legs.

"Charter companies are much more willing to post their empty legs today than they were a year or two ago," said Terry Cooper, president of CharterMatrix of Melbourne, Fla., which advertises empty legs at chartermatrix.com and supplies proprietary software that charter companies use to list empty legs on their sites.

Software developed by aggregators like CharterMatrix and CharterX Corp. can link with charter companies' internal scheduling programs, automatically posting an empty leg whenever a customer books a one-way flight. This process is one reason behind the increased availability of empty legs. CharterX has about 2,400 empty legs in its system on any given day, according to company CEO Jim Betlyon. That compares with roughly 1,900 a year ago and 1,700 two years ago.

Many charter company Web sites allow you to search for empty legs for specific routes and dates. If the company subscribes to a service like CharterX, the entire inventory of empty legs in the aggregator's system will be in the database. An empty-leg post typically includes the points of departure and destination; the date or range of dates the flight is available; the category or make and model of the aircraft; and either a price or an opportunity to offer a bid for the flight.

Open sites like CharterMatrix and EmptyLegMarket (emptylegmarket.com) provide contact information for the charter provider handling the flight, enabling you to deal directly with the company. For empty-leg flights listed on a charter company's site, that company typically acts as middleman and handles the negotiating and final scheduling. The National Business Aviation Association also posts empty legs at www.nbaa.org/airmail, which is accessible to NBAA members.

Empty legs typically don't list a specific departure time. Charter operators and brokers are mindful of FAA concerns about blurring the lines between charter companies, which follow FAA Part 135 rules, and companies that offer scheduled flights (that is, airlines), which must follow more stringent Part 121 rules.

Not surprisingly, the greatest potential for scoring an empty leg is when you want to fly at times and in directions few other travelers are interested in. For example, when the Super Bowl takes place in Miami in February, you'll find empty legs out of the Miami area in the days beforehand as charter aircraft are dispatched to pick up Super Bowl-bound travelers. You'll also find empty legs to the Miami area immediately after the event as charter companies send aircraft to pick up customers. Likewise, if you want to fly into Aspen at the end of a big holiday weekend, you can probably find an empty leg.

The most important caveat to understand is that empty legs can vanish. If a charter flight gets canceled, any empty leg it generated as a byproduct also disappears-even if you've already booked it. Hence, you need a backup plan. And you can't book empty legs very far in advance.

"If it's short notice, like you want to fly tomorrow, the probability of finding a flight is better," said Niklas Berg, CEO of Avinode, a Sweden-based charter software provider with U.S. headquarters in Miami. "If it's in three weeks, most operators don't know what's going on in three weeks."

Prices for empty legs, even when listed, are usually negotiable. So too are departure and arrival points. If a posted leg is close to but not exactly the same as your intended travel route, a change in itinerary can typically be arranged for a fee. As for the cost difference over typical charter rates, there is no rule of thumb, but don't expect deep discounting.

"It all depends on how flexible you are or the flight is, how much the first client paid, how important it is to move the aircraft," Berg said. "There are a lot of variables on the price."

Empty-leg income tends to be gravy revenue for charter companies. As Berg noted, the customer whose flight created the empty leg has typically already paid for the round trip. If the company can book an empty leg, the customer will receive at least a partial rebate, but the charter operator will make money. (By the way, if you're paying full fare on a one-way trip, ask the charter provider about receiving a rebate if it sells the empty leg. Common industry practice is to provide some level of refund.)

With empty-leg flights, as with all charter flights, you need to make sure the aircraft and crew meet safety standards. Some sites that list empty legs don't vet compliance with FAA rules. CharterX, which also owns Wyvern, the aviation safety auditing and consulting company, checks the compliance of all aircraft and crews on the empty legs posted through its software.

Keep these factors in mind, and you'll have a leg up on finding a repositioning flight that can meet your travel needs.

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