““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Making the most of online resources
It's one of the most visited destinations in the air charter world: the Web. But finding the best ways to take advantage of it has challenged charter providers and customers since the start of the dot-com revolution. Virgin Charter's idea for a one-stop online booking portal closed down almost as quickly as it popped up. It's unclear whether the failure resulted from customers' reluctance to book online, glitches in the software or the soft economy. Ditto for the demise of CharterAuction's Web site, which enabled users to put potential trips out for bids from hundreds of providers. Meanwhile, on the many charter sites that remain, customers often have trouble sorting through a surfeit of information and determining which brokers and operators merit their trust.
Such failures and problems notwithstanding, online charter activity continues to grow.
"Since we released our latest Web site three years ago, page views and unique visitors have constantly increased," said Francine Eladhari, associate publisher of Air Charter Guide. Charter-related Web traffic, she added, is "always on the increase."
And no wonder: despite its limitations, the Internet can make you a more informed charter customer and save you money-if you visit the right sites. Here are a few we think deserve to be bookmarked:
Air Charter Guide (www.AirCharterGuide.com).
This site, from the publishers of the encyclopedic Air Charter Guide print publication, includes tips on choosing operators and brokers and on picking the right aircraft for a flight. Experienced charter users will appreciate the links to operators and brokers, which can be selected by location, and airport-by-airport listings of available aircraft with links to their providers. Like most charter sites, this one features a flight planner that allows you to input a prospective trip and get information on providers, available aircraft and costs.
Air Royale International (www.airroyale.com)
This charter broker, with offices in Los Angeles, New York, London, Dubai and Hong Kong, claims access to 5,000 aircraft worldwide. The site's quote engine is unremarkable but the range and quality of its aircraft database adds value to the results. Last summer, moreover, the company instituted a price guarantee: if it can't beat an already quoted charter price, it will pay you $500. The list of available empty legs (flights needed to return an aircraft to its base) that can be chartered at a discount isn't always up to date. But the site sends out e-mails twice weekly to registrants who want to stay abreast of flights that fit their routes and aircraft preferences.
As noted earlier, a Web site called CharterAuction went out of business last year. But a Portsmouth, N.H.-based firm bought the defunct company's domain name and kept its concept alive. At the Web site, you can input the date, time, number of people traveling and preferences for your proposed flight, and the information will go out to providers who may bid on the trip. The company says it has about 1,500 providers in its bidding network and that you can contact those companies directly to finalize a deal. The site also has one of the better aircraft profiles sections, providing comprehensive data on airplane capacity and performance, along with seat and floor-plan diagrams and internal and external photos.
Empty LegMarket (www.emptylegmarket.com)
These sites specialize in aggregating and posting data on available empty legs from providers throughout the industry. For each flight, the sites offer contact information for the charter operator or broker, so you can deal directly with the provider.
National Business Aviation Association (www.nbaa.org)
The business aviation advocacy organization's site has listings of member charter brokers and operators (under the Products & Services tab) and also maintains a list of empty legs (in the Charter AirMail section). You can get e-mail alerts when empty legs fitting your preset parameters become available. The "NBAA Aircraft Charter Consumer Guide," available from the site gratis, offers a good tutorial.
San Carlos, Calif.-based charter operator XOJet has shaken up the business with one-way pricing on its fleet of Citation X and Challenger 300 jets. Its site features a link to a map of the continental U.S. with 16 major departure points. Roll the cursor over one of those points and you'll see up to a dozen one-way fares available from the location (New York to San Francisco for $19,000, for example). This can offer an excellent baseline for comparing quotes from other providers. The site also has a Flight Program Analyzer that can compare XOJet costs with those of fractional and whole ownership. A sample report is available online and the company will provide a customized report upon request.