Click, pay, fly

Feb 26, 2017 - 9:00 PM

You might well wonder why for so long it has been far easier to go online and book a coach-class airliner seat than to charter a whole aircraft and enjoy infinitely better service. Some would say the charter industry has shrouded its booking process in mystery, allowing access to aircraft only through brokers who serve as old-school travel agents and aren’t necessarily transparent about costs.

This picture is changing fast, with the arrival of the first fully automated booking platforms promising consumers direct real-time access to available aircraft. Leading the way is Stratajet.com, which launched in Europe last April and has been available in the U.S. since September.

The UK-based company spent five years—and came close to collapse—before developing the all-important algorithms that allow it to filter availability and pricing for thousands of aircraft. Behind the system is a team of researchers who investigate every conceivable cost associated with a trip, such as landing fees and special charges for engine emissions. From this, Stratajet instantly calculates 15 sets of charges to come up with a price (which operators are free to tweak to account for demand).

To find a flight, you don’t even have to know which airports you should use for your journey. You can simply indicate the addresses where you want to begin and end your trip, giving a date and preferred time of departure or arrival. Stratajet calculates drive times to and from the airports and even monitors weather conditions to be sure that flight visibility hasn’t fallen below the permitted minimums in any requested locations.

BJT searched for a hypothetical trip for three people from our headquarters in northern New Jersey to the Brave New Restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas. Within seconds, Stratajet proposed 44 possible aircraft. The lowest priced flight, at $16,288, was on a Hawker 400XP from White Plains Westchester County Airport in New York, but that’s on the wrong side of the Hudson River for us; more convenient was an older Learjet 35A flying out of New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport for $16,733 ($5,578 per person). Travel time was shown as just over three hours.

You can filter searches according to factors such as the age of the aircraft you’re willing to ride in and whether you’ll accept a piston or turboprop model, rather than insisting on a jet. You can also filter by pricing level or travel time.

For each aircraft, the Stratajet site shows the year it was built, seating options, baggage space, and cabin dimensions (unhelpfully for U.S. travelers, these are provided in metric measures). The site also indicates whether the airplane owner’s permission is required to confirm the booking (significant in the case of aircraft that are under management contracts). The Learjet identified by BJT’s search was available for immediate booking, so our trip to Little Rock could have been confirmed.

You can pay for flights with a credit card (subject to a 2.9 percent surcharge) or via bank transfer or Apple Pay. You don’t need to store credit-card details in the system when creating an account, but if you do, you’re protected by the Stripe secure payment service, which employs a two-step authentication process.

What the Stratajet system doesn’t show is which operator will provide your flight; you don’t receive that information until you book the trip. However, Stratajet insists that it has vetted the operators it allows to post availability in the system. In the U.S., it has over 200 operators, and Stratajet founder and CEO Jonny Nicol—a former British Army officer and corporate jet pilot—visited all these companies, which hold safety audit accreditation from Wyvern or Argus.

Stratajet, which receives booking commissions from operators, guarantees the prices it quotes. If it overlooks or miscalculates some cost factor, the company swallows the extra expense.
Cancellation rights depend on the terms and conditions for each operator. If a so-called empty-leg flight is suddenly not available because the related one-way flight gets cancelled, Stratajet will honor the booking and find a suitable alternative aircraft.

The company’s algorithms include a so-called adaptive empty-leg solution that it says can accurately assess the true cost of these flights. Stratajet’s venture capital backers did research comparing empty-leg flights to business-class flights with airlines and found that for three or four passengers booking a private jet would be less expensive. Now Stratajet is working to incorporate its system into major travel search engines so that passengers can directly compare these two options.

“Typically, it takes a couple of days to get quotes manually through a broker; we can get hundreds of aircraft quoted in 12 seconds,” says Nicol. “We are the only company that can give you a price for a jet without any human intervention and the only one that can take 40 percent of private jet flights currently carrying no passengers [i.e. empty-leg flights] and put them to use. Traditionally, you’d either give a broker your flight request or type it in at a website, and then wait for operators to put together a quote. It is very inefficient and increases the cost of charter.”

In fact, according to Nicol, the manual charter quoting process is so time consuming that brokers can be reluctant to follow up on a request unless they are certain that the customer is a serious prospect. “So the standard first question is, ‘Have you ever flown privately before?’” Nicol says. “If they have not, the broker probably doesn’t even bother to call any operators.

“This has meant that the average age of the private jet traveler has generally gotten older,” Nicol continues. “The industry needs new people and it needs to interact with the world in the way they are used to making their travel plans. We took the last form of transport to go online and put it online.”

As of late December, 32 percent of Stratajet’s customers were making their first private charter flight, and almost half of its registered users were 34 years old or younger. The average cost of a trip was around $7,500, with significant usage of smaller light jets.

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Other Online Trailblazers
Stratajet isn’t alone in its rapidly moving online space. Rival Stellar Labs launched its app in November, offering charter trips from U.S. operators. Through a partnership with Rockwell Collins to tap its flight operations management platform, the company intends to expand the service to many more operators. Its system either shows customers a named operator or indicates that the flight will be handled by an unidentified “Stellar Alliance” operator (a company that prefers not to disclose its brand at this stage in the process).

Meanwhile, well-established Europe-based portal PrivateFly has significantly expanded into the U.S. over the last year or so. Another new market entrant is Jet Scout, which also claims to generate transparent and binding flight quotes from a screened group of operators.

Like Stratajet, these web-based platforms all employ a business model that involves taking a booking commission from the flight operator. —C.A.


Charles Alcock is editor-in-chief of AIN Publications, publisher of BJT.