THESE DAYS, you likely wouldn’t buy a set of golf clubs, book a suite at a resort, or hire a plumber without first checking online reviews. But if you want to see what other customers say before choosing an air charter company, you’re probably out of luck.
Look for comments on just about any major broker or operator on Tripadvisor.com and you’ll come up empty. Try the same search on Yelp.com and, if the site lists the provider at all, you’ll likely see a message that begins, “Hey there trendsetter! You could be the first review…” Comments about jet card and fractional ownership programs are even tougher to find.
Of course, lift providers often feature glowing customer testimonials on their own websites, but these are far from the unvarnished, validated comments that some third-party sites offer about other products and services. And recent research from Northwestern University with PowerReviews finds that consumers increasingly value such comments. The higher the purchase price, moreover, the more importance they place on reviews by other buyers.
So why are online critiques so rare in the bizav market? “This is something we’ve been looking at for years,” says Joe Moeggenberg, president and CEO of Argus International, whose audit programs for charter operators, and now brokers, are among the industry’s standards. Argus, he says, has long sought to add a comments section to its TripCheq reports on aircraft and crew, which are provided to customers of Argus-rated operators prior to every flight. “The problem has been, we can’t get [business aviation users] interested in talking about their experiences.”
YOU MIGHT THINK the dearth of comments at least partly reflects a relatively small population of customers. But about 0.6 to 1.5 percent of consumers post reviews of other purchased products and services, according to research by Gregory Yankelovich of Applied Analytics and Duncan Simester, an MIT professor of management science. (Other studies put the percentages significantly higher.) Using data from the Argus 2016 Flight Activity Report, I estimate that at least 500,000 charter, jet card, and fractional flight passenger experiences occurred last year. Based on that, you’d expect to find about 3,000 to 7,500 reviews. So the size of the market doesn’t explain the void.
Security and privacy considerations surely keep some lips zipped, says Francine Brasseur, associate publisher of Air Charter Guide, but she suggests that self-interest may also play a role in a lack of positive reviews, given the finite quantity of quality lift and service. “If you’re happy with the service, why would you share it with other people?” she asks.
Moreover, “charter brokers and operators do not try to create a sense of community” that may entice customers to comment, as do many consumer brands and products, notes Troy Martin, a vice president at charter service Miami Air International and past president of the Air Charter Association of North America (Acana), which establishes standards for the air charter brokerage community.
The lack of an appropriate business aviation-oriented online platform to post reviews is also a factor, says Paul Class, a senior vice president at charter management company Solairus Aviation: “I believe customers want to leave reviews and would if they had avenues [dedicated to business aviation feedback].”
But listen to industry professionals and you get the sense that the shortage of reviews may extend to a lack of customer communication with charter providers themselves.
“As an operator, we have to solicit feedback—otherwise we wouldn’t get it,” says Robert Molsbergen, president of charter management company ExcelAire. Solairus’s Class, meanwhile, notes that customer comments rarely come directly to management. Instead, he says, “we hear from crewmembers.”
Of course, such feedback is critical, because businesses rely on it to keep doing things customers like and fix things that make them unhappy.
VIRTUALLY ALL THOSE WE SPOKE TO, however, assume that if comments did find a forum, the posts would be problematic. For one thing, say providers, the preponderance of feedback would be complaints, which would give unmerited weight to a relative handful of disgruntled customers. “It may be a cliché to say that people will tell 10 others about a bad experience and one person about a good experience, but this is a truism when it comes to online reviewing,” says Paul McCluskey, a vice president at Hunt & Palmer USA, and cofounder of Acana.
Research into online reviews by ReputationManagement.com indicates, however, that while men are more likely to post negative reviews, women are more apt to post positive ones—and are more likely to write reviews than are men. This may help to explain both the scarcity of online critiques and providers’ experiences and expectations about their content, since all indications suggest that the majority of current bizav customers are male.
Charter brokers are additionally concerned that reviewers will hold them responsible for operators’ lapses. “We don’t have control of the aircraft, so occasionally issues arise that are out of our control,” says Joel Thomas, president and CEO of Stratos Jet Charters, and former Acana chairman.
But fears about waves of negative comments may be overblown. Given the problems that reportedly vex them most, charter customers might be reluctant to air their gripes, which include “a lot of complaints about catering,” says ExcelAire’s Molsbergen, a former president of Executive Jet Management, one of the world’s largest charter operators. “Sometimes,” he adds, “a charter customer can be critical about the quality of the aircraft, even though there’s nothing wrong with it. They don’t like the [interior] color, or the leather, or the cloth.”
Whether such comments would be helpful to other charter shoppers, the blogosphere might not view them from the same consumerist perspective. Questions about the validity and propriety of such reviews were put in sharp relief last year when Kim Kardashian unleashed a series of gushing tweets about JetSmarter, urging her followers to download the charter broker’s app. Other posters slammed Kardashian for not disclosing any financial or other ties she had with the service. While JetSmarter denied that it had paid Kardashian’s $10,000 membership fee, the company admits providing free charter service to celebrities on occasion. Meanwhile, the tweets shut down the company’s phone system due to the volume of inquiries it generated, according to JetSmarter.
SO WHAT GUIDANCE IS available in lieu of legitimate consumer reviews? Look for providers audited (not simply listed) by Argus, Wyvern, or the Air Charter Safety Foundation, or ones that belong to Acana, whose members agree to operate according to transparent, codified ethical standards. Also consider how long the firm or its principals have been in business. Brokers listed in Air Charter Guide must be recommended by three operators.
You might also see how or whether companies respond to customer comments. Maybe because its Phenom 100–based service is about as mass market as charter gets, California’s JetSuite customers have posted several reviews. A buyer of a cancelled empty leg (sold subject to cancellation) complained on a third-party site that the company wouldn’t reimburse a forfeited hotel deposit. A JetSuite representative apologized for the inconvenience online and provided a phone number for the poster to contact a customer representative, which could be taken as a sign of attention to detail that potential customers might appreciate.