PHOTO: FOTOLIA
PHOTO: FOTOLIA

Online Charter Shopping

Rental cars, hotel rooms, airline tickets—you can comparison shop and buy them all online relatively easily. So given business aviation’s devotion to innovation and its emphasis on time savings and efficiency, why can’t you search for and book a charter flight on the Web with the same level of ease?

True, you can use online charter tools to view aircraft categories, model options, flight times, and estimated prices, and even to book a trip. But the process isn’t as simple, seamless, or transparent as it is with many other goods and services. And it nearly always requires some human intervention behind the scenes.

One reason is that many charter operators and brokers have long contended that their flights are too complex and the price points are too high to support business-to-consumer ecommerce. Additionally, with charter rates having been under pressure for the better part of a decade, many operators decry the commoditization of a bespoke service that instant price quotes and online shopping connote, and they aren’t eager to encourage the activity.

Charter brokers, in contrast, are happy with a price-driven buyer’s market, as it means more business. But operators (who also book flights directly) and brokers both want to generate calls, not clicks, so that they can understand what you’re trying to accomplish on your mission beyond finding economical lift: they want to provide not only an accurate price, but the right charter option. Doubtless that’s why many major charter operators have no quote app on their sites, and why you may find expired flights in their empty-legs lists, or other evidence that they give low priority to online inquiries and sales.

There are other reasons, too, why online booking hasn’t developed faster than it has. Even the largest operators have relatively limited fleets, making their sites less-than-ideal destinations for price shopping the general market. Also, operators set charter rates in consultation with their aircraft’s owners, and those rates can fluctuate based on a variety of factors. Creating a true, real-time market requires automated quotes, and while it’s possible to program all the variables that can affect the rates into an algorithm to set a price, some charter operators want to retain final approval. Thus, they want to determine prices on an individual basis, which is not a process that’s conducive to e-commerce.

Charter brokers, who tout their access to multiple fleets, are more conceptually aligned with an online transactional world. But keep in mind that the online charter space is an excellent incubator for boiler-room-type broker operations that can generate high rankings through search-engine-optimization strategies and create click-bait pricing of questionable provenance. Moral: always perform due diligence.

Like operators, moreover, many major brokers prefer to deal with customers directly. And creating a platform that provides the functionality that online charter booking requires—as well as developing the critical mass of participation from operators and brokers—demands technology, expertise, and investment that is beyond the reach of most charter brokers.

All of this notwithstanding, a few companies—UK-based PrivateFly, Victor, and Stratajet among them—are operating on the premise that today’s technology and digitally savvy consumers can drive an online marketplace that will make more efficient use of available lift, draw new customers, and lower charter costs.

Click on the “Request Quotes” tab on Victor’s site, submit your itinerary, and within seconds you’ll get estimates for numerous aircraft in each category selected, listed in ascending cost order, all within 3 percent of the actual charter price, according to the company. The site also provides photos of the aircraft exterior and interior and a diagram of the interior configuration. To proceed with booking, you designate the chosen aircraft, and Victor’s charter brokers contact operators. Within half an hour, you receive an email with three or more exact quotes and detailed information on each aircraft, including registration number, insurance documents, and additional photos.

PrivateFly has a “Search for a Flight” tool on its homepage. After you submit your intended itinerary, the portal displays the lowest-priced available aircraft in each size category. Click on any of these categories to see the models available, and the average price of each, along with flight time for your route. As with Victor, if you want a definitive quote or to book a flight, a PrivateFly broker will handle the request manually.

In contrast, Stratajet’s platform is completely automated. The quoting tool is the focus of its home page. When you submit a quote request, the platform weighs 246 variables in calculating the guaranteed price. The quote shows all fees for the selected airports and comes with suggestions for using nearby alternatives that offer savings on repositioning or airport fees. You can also select the FBO you want to use, order catering, and finally, book through Apple Pay, bypassing the broker completely. Stratajet is currently limited to booking charter in Europe, but the company plans to expand to the U.S. this fall.  


Online tools your charter broker uses
Though you may not have access to a full menu of online shopping tools today, your broker does.

In 2002, when the charter market ran on telephones, fax machines, and Rolodexes, Sweden’s Avinode unveiled its B2B platform, where the schedules and positions of aircraft available for charter are displayed in real time (for a fee), creating an online charter marketplace. The platform links to fleet-management software used by charter brokers, so the inventory is automatically tracked and uploaded, and the information is available to all subscribers. Avinode claims that 80 percent of the world’s charter market now uses its platform. (Brokers typically also have additional proprietary sources for lift.) Avinode also powers the price-quote apps you can find on many broker and operator sites.

Now that the online market is maturing, other providers are eyeing the B2B charter space. ReturnJet, a UK-based platform, hopes to establish itself as a complement, if not an alternative, to Avinode, offering free listings to operators and enhanced tracking tools to brokers. Meanwhile, Avinode has beefed up its B2C support “to meet the demands of a young, more tech-savvy audience who expect a private jet to be just as accessible and easy to book as an Uber taxi,” the company says. —J.W.


Apps for Access

Airborne access is going mobile, as business jet travelers turn to their smart devices for lift, tapping into a growing selection of apps from well-known providers. Most such apps are designed for iOS and available via the App Store, but some are Android and Microsoft supported.
Some of these apps (including those from the online brokers cited in the accompanying article) are aimed at charter market shoppers; others are provided by operators as a complementary transaction channel for existing customers.

Here’s a sampling of what’s available:
• After seeing a steady rise in bookings through its online portal (which currently processes about 20,000 trips annually), NetJets decided its fractional shareowners needed an app. Now those customers can book flights, update travel preferences, and get details about the jet and crew for scheduled flights through their smart devices.
 
• Is an aircraft from VistaJet’s bespoke all-Bombardier fleet available at the date, time, and place you want to travel? Its new app will tell you, and trigger contact from a representative to confirm your booking or discuss alternative arrangements if the jets are all occupied. You can also use the app to get weather updates, select catering, and manage other trip details.

• The Aircraft Guide app from London brokerage Air Charter Service presents info on hundreds of aircraft—including business jets, piston and turboprop models, and helicopters—in an easily accessible format. Click on any aircraft for an interior view and basic performance information. The app links to the company’s booking platform.

• Charter broker Skyjet’s app displays the real-time price of a few jets in any of four categories (light, mid, super-mid, and large cabin) selected for a requested trip. Tap on any of the proffered choices to see performance and other information (e.g., whether there’s Wi-Fi aboard), request a firm quote, or proceed to booking. Agents manually handle queries and respond within an hour via email. The Cleveland-based charter broker is a Directional Aviation Capital company and draws its lift primarily from sister companies Sentient and Flight Options.

• BlackJet offers individual seats on private jets flying between major U.S. cities, all displayed on its app’s home screen. Select the departure and destinations cities, input travel dates, and the per-seat price will be displayed. The California charter broker charges $5,000 for a one-year membership but recently featured introductory pricing of $1,800 for the first year.

• JetSmarter’s app provides charter price estimates for both its ad hoc and “member” charter rates (about 20 percent below ad hoc). The charter broker’s members pay a $5,000 initiation fee and $10,000 per year for membership. Agents accessed via a “click to purchase” button finalize bookings. The app also displays JetSmarter’s empty-legs listings, as well as available single seats on its JetShuttle group charter flights.

• Stellar Labs, a Silicon Valley-based startup, has an ambitious plan to create a real-time automated charter marketplace, accessible through its app. Founder Paul Touw previously launched and sold for $4.3 billion web logistics portal Ariba before founding XOJet, which shook up the charter world with its one-way transcontinental fares and owned-and-operated fleet. The Stellar app, recently in beta testing, aims to revolutionize the market by bringing airline-style demand-based pricing to charter. That might not sound like a boon if you’re a charter consumer, but remember that the airlines’ first yield-management product was American’s Ultimate Super Saver fares, created to compete with low-cost carriers. —J.W.


James Wynbrandt (jwynbrandt@bjtonline.com), a private pilot, is a longtime BJT contributor.

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