Let me start with the spoiler: Despite what you read, the notion of buying private jet charter flights online in real-time is mostly fake news. Aside from that, it’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t know what you’re doing. Still, if you really need to tap your way into the private skies, out of dozens, I found only a few apps and digital interfaces worth looking at.
A couple of the big players are successfully offering real-time pricing and buying. They’ve come this far by hiring hundreds of programmers and investing tens of millions of dollars. With plenty of big dreams and bombastic claims, it can be difficult to figure out the difference just by looking at slick websites.
While there are hundreds of millions of dollars in private jet bookings taking place online, most of … [+]
The vast majority of sites claiming to be a private aviation version of Uber merely allow you to request quotes for flights, with some offering ‘real-time’ price estimates that are not grounded in reality.
They give flight options that would land you in the ocean. The jets they show are too big for the airport you selected. How about a nonstop flight from Puerto Vallarta to Aspen? What’s the problem with that, you might ask? LOL. Aspen doesn’t have customs.
In yet another fail, if you enter New York City as your destination, some sites won’t show you Teterboro, the nation’s busiest private jet airport. It’s just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Why don’t they show it? It’s in New Jersey. They will, however, offer you airports hundreds of miles away because they are in New York – upstate.
Old School: Former NetJets sales executive Kevin Diemar founded Unity Jets 10 years ago. It doesn’t … [+]
The good news is flights based on quotes offering light jets and turboprops from Los Angeles to Honolulu will never take place – nor will those flights where your airplane would run off the end of the runway. You might choose a less convenient airport. There are plenty of ways to lose money and spend more than necessary. You may not know when you are entitled to a refund – unless you know the law. We’ll let you know.
So, if you believe technology is supposed to improve your life, save time, and perhaps engage artificial intelligence and algorithms to provide a better outcome than interacting with another human, you may question the value many of these services offer. That’s unless you run one of the faux booking sites – some merely view these interfaces as a PR exercise or a way to capture emails and phone numbers for future marketing.
To save you future heartache, headaches, telemarketing phone calls, and perhaps thousands of dollars, we examine the facts and truth about private aviation’s digital revolution: what’s real, what’s puffery, how it works, your legal rights, the potholes to avoid, and what’s next. Fasten your seatbelt. We’re expecting some turbulence.
You’ve likely seen websites claiming access to 5,000, 10,000, or even 20,000 aircraft. Others narrow it down, saying they offer a vetted fleet of 1,000 or 2,000 airplanes. An excellent place to start is explaining just how many private aircraft are out there and how they are segmented. The number gets much larger if you include turboprops, pistons, and helicopters.
There are three types of registrations you will hear referenced. You might compare it broadly to automobiles, although in the case of aviation, it’s regulated at a federal level. Only those airplanes on a Part 135 certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration are legally able to be chartered. Part 91 registered aircraft can only be used by their owners for non-commercial use – that means flying family, employees, or giving friends a lift is okay. The rules are strict. Airplane owners can’t accept compensation. Trading flights for a week at your buddy’s ski house is illegal. Part 91K covers the flights of fractionally owned aircraft, like those operated by NetJets and Flexjet.
Going digital. Wheels Up founder and CEO Kenny Dichter wants to expand online private jet bookings … [+]
A recent Wheels Up presentation shows the broad market has 20,000 private planes and over 1,900 operators in the United States. A narrower view comes from Tuvoli, a B2B payment solutions provider launched by rival Directional Aviation. Its analysis shows 10,970 charter aircraft, from large Gulfstream jets to air ambulances and floatplanes in Alaska. If you focus only on jets and exclude the fractionally-owned fleets, you are down to 3,314 aircraft potentially available for charter from 549 operators.
Out of that, there are only 66 operators with more than 10 jets on their Part 135 certificates. That leaves 483 operators with 10 or fewer jets for hire, including 380 with five or less, and 149 operators with a single private jet for charter.
According to Argus, the 10 largest charter and fractional operators accounted for just 23.2% of the total North American private aviation flight hours in 2020. Without the fractional fleet operators, it’s around 8%. In contrast, the 10 biggest U.S. airlines have a 90% market share. In other words, private aviation is highly fragmented.
Before we get into why most of the claims about being the Uber or Expedia of private jets are misleading, it’s important to understand where the supply of operators’ charter jets, turboprops, float planes, and otherwise comes from.
The airlines either buy or lease the airplanes they fly and then expand their networks by selling seats on partner airlines via code sharing. Charter operators also lease and buy aircraft. The primary source of inventory, however, is managing airplanes for their individual owners. That can be companies or HNW individuals. It’s referred to as aircraft management.
Vista Global founder and chairman Thomas Flohr bought JetSmarter to power his move into jet-sharing. … [+]
In the latter, you own an airplane but don’t want to set up a flight department. You hire a management company. Executive Jet Management (a unit of NetJets), Wheels Up, Jet Linx, Jet Edge, Solairus, Clay Lacy, Jet Aviation (owned by General Dynamics), and Talon Air (minority-owned by Vista Global), are some of the biggest in the U.S.
They take care of everything from hiring pilots and scheduling maintenance to securing necessary insurance and ensuring compliance with FAA regulations – under Part 91 if you don’t want to charter your airplane – or Part 135 if you want to offset some of the costs by letting others rent it when you aren’t flying.
To take you under the hood, your airplane is likely flying under Part 91 when you are in it as the owner – although some owners fly under 135 for liability and other reasons. When somebody is chartering the aircraft, it must fly under Part 135. For fractional operators, when their shared owners are flying the airplanes, they mostly fly under the 91K rules. When the aircraft is being used for charter flights, that same airplane and crew must fly under Part 135 regulations.
What’s behind that broker website? Private Jet Services Group, which doesn’t sell or quote online, … [+]
Managed aircraft need owner approval before the management company can sign a charter contract with a consumer or broker. In some cases, it’s a blanket approval, although more often it’s for time periods updated month by month, week by week, or even for each individual request.
When you get into larger jets, there often are on-board rules like no pets or no red wine. Some owners want to know who’s chartering their jets, as even the ripping of a leather chair covering can cost thousands of dollars to repair, and take the airplane out of service for days or weeks.
Expensive maintenance is driven by flight hours and cycles – landings and takeoffs. Each flight brings it closer to another hefty bill for the owner. Therefore, some owners don’t want shorter flights. They will impose minimums, charging three hours even for a requested 45-minute hop.
Most owners want to use their airplanes for many years into the future – they may not want to run it into the ground renting it out. Others are looking to offset as much of their ownership costs as possible and push their management companies to maximize charter revenues.
Kenn Ricci’s Directional Aviation includes the second-largest fractional operator – Flexjet, jet … [+]
Owners can change their minds at any time, pulling the plane off the charter market, even canceling your flight after you’ve booked and paid for it – after all, they might need it.
You’re probably starting to get the sense that selling charter flights the old-fashioned way, let alone online, isn’t as simple as booking a spare bedroom on Airbnb. You also won’t find anything in the form of passenger ratings about specific aircraft and flight crews like you would for drivers on Uber. In fact, it’s often hard to find plentiful reviews about operators or brokers. Perhaps wealthier individuals don’t have the time or inclination.
In very few instances are you actually booking your flight when you go to a charter website. You’re just giving your contact information to a potential provider who will then work up real quotes and probably add you to their marketing lists. Don’t be surprised if your phone rings after you click submit.
While managed aircraft are typically based at a specific airport convenient to their owner, operator-owned aircraft often float around, picking up and dropping off charter customers and only returning to base for maintenance.
Pilots start duty tours by flying to wherever their airplane is. The big, floating fleet operators use expensive and sophisticated fleet optimization software that tells them which aircraft should go where, integrating pilot schedules with duty time limits and maintenance (scheduled and otherwise). It also tells them when it’s more cost-effective to charter an aircraft from another operator to fulfill your booking. This is private aviation’s version of code sharing. There are also smaller floating fleets as well.
Magellan Jets is using technology to increase customer satisfaction. However, when it comes to … [+]
Operators owned by Wheels Up and Vista Global Holding, along with several other large players, have significant Part 135 floating fleets that they own, lease or have blanket owner approval on a long-term basis.
Last year, Directional Aviation’s Flexjet decided instead of selling jets being retired from its fractional share program, it would keep them, operating them as a floating fleet. These operators don’t need to check with a third-party owner to approve charter requests for these aircraft.
The pool of aircraft that are readily available for booking – online or otherwise – with real-time availability and accurate pricing, are mainly ones in these floating fleets. The actual airplane that will fly you isn’t typically assigned until the day before your trip, and that might change based on AI.
Additionally, owners who want to maximize charter revenues will sometimes allow their airplanes to float when they aren’t using them, making it hard to estimate how many aircraft aren’t tied to a base.
Some providers – operators and brokers – charter managed aircraft for a few days to weeks, giving them scheduling control. It allows them the flexibility to weave flights from different customers onto that single aircraft, increasing efficiency.
Still, I’m told by two large floating fleet operators, all wholesale quotes require a human element to provide final pricing regardless of what brokers see in online marketplaces they use to source flights that we’ll discuss in a moment. If anything, COVID-19 related requirements have increased the need for human intervention.
Buyer Beware: Some digital charter brokers offer airplanes like this single-engine Cessna Caravan … [+]
Brokers worry future availability of these floating fleets on the wholesale market may become an issue. As Wheels Up, Vista Global, and others buy operators big and small (eight of the 10 largest have been involved in acquisitions in the past three years), they are also expanding their prepaid membership programs.
The big players collect hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits annually for prepaid jet card flights, often guaranteeing availability on as little as 24 hours’ notice. Chief Business Officer of Wheels Up, Jason Horowitz, says 45% of its Core and Business members prepay forward flying each year by purchasing blocks of time. In 2020, members pre-purchased more than $530 million of prepaid blocks. Vista Global’s XO reported a 298% year-over-year increase in purchases of its deposit memberships. A spokesperson says 33% of whole aircraft charter bookings are from clients in the Signature (starting at $50,000 deposit) or Elite ($100,000 deposit) memberships which guarantee availability. Both need aircraft to fulfill those obligations when members call.
How extensive is the floating fleet? Out of the 5,000 or 10,000 aircraft you see bandied about in promotional claims, several people say it would be a safe bet to estimate in the United States, it is around 500 aircraft, including Wheels Up’s 72 King Air 350i turboprops. A chunk of those airplanes are used to fulfill guaranteed availability commitments to jet card members. That means many of the aircraft for one-off charters you would book through a website – or via phone – are not with the big operators, but in the fragmented long tail.
Now, let’s talk about that long tail of operators. One CEO of a major broker describes it as “the backbone of the charter fleet.” Unlike floating fleets, most of the long tail of operators and their aircraft operate from a single base airport.
While some operators will own an airplane – and many are pilots themselves – their first customers are the owners of the aircraft they manage. As we discussed, each owner is different in terms of whether or not they want to charter their aircraft, how much charter revenue they want, and what types of trips and customers they will take.
Management contracts are easy to get out of, experts says. Keeping aircraft owners happy is job number one, two and three. As you might imagine, if you owned a shiny, $15 million jet, groups of guys going to Vegas for the weekend are generally not favored. If your management company charters your plane for such a trip, and damage is done, you as an owner may not be happy with your management company.
Another important point here is that for these smaller operators, a large chunk of their charter business is booked directly from local clients. They find these customers at the monthly rotary lunch – parents from their kids’ schools, local media coverage and the owners of the aircraft they manage.
You own a Citation CJ3 light jet – it’s on a Part 135 certificate. One of the club members in your foursome complains about his recent, bad experience chartering a jet. You tell him yours is pristine and your operator is top-notch, so you give him the number of your management company’s owner.
Many of the trips are out and back the same day or within a day or two. It’s efficient flying since there are no empty leg repositioning flights and the same flight crew stays with the customer. The customer pays for their overnights, hangar fees, and per diems in addition to the flight price.
When the aircraft has to return to base before the client or owner or is headed out to pick them up – for example, coming back from the vacation house in Aspen – those repositioning flights are posted as discounted empty legs via digital B2B directories. Bookings from brokers and other operators that need off-fleet lift fill in the schedule.
With most businesses, big customers get preference. This means brokers booking a lot of business, and operators going off-fleet to fulfill flights for their program members, will get priority over brokers that barrage the operator with quote requests that never materialize.
The next time you see a broker crowing about having access to 5,000 or 10,000 private jets on their website, keep in mind that to be a broker, all you need is a laptop, an internet connection, and subscriptions to a couple of online marketplaces listing the charter aircraft.
To skip ahead a bit, the availability and pricing data in these online directories – which faux Uber charter websites use in part for their quoting tools – is not necessarily accurate, and that poses a big issue.
Greg Johnson, CEO of Tuvoli, is a veteran of the private aviation technology space. He points out aircraft availability is constantly in flux. For example, scheduled maintenance, which is based on hitting a specific number of flight hours or cycles, might need to be moved up if there is a surge of flights.
Airline fleets average 10 to 12 hours per day, according to ICAO. According to JetNet IQ, privately private aircraft average less than one flight hour per day. That includes the floating and fractional fleets, which average around three hours per day.
For private jets, if there is a lull, that maintenance – which is always expensive – might be pushed back. Getting an airplane back into service after a trip to the shop can be delayed, either because the MRO is backed up, or perhaps there’s a wait to get a specific part. It’s similar to how auto manufacturers are impacted by chip shortages.
In Wheels Up’s Analyst Day presentation, chief operating officer Thomas Bergeson noted, “Within our own fleet, we have the opportunity to significantly increase our capacity without buying more aircraft. We will do this by increasing the dispatch availability of our controlled fleet through in-house maintenance.”
Its acquisitions of Delta Private Jets and Mountain Aviation are enabling the move. Vista Global cited similar reasoning for its acquisition of Red Wing Aviation last year.
Since smaller operators only have a few airplanes – and their trips are mostly returns to base – they don’t need expensive scheduling and optimization programs. Some still keep schedules on whiteboards or a spreadsheet, while others use legacy systems that have been around for years. It works.
They may not see a compelling reason to update data by the minute. In some cases, the airplane’s status is undetermined, waiting for the owner to provide his or her schedule, pilot availability, or maintenance. Despite that, it still may be advertised as being available in the online directories that are used by both traditional brokers and the “instant pricing” websites.
Andrew Collins is the CEO of Global Jet Cards and On-Demand Charter at OneSky Flight, which includes Sentient Jet, FXAIR and PrivateFly. Like Tuvoli, it’s part of Directional Aviation. Last year Sentient alone sold $450 million in jet cards, which means buying a lot of charter flights for its customers. Jet cards are just another form of charter.
Collins says, “The (small) operators get a bad rap. Everyone tries to paint them as if they were operating from a dirt strip. To be an effective, profitable operator, you have to have some degree of sophistication. A lot are very happy at a certain size level. They don’t need to bring a cannon to a knife fight. They have a loyal client base, active wholesale. Not everyone is trying to take over the world.”
In terms of upgrading technology, he adds, “There’s a cost to switching systems. You have to migrate to an unproven technology. This is not a group of individuals who want more risk. They wake up and go to bed thinking about safety, how to run the business in an upstanding way. Switching systems is asking them to stop mid-tracks. It’s asking a lot. They’re not overstaffed to begin with.”
In the long tail, there are some floating fleets. One operator I spoke with told me pricing is still done manually. Their fleet of six light jets does about 100 flights per month, a byproduct of over 7,500 quote requests.
Some brokers submit hundreds of requests, but never book. The best clients are brokers who sell jet cards. They are booking flights for members who have already made those six-figure deposits. When the broker calls or emails, their customer isn’t shopping around – they’re running down their deposit.
The operator can give better pricing because with a firm booking, he can start working on a schedule that matches pilot availability for that aircraft. He can then start marketing the availability of the aircraft wherever it is going. Say a flight is booked from Chicago, arriving in Palm Beach around noon on May 25th. He can now advertise in a marketplace that his aircraft is available for charters originating in Florida beginning that afternoon. He picks up a trip to New York for the next day, and begins the same process again. You can probably see why expensive and sophisticated AI scheduling software plays such a critical role for large operators.
What about the hundreds of requests that come in by email daily? The ones from brokers who produce business are answered quickly. “We can’t get to all of them,” he says – about 30% of bookings involve a phone call. “The brokers who sell us a lot may have seen something online, but if they have a client ready to book, they want to speak to us. We have very good pilots, and sometimes they have a client who wants the same pilot they had on their last trip.”
Who’s behind that broker website? You might be surprised to find out there are no licenses or tests required to become an air charter broker. Elliott Mintzer, president and owner of Tryp Air Charter, is part of the long tail of operators. Having sold an operator with five Pilatus PC-12s, he bought another Part 135 certificate and a single PC-12. A first-time father with young twin daughters, the pilot-owner wanted to downsize and spend more time with family.
Hundreds of new brokers have popped up since the COVID-19 pandemic began. They read articles that private flying is taking off and think to themselves, “It’s easy money.” Speaking about Part 295 – the Transportation Department rules governing how brokers are supposed to operate – Mintzer says, “Most of these new brokers don’t know it exists, nor do they follow them.”
His wife, who handles pricing and scheduling, gets about 15 quote requests a day, mainly through email integrations from the online directories where his airplane is listed. These emails can come from traditional brokers after speaking with a client, or via APIs online brokers use to connect their consumer quoting interfaces with data from the online platforms. Regular clients call or text Mintzer’s wife on her cellphone.
Anthony Tivnan is president of Magellan Jets, a midsize broker based in Boston. He says before booking with a broker – or providing your contact information to a website – call. Ask about the company’s history and infrastructure. How do they vet operators? Find out who the owners are. If they are located near you, stop by their office to see first-hand how they organize themselves. Some “offices” may just be a desk in somebody else’s space, or even a mailbox.
Some of the potholes in booking charters may surprise you. Greg Raiff, CEO and founder of Private Jet Services – a broker specializing in sports teams, live entertainment tours, roadshows, and political campaigns – says knowing who owns the aircraft his clients are chartering can be very important. “It’s reputation management,” he says.
As an example, spouses of two high-profile Washington D.C. politicians have private jets available for charter. There are no problems with the airplanes or operators. That said, it may not be the best look if your company is a lightning rod inside the Beltway, and you’re found to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars chartering those aircraft.
Other charter aircraft are owned by shell companies, where it’s hard to determine the owner. If you or your business is in the media spotlight, that’s something to think about or discuss with your broker. Apps won’t help you.
One thing that’s clear about everyone who is trying to get a foot into the digital pond is that they feel it’s a necessity. They believe or fear new, younger customers and next-generation private jet users will require digital solutions. They believe these folks don’t want to have a conversation with a salesperson. They don’t want phone calls and callbacks – the next-gen customers expect their digital aviation purchases to be as streamlined as booking an airline ticket or buying a pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos from Net-a-Porter. Private jet companies don’t want to be left behind.
Whether that’s going to happen en masse is not a sure thing. A parallel could be the travel agency market. In the late 1990s, Bill Gates announced technology had made travel agents dinosaurs. Throw away their phone numbers, he commanded.
Those who survived are thriving in the face of giant online booking websites like Expedia and Travelocity. A large number of them are agents who focus on luxury, particularly serving UHNW consumers. Their customers are the same demographic who charter private jets.
Those clients have come to find it’s smart to rely on the expertise of an advisor – the rebranded name for your travel agent. Why? A good advisor knows which suites have the best views and which look out on the loading dock. Guess which ones their clients don’t end up in! There’s also the interpersonal client-advisor relationship and the indispensable cell phone number to call when something goes wrong.
Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies, saw group revenues triple to over $25 billion annually in the decade prior to the pandemic. Whether or not digitized private aviation can meet the expectations of well-heeled clients who want to buy online remains a good question. Private aviation is a highly regulated, complicated industry, however, consumers with the most infrequent experience in chartering private jets are the segment likely to be the target of digital sellers.
Before discussing the digital brokers, let me explain the Hawaii Test. That’s where I request a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu via various apps and online interfaces promising instant pricing or booking. With a couple of exceptions, which I’ll get to in a bit, I received quotes for a wide variety of aircraft, including light jets, midsize aircraft, and turboprops – none of which have the range to get there. Some of the quotes noted, “Fuel stop required.”
When I confronted the various offenders, I received a range of reactions. Some told me they are always fine-tuning the data filters. But where does it come from? Most admitted it was a feed from an online directory or marketplace, while some said it was integrated with reams of proprietary data they had collected or additional software they had developed.
Some thanked me for pointing out their shortcomings and then tried to sell their offerings as helpful in providing consumers a starting point, or that their systems work well for routes like New York to Florida, or Dallas to Las Vegas. As I talked to more industry people, I learned about the New York City test, which I referenced earlier.
While interviewing a broker – something that is always interrupted when a client calls – I overheard that Aspen doesn’t have customs. The broker was explaining this to a potential new customer who had just gotten off a flight with one of his current clients. She was looking to fly from Mexico to her home in Colorado.
As I was on hold, I tapped my keyboard searching Puerto Vallarta to Aspen flights from several of the Uber of private jets sites. All showed the flights as being nonstop, which isn’t possible.
In addition to meaning that the arrival times would be off, it meant the quotes were going to be wrong. The interfaces were just picking up an aircraft type being offered by some operator, a static hourly rate, and then applying it to the nonstop flight time.
Real charter quotes are based on a multitude of factors, including pilot salaries, operating costs of a specific aircraft, and fuel costs that vary across the country. There are dozens of factors that impact the final price, I’m told, and of course there are those small things like making sure the airport is open – or has customs – if you are arriving from another country.
Who doesn’t want to be the next Airbnb or Amazon of their industry? I tested over a dozen websites promising instant quotes, booking, or some type of digital nirvana.
As might happen, I received a pitch email from the new public relations company for a site I’d already tested. The publicist wrote in part that his client had brought to market an “on-demand asset-light approach similar to Uber, connecting passengers to operators of whole aircraft charter in over 190 countries and territories worldwide.” His client had failed the Aspen, New York, and Hawaii tests, in the case of the latter, offering me a single engine Cessna Caravan 208B. According to its manufacturer, it would have gotten me about halfway there.
After ringing the CEO, whom I already knew, he shared on background that he captures about 10,000 email addresses per month, boiling down to around 100 bookings, or a 1% close rate. His business is growing fast. It’s profitable. He says his clients are happy.
He dismissed failing my Hawaii Test, claiming the quotes are “more for price shoppers or a travel manager. It gives them a rough idea before going live.” To give credit, he didn’t try to regale me with tales of developing magical technology. In terms of sourcing, he says, “We have a traditional brokerage flow. The work being done on the back end is identical (to traditional brokers).” His rationale for the front end is simple: “We need to keep the funnel as wide open as possible.”
Reactions to informing the companies of their failing grades varied. One online broker told me he hadn’t figured out how to filter the widget from the marketplace he was using so as to exclude aircraft that don’t have the range to fly from the west coast to Hawaii. He defended the lapse by noting that most of his inquiries are on the east coast.
In another case, the salesperson, who called me to follow up on the request, grew agitated when I challenged him that there was no place for a fuel stop between Los Angeles and Hawaii. He told me, “If you don’t want to book, there are hundreds of other brokers. Go waste their time.” He hung up. I thought about reaching out to the CEO, then I decided a better punishment for that company would be to not endanger his employment. I’ve come to understand that that follow-up on digital quote requests mostly comes from bots or junior associates. Think Wolf of Wall Street.
I’m not naming names of companies that failed the Hawaii – and other tests. Why? There are dozens more of these sites offering up fantasies, and it wouldn’t be fair to single out the ones I selected. Some who are playing pretend Uber are traditional brokers. They may actually be good at doing things the old-fashioned way. I’ll leave it to your discretion to implement my various tests. I recommend you create a junk email account, and don’t give out your real phone number!
It’s hard to say for sure how close those estimated prices you get from websites are to what you will end up paying. Even if there is an actual airplane behind the quote, you may not want a Frank Sinatra-era Learjet without a fully enclosed toilet. Several brokers told me quotes from online marketplaces can be off by as much as 25% if the actual aircraft is even available.
Private Jet Services’ Raiff says a big problem is consumers using online quotes as a starting point. “They get these online quotes. Then they book a non-refundable villa in the Caribbean for $25,000. When they come back to the website and try to get a real price, they find the right aircraft with enough luggage space and range isn’t $40,000. It’s $90,000. Now they have to go back to the two other couples they are splitting the costs with. One of them doesn’t want to shell out another $15,000. It’s not a good experience.”
Tivnan of Magellan says with the current demand for charters hitting all-time highs, his advisors tell clients they need to make decisions right away. “It used to be the client would call us back a couple of days later, after they’d had time to think about [it]. Now, if we don’t book it within two or three hours, the chances are that tail is going to be gone.”
Online quoting websites lull consumers into a false sense of security, both say. You might also find out you committed to an airplane that isn’t a good fit. Raiff quips, “If you are a travel manager or a CFO, and you use estimated pricing from a website for your financial analysis, the next website you’ll be visiting is one where you can post your resume.”
As you can probably tell by now, machines may not be the Goliaths one assumes. I recently spent a morning at Unity Jets, a Miami-based broker founded 10 years ago by former NetJets sales executive Kevin Diemar. Unity Jets doesn’t offer online quotes. They book about 300 flights a month, and as I sat in on their weekly team meeting, I was astonished to see a graph showing the sales team’s close ratio at 46%. That’s because virtually all leads are via referrals from current customers.
It’s hard to know what’s behind an app or website. At Unity Jets, the day starts with the operations teams reviewing bookings for the next two days. Floating fleet operators generally don’t assign specific aircraft until the day before departure, and it can change. Remember that expensive AI we discussed earlier?
Unity constantly tracks the flights before their customer’s flight. Why is the aircraft that is supposed to be wheels up from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport at 7:30 AM to pick up Diemar’s customer at Fort Lauderdale International for a 9 AM departure still on the ground? Chances are, there’s a problem. If it’s not weather, which Unity monitors, it could be the pilots found a mechanical issue when they went out to the airplane. It’s possible the fuelers are late, or the FBO could be very busy. The pilots are waiting in line to pay for the Jet 1A that was just pumped, or maybe there is an FAA inspector making random checks. If the previous flight was an international arrival, there could be delays with customs and immigration.
Whatever it is, if it’s going to impact the departure time of Unity’s client, operations or the salesperson is on the phone with the customer. “Things happen. This is aviation. Better they hear it from us first. We want to play offense,” Diemar tells me. That includes information about the available backup options if there is a significant delay, or if the flight needs to be canceled.
There are also last-minute checks to ensure the FBO, where flyers meet their pilots, hasn’t changed. Busy airports can have five or six FBOs. They are sometimes hard to find, tucked away behind hangars. They aren’t necessarily next to each other and can be located at different ends of the field. Their main function is to serve as gas stations for private jets. Operators have discounted fuel contracts with preferred FBO networks. A change in the contract or going to a backup operator can mean a change in FBO.
Then, there’s catering. In addition to verifying the order with the client, there are checks with the catering company the day before the flight to make sure the order is logged correctly. On the day of departure, there is a call to the FBO to verify catering was delivered and the pilots have picked it up. If not, there’s a call to the operator to remind the pilots to bring the food aboard, or to have the FBO bring it out to the airplane.
Since floating fleet operators switch out aircraft, and catering is delivered with the tail number of the aircraft as the key identifier, there is always a chance for mistakes. The crew of the new aircraft may not have been notified by their operations team or might have overlooked that catering was ordered. When the pilots asked the FBO staff, there was nothing marked with their jet’s tail number.
If Unity arranges ground transportation for the departure, there is a check call to the sedan company before the scheduled pick-up time, and checks until the car is onsite. If there is a pick-up on arrival, there are check calls to make sure the driver is onsite before the client lands and is waiting in the right terminal.
Most critical is the Argus Trip Cheq report that Unity runs and provides each client before their flight. It verifies operator compliance with Part 135 regulations, including the aircraft is indeed current with the FAA on the operator’s certificate for charter operations. Remember, management companies fly both Part 91 and 135 operations.
Then, there are the pilots. Do they meet the minimum requirements the FAA, Argus, or perhaps custom specifications for total hours and time in that type of aircraft? Are they current on flight training?
Red means there is a known deficiency or the operator refuses to disclose information. Yellow means specific data may be missing, not verified, or does not meet the requested standard, and that additional information may be needed to obtain a conclusive result. Green means the operator has met all requirements based on its Argus level of certification and custom requests. If it’s not green, the Unity team is on the phone to the operator requesting a new crew and is busy securing the backup aircraft, just in case.
There’s also the feedback from brokers during the team meeting. Compliments about operators are fine, but Diemar probes for any complaints or negative feedback, particularly if it’s a tail they haven’t booked before. Sometimes it’s the flight crew. On managed aircraft, the pilots and flight attendant, if there is one, serve at the pleasure of the owner. Some are better with charter customers than others. Notes are taken and kept in their database.
Diemar isn’t against technology. He says the online directories provide pictures of airplane interiors are easily accessible. It replaces the need for emails operators used to send, which then had to be reformatted and passed to the client. Texted images of catering to show it has been successfully delivered and nicely packaged. He is in the process of streamlining the confirmations sent to clients to cut down on work each time there’s a change.
While emails often rule the day in terms of communications with operators, the phone is preferred. “You get information that you wouldn’t via an email.”
The plane is available, but the owner’s wife told the pilots their daughter wants to look at a couple of colleges, but still has to check with her field hockey coach about missing practices. One of the pilots mentioned it in passing when he was in the office a couple days ago.
“If we just relied on emails, we would have probably booked that airplane,” Diemar says. Between the owner’s daughter and you, guess who’s going to fly?
Magellan’s Tivnan says his aircraft sourcing team has daily calls each morning with schedulers at the dozen or so operators it uses most frequently, solely to ferret out the type of information technology can’t.
“There could have been a potential maintenance issue on a tail we have booked for tomorrow – you’re not finding that online.”
It’s like that travel advisor who knows there’s construction next to the south wing of the hotel, so he only books his clients in the north wing. Since the construction is at an adjoining property, you won’t find any notices on the hotel website. How did he hear about it? The hotel’s director of sales gave him a heads up when he was confirming no Coke products in the minibar for a client who is a senior executive at Pepsi.
While most coverage of technology in the private aviation sector is about booking apps, Magellan uses technology to serve up a simple three-question flight survey emailed to customers. It’s part of its case management system. Anything less than five stars triggers a review.
There is a review meeting every Monday and Thursday. In one case, the client may say the crew spoke too much. The operator is informed, and it’s filed under client preferences and communicated to the operator of the next trip. In another case, a client says the crew didn’t interact enough. Again, the operator is informed and it’s noted in clients’ preferences. On the next trip, Magellan advises the operator so they can advise the crew.
More serious would be a comment about the carpet showing wear and tear. Magellan asks the operator to send photos. “If we don’t like what we see, we tell the operator, ‘That’s not going to work,’ and we block that tail until they change out the carpet.” Minor issues like the beverages not being fully restocked are addressed as well.
In the travel business, there isn’t a problem until there is a problem. In private aviation, there are lots of hiccups you’ll never know about if you have a good broker.
Most charter contracts allow the provider to cancel your flight for virtually any reason. You get a full refund. If the trip has started, you are refunded for the part of the trip yet to be flown. While it’s usually a mechanical issue, it could also be that said owner’s daughter and her trip to scout colleges gets priority over yours. It could also be that the operator got a more profitable trip. You booked your three-hour flight four weeks ago and then that operator got a request for a 12-hour two-day trip.
“There are operators we don’t book, and it has nothing to do with safety,” says one broker. Ethics say the operator shouldn’t switch out trips to make an extra buck, but how can you or the broker tell? Yes, you can track tails online after getting canceled – maybe the aircraft owner’s daughter is looking at schools in Hawaii?
It’s what happens to you when the operator cancels that matters. Remember that Monopoly card, “Go directly to jail; do not pass go, do not collect $200.” Well, the good news is you don’t go to jail. The bad news is you are back to square one.
Vincent Kavanagh, senior vice president of sales at Air Partner, a diversified aviation services company publicly traded in the U.K., says his company only uses operators that have a backup aircraft in case there is a problem with the first one. In what’s become a hot market, finding replacement aircraft on short notice is becoming more difficult – and expensive.
You will need what the industry terms, a re-quote. It’s not a happy conversation. If the cancelation is the day of departure, getting a replacement aircraft and crew can mean the charter price is 20-50% higher than the original contract. If you are flying from a less trafficked airport or on a high-demand day, you might not only be paying more, but you could be cooling your heels until tomorrow.
You don’t have to take the new quote. You can take your money and fly commercial. You can also wait until the prices go back down. Chances are your money is already with the operator that canceled. If your broker isn’t liquid, you might have to front the money for the replacement flight while waiting for the operator to process the refund. As I sit in his office, Diemar hears his accounting manager speaking to an operator that owes him money from a canceled flight. He calls out, “Tell them, I’m not the Bank of Kevin.”
One veteran broker told me over Easter, “We had no margin for mechanical error for the entire weekend where a recovery could have been made relatively on-time.” Everyone I spoke with expects record-breaking charter flights this summer.
If you’re wondering why you can’t just get quotes from most online brokers without giving them your email and phone number first, it’s because they don’t want to simply give out prices that website visitors can then take to their regular broker. However, the traditional brokers I spoke to told me they rarely have to cut rates to keep customers.
They paint two scenarios: One is that when the client follows up with the digital broker to get a hard quote, the price is no longer such a great deal. Whether or not the aircraft with the estimated pricing ever existed is open for debate. Even with hard quotes, if the customer doesn’t sign up within hours, the airplane truly could be gone.
The second scenario is that in drilling down, there were other issues. It could be anything from operators that are known to be undependable to the wrong airplane for that trip. Diemar tells about a client headed to Jackson Hole, who had a quote from an online broker for a Hawker 800XP. After he advised his client that he would have to ship his skis, and there would probably be a fuel stop, the customer booked with Unity. He had no clue that the popular midsize jet had limited space for luggage.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering about those stories reporting tens of millions of dollars of private jet flights being booked online. They’re true. The big difference is that they are mostly booking flights, not buying them. The flights being reserved digitally are mainly from jet card and membership program customers who have already made deposits and often have contracted hourly rates. The customers and are now using those funds, booking flights.
NetJets says bookings through its app and web portal accounts for about 25% of its reservations. Those customers previously laid out millions of dollars to buy a share in a jet, or six figures to buy a jet card. “Phone calls and emails to our dedicated owner services teams still dominate. New customers are more likely to use the portal or app than long-term customers, who have grown accustomed to analog methods,” says NetJets’ president Patrick Gallagher.
Last year, Sentient Jet reported $50 million in flights were booked online. It’s increasing. For those flights, the actual sale took place when its customers bought their jet cards and wired the money, sometimes months or years earlier.
In addition to having mechanisms that prevent you from booking a light jet from San Francisco to Maui, Sentient’s Collins says there is the same quality control as if you called, texted, or emailed your flight request. Each booking is reviewed against detailed client preference profiles.
Magellan’s Tivnan says its app has reduced friction for customers who like to tap keys. It also cuts work on both sides. When a client emails, “Please book me from VNY to SDL on a light jet at 4 PM Friday,” somebody has to email back asking for the number of passengers, collecting their names, checking on catering, health declarations forms, and so forth. Providing digital interfaces helps prompt customers to provide information they’ll need to submit at some point anyway.
Some of the best digital applications I’ve seen or are in the works revolve around improving the flight day experience: Think live driving directions to those hard-to-find FBOs, pictures of your pilots so you don’t have to wait and have the front desk find them, the ability to text them directly if you are running early or late.
There are at least four companies currently in the market that have the girth, technology, and large enough fleets where they control the scheduling to uberize the on-demand market. By that, I mean allowing you to book instantly at a guaranteed rate, the same way you would buy an airline ticket on Expedia.
You may not know it, but NetJets is already one of the biggest players in the charter market. Using shares in its fractional fleet it owns directly, about 20% of flights are sold in the form of jet cards, packaging them up in blocks of 25 hours at fixed hourly rates. It’s Part 135 flying. There’s no reason it couldn’t retail or wholesale the inventory. So far, it hasn’t shown any inclination to be referred to in the same breath as Amazon or Expedia. That’s probably because its customers are more likely to have been early investors in those companies than their target consumer.
Directional Aviation’s Kenn Ricci is considered an astute dealmaker. He isn’t shy about moving quickly when he sees an opportunity. Thus far, it just hasn’t been on the low end of the market. In addition to OneSky Flight, which houses previously mentioned Flexjet, Sentient and brokers PrivateFly (all three acquisitions) and FXAIR (a start-up), his Nextant Aerospace remanufactures business aircraft that sell for millions of dollars. He is behind a $200 million SPAC, targeting next generation aviation solutions. He ordered 20 Aerion AS2 supersonic jets that carry a sticker price of $120 million per unit for Flexjet. His MRO Constant Aviation does expensive maintenance work and custom interiors. At the outset of the pandemic, after having Constant apply MicroShield 360, a clear, colorless, odorless, non-toxic, and hypoallergenic coating to the Flexjet fleet, Ricci began marketing the treatments to other operators. Earlier this year, he launched 4Air, a private aviation-focused ratings and consultancy service that helps companies achieve sustainability targets.
Neither FXAIR nor PrivateFly are ignoring technology. Yet, there isn’t the same appetite to hawk empty legs, sharing flights, or by-the-seat options – the entry-level products where the amount of work versus revenue earned, make digital distribution critical.
In fact, FXAIR’s quoting tool doesn’t even give pricing. You send a request and a sales rep calls you back. “We feel like it’s always about service delivery. There are so many permutations in on-demand charter. We are less focused on transactions and entirely focused on retaining the customer,” says Collins, who also oversees FXAIR.
There are winds of change. Tuvoli launched last year as a way to streamline payments between brokers and operators – remember waiting for those refunds. Recently, it bought FlyEasy, an online marketplace and competitor to Wheels Up’s Avianis and Avinode, a big player and the source of many of the pricing estimates you get from broker websites.
Then, there’s Thomas Flohr, the Swiss financier and amateur race car driver. He briefly found himself on the Forbes Billionaires List in 2018. The founder of Malta-based VistaJet set up Dubai-based Vista Global Holding in 2018 as an acquisition vehicle.
Since then, he’s purchased stakes in XOJet Aviation, Red Wing Aviation, and Talon Air – three of the 16 largest Part 135 operators in the United States – the first two with floating fleets. Foreign entities are restricted from owning the majority of U.S. operators. When Flohr accepts the 22 Bombardier private jets he ordered last month, he will control nearly 200 aircraft, the vast majority owned, versus managed.
In 2019, he snapped up jet-sharing broker JetSmarter for its technology, and merged it with XOJet’s retail arm to form mega-broker XO Global. In March, he bought Apollo Jets – one of the largest on-demand charter brokers in the U.S., thought to have well over $100 million in revenue. He is currently expanding XO’s by-the-seat, crowdsourced, and scheduled flights beyond America.
Perhpas the biggest presence when it comes to digitizing and democratizing private aviation is Kenny Dichter. He was an early innovator in the jet card space, launching Marquis Jet Partners in 2001, before selling it to NetJets in 2010 after ringing up around $4 billion in sales.
After leaving, he launched Wheels Up in 2013 as one of the first pay-as-you-go membership programs offering both guaranteed availability of airplanes and fixed one-way rates. Like jet cards, you know how much you are going to pay per flight hour and you don’t pay for repositioning, but you don’t need to deposit six figures of cash.
Using the King Air 350i, he focused on short hops. He launched shuttles to Nantucket in the summer, college football games in the fall, and an online bulletin board enabling members to share flights and split the cost.
Over the past two years, Dichter has acquired four of the 10 largest charter operators in the U.S. (Gama Aviation Signature, Delta Private Jets, Mountain Aviation and Travel Management Company) and tech platform Avianis, which he describes as his most important pick-up – what Double Click was to Google, he says.
He is laser focused on expanding the market of entry-level consumers, bringing private aviation to single digit millionaires. He closed Wheels Up’s recent presentation to analysts by telling them, “Democratization of private aviation is what we’re here to do, powered by a next-generation technology…We want to bring this to millions of consumers from a market today that only serves hundreds of thousands.”
In playing around with many interfaces that are free to use, from speed to clarity and design, and providing real pricing, Wheels Up and XO clearly standout. They have guaranteed pricing you can book on the spot. You can’t book turboprops from California to Hawaii. Wheels Up doesn’t allow you to book flights outside the Continental U.S. except to Los Cabos and the Bahamas. When you look up New York City, you get Teterboro as an option.
They aren’t perfect. XO would’ve let me book and pay for a super midsize Challenger 300 to Block Island State Airport, where the runway is too short. Wheels Up’s app gave me an error message, but didn’t say why.
XO easily enables you to search for seats or start your own crowd-funded flight and, in addition, they let you buy discounted repositioning flights. Wheels Up shows sharing options and $320 empty legs where you’d get the entire airplane, although you would have to join as a paying member.
I prefer XO’s desktop to its app. Both Wheels Up and XO have a nice calendar display. XO’s shows the lowest price per day. Wheels Up highlights high-demand days on its an app, but you have to click for pricing.
Wheels Up asks you about golf bags, skis, standard luggage, oversize luggage, miscellaneous items such as strollers and bikes, the number of adults, children, lap children under age two, and pets before clicking the buy button. XO tells you how many seats your chosen aircraft type has, then speeds you to payment.
A nice features is XO’s search from a specific region, for example, South Florida. Wheels Up makes you choose an airport. XO offers specific aircraft types. Wheels Up is mainly about cabin categories.
A Vista Global spokesperson tells me nearly three quarters (74.8%) of XO’s whole aircraft bookings are on fleet versus third-party operators. Wheels Up just recently began allowing non-members to book. Remember, if you don’t control the scheduling, it’s harder to know that what you see on interfaces is correct. Plus, third-party operators are in many cases still finalizing quotes manually.
Dan Crowe, CIO at Wheels Up says, “We calculate real time pricing, availability and feasibility based on aircraft category at the time of booking. We are able to do this through a combination of real time data regarding our own and third party aircraft, and strong data science.”
He adds, “As the largest on-demand Part 135 provider, we can bring the demand that many charter operators are looking for, therefore they are willing to share their schedule data with us, on an opt-in basis. We have an open architecture that supports a variety of technical paths for operators to share data, most notably but not limited to, the Avianis (flight management) system.”
He says, Wheels Up is “getting very close to launching more advanced technology for even better access to real-time scheduling and availability data across our third-party network.”
Out of the 18 largest Part 135 operators not owned by Wheels Up or XO, I found only one offering instant digital purchasing for consumers. The rest simply provide request forms or estimates, where you need to follow-up to get a hard quote..
From the many brokers that position themselves as the Expedia of private jets is SimpleCharters, based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It markets its website as “private jets in 3 clicks.” When I reached out to its founder and CEO Charles Denault last month, he told me, “We’re small, but growing quickly. Six months ago, we were booking six to seven flights per week. This week, we’ve booked four to six per day, and our growth is mostly through customer referrals.”
There are currently nine employees, up from three, a year ago. The team is equally split between product/engineering, sales and marketing, and operations/concierge. There’s an office, but the COVID-19 pandemic has affirmed that the growth will come via a remote workplace.
Denault is a private pilot. Prior to launching his online brokerage in 2013, his LinkedIn profile shows he started an online distribution platform for local lobster and fish markets alongside branded street-side seafood carts. It was featured on the Travel Channel and Food Network before he sold it in 2010.
Simple Charters failed the New York test. After I pointed it out, they cheerfully fixed it while we were on the call. They failed the Aspen test – customs stops are a known problem, they told me. There was a debate about the Hawaii test results. Most of the search results are for categories of aircraft – light jets, midsize jets, not specific aircraft types.
The website proffered a midsize aircraft for my Los Angeles to Honolulu request. It indicated a Beechcraft Hawker 800A or 800XP among the options. I don’t find it likely there are operators flying either to Hawaii under Part 135, but maybe I’m wrong. The range specifications put out by the manufacturers tend to be overstated.
The Simple Charters website claimed there were at least 16 midsize jets they had found that could fulfill my mission to the islands. Denault correctly pointed out there are some midsize private jets with the range to make it. Either way, I no longer see midsize aircraft being offered on that route. Needless to say, I figured it was going to be more hot air.
Unlike most sites, SimpleCharters isn’t just offering estimates. It’s offering hard quotes – actual prices you can buy. Enter your credit card and you’re good to go. The prices are guaranteed, and so is service recovery with no additional cost. That means if there’s a mechanical issue or the operator simply pulls the airplane, you don’t need to get a re-quote. The cost of the flight is what is displayed within the checkout at the time of booking.
Typically, you only get this from a jet card, or if you are a significant customer, your broker might cover the difference on a discretionary basis to engender loyalty. Denault says about 75% of first-time customers call before buying, but because it is click-to-buy instead of lead capture, Denault’s team isn’t inundated with tire kickers.
Denault told me he has proprietary technology linking to various operators. One of them is Gainesville, Florida-based Rennia Aviation, which has nine jets on its Part 135 certificate.
Here’s how it works: Through an integration with BART, Rennia Aviation’s scheduling software, SimpleCharters sees the operator’s aircraft locations on its calendar along with the same data that the operator’s pricing desk uses to build its quotes. Using that intelligence from Rennia and other operators where it has similar links, Simple Charters quotes a guaranteed retail price for consumers visiting its website.
When the consumer clicks buy, it then goes back to operators where it has integrations – and others it wants to bid the trip – to get a hard quote, or the final wholesale price.
William Howard, Rennia’s director of development, says his pricing desk then works up the hard quote, making sure that the aircraft and pilots are indeed available and that there are no other factors such as maintenance that would prevent it from quoting the trip.
It’s the same process as with other brokers Rennia sells to. Because SimpleCharters is already holding payment from the customer and has a good idea about the wholesale price, Rennia closes 20% of Simple Charter’s quote requests. The typical close rate for requests that come via the standard marketplace channels is 1.5%-to-3%.
Howard offers a second perspective. For Rennia’s direct clients, he uses other operators when his fleet isn’t available. He echoes the comments of virtually everyone else I spoke with. He says, what he sees in the popular online directories that brokers use isn’t accurate. When the aircraft is actually available, the final price is typically 15-20% higher than what’s been advertised.
Denault says every booking is reviewed by his operations team to make sure what was purchased will work. Like traditional brokers, there are preference profiles of regular customers so his team can identify when something looks amiss. There is infrastructure, he says, to check and double check all those day of departure issues that the good traditional brokers do.
John Ray, a consultant who lives in Nashville, uses SimpleCharters to fly to second homes in Maine and Florida. He likes seeing the actual guaranteed prices. His describes his experience with traditional brokers as being akin to “dealing with used car salesmen. You wonder if you’re really getting a good deal. There’s no transparency. You have to take their word for it.”
In one instance after booking, Denault called and recommended a larger aircraft to ensure there were no issues with too much baggage. Since the bigger airplane was faster, it was priced a bit less than the one Ray had already chosen. Denault won’t says he has connections to around 500 airplanes, although he won’t disclose the number of operators.
I wanted to compare Wheels Up, XO and SimpleCharters. Looking at the XO app from South Florida to New York in May, it showed flights starting from $12,500 to $19,943, depending on the day. The calendar looks a bit like the Google Flights date grid, which was very helpful.
When I went to May 11 (the lowest priced day), I saw where the best deal was listed as $12,895, not $12,500. I also found that it wasn’t a light jet, but one of XOJet Aviation’s super midsize Citation Xs. It was from Ft. Lauderdale International Airport to Teterboro. It turns out the charter price was $12,500, and the non-member fee was $395, for a subtotal of $12,895. Add $967.12 for Federal Excise Tax and a $34.40 segment fee for my all-in price of $14,382.99.
I next went to Wheels Up, where on the same date, the best price was $17,874.52 for Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport (my preferred airport) to Teterboro, which included the base cost of $16,155, $1,211.62 FET, $29.90 domestic passenger fee, and $495 transaction fee. If I changed my departure to Ft. Lauderdale, the price dropped to $17,764.87. There was a message that members save up to 30%. Wheels Up’s Connect membership, which now accounts for about a quarter of members, is $2,995 in the first year and $2,495 thereafter. In both cases, if I was really going to book, joining at the lowest level pays for itself with the first flight or two.
I then checked SimpleCharters, where the lowest price from Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport to Teterboro was $17,995.73 all-in, also on a Citation X. I then got to thinking, maybe I should try Ft. Lauderdale International Airport to Teterboro, but it was the same cost. A light jet was more expensive at $18,439.70.
I went through the same routine searching New York to Los Angeles, starting with XO and seeking out the date in May with the lowest lead price, which was also May 11th. My non-member cost was $25,689.27 for an XOJet Citation X. My Wheels Up non-member price was $29,850.02. Back to Simple Charters and they were offering a Citation X for $27,124.97.
For one more try, I looked at XO for flights from South Florida to Aspen and was quoted an all-in price from Ft. Lauderdale of $26,871.77 on May 4th, one of several days with the lowest prices that month, at least according to the XO app. Again, I was on an XOJet Citation X. Wheels Up’s lowest price for a jet was $30,874.50 for a Citation X – no thanks to a King Air with a fuel stop at $24,698.62. SimpleCharters’ best price was $28,550.69 for a midsize jet. A super midsize was $31,902.70.
SimpleCharters website states, “Find a better price? We’ll beat it. Our pricing is based on real-time positioning of aircraft and their actual operating costs, and will not be beat. If you find a better quote for your itinerary, it’s either an aircraft we do not have in our system or has not met our quality standards. Send us the better quote and if it meets our quality standards we’ll add the aircraft to our system and beat the price by $500 or more.”
If you aren’t provided the name of the charter operator at the time of buying – signing the charter – online or otherwise, Part 295 (the rules governing charter brokers) allows you to request a full refund when you are provided the name of the operator, regardless of what the contract says.
During Wheels Up’s Investor Day presentation, Dichter shared plans to expand the market for private aviation. A big part of that growth will come from individuals with a net worth of $1-5 million. There are 17.9 million to target. He wants to increase the percentage who currently fly privately from 5% to 7% by 2025. That’s a 40% jump.
It means selling more by-the-seat flights, jet sharing, and empty legs, to a market that currently averages $11,000 per year on private flying – less than a one-way flight on a light jet from Florida to New York. It seems possible. XO reports year 41% of bookings so far this year are shared flights.
If successful, that segment of private aviation’s addressable market will grow by nearly $14 billion. That compares to just $3.6 billion in anticipated growth from the 100,000 individuals with a net worth of over $50 billion.
Within the industry, I found quite a bit of enthusiasm for Dichter’s efforts. “We could never match the money they spend on advertising, telling a positive story about private aviation. They do a great job generating interest,” one operator told me. A mid-sized broker sees a parallel to wealth management: “My advisor loves E*Trade. They get lots of people interested in investing, and when those people become serious, they come to him.”
Dichter certainly doesn’t plan to let his customers move on to other providers. In fact, it’s the opposite. Via those acquisitions of other operators, he was able to add a light, super midsize, large cabin program for members who charter full aircraft. He poached executives from two rivals to launch a division that sells whole aircraft – the very top of the pyramid – and rebranded a group that manages those aircraft for the owners. Time will tell how it ends up. The industry’s savviest marketer will have to meet the same challenge of other luxury brands that want to do business in a wide range of price points across the increasingly growing divide of the wealthy.
As I perused the archives of various trade publications, I found several platforms that have been making claims about being on the cusp of real time and accurate pricing, instead of estimates, for at least a decade. Operators I spoke with agreed with Collins. There have been too many unfulfilled promises. There’s too much risk for smaller operators. Things work just fine as they are. There’s not a lot of impetus to change.
At the top of the food chain, it’s a different story. “This is real technology. It’s not a data collection form disguised as a booking app. We price and book flights in real-time, and we have booked many thousands of flights digitally,” says Wheels Up’s Crowe.
Wheels Up says it plans to offer white label APIs to third-party distributors, which could be other brokers, or the big online travel agencies. It could also be Delta Air Lines, its largest shareholder. Such a move would enable users of the Delta app or corporate booking to buy flights and seats on private jets. XO says it already offers similar third-party connections.
I also had a chance to see, under a non-disclosure agreement, one of those expensive AI scheduling systems live in action. The ability for sellers to offer real time buying has a lot to do with access to aircraft where there is no owner approval, having them in a floating fleet – or having enough data so that they’re willing to guarantee a price. Estimated price quotes you get from most websites are just that.
Many of the people I spoke with expect more acquisitions both within the industry, and perhaps from outside, where much larger companies already in travel or luxury, may see synergy.
Make no mistake – booking private jets online in real time is here. It’s just not everywhere. And most websites making Uber-type claims are not delivering that reality.
There’s also no single place to get the lowest price, if that’s your objective. If you want to buy online, make sure you know what you’re doing. Are you booking the most appropriate aircraft for your trip? Do you know the best airports – private jets have access to over 5,000 just in the U.S., lots you’ve never heard of. What type of offline support is offered? What happens when something goes wrong? Are you talking to somebody in the know or a call center? And if you are going to go the analog route, equally, how knowledgable is the broker on the other end of that phone call? Oh, and sorry Bill Gates, make sure you get your broker’s cellphone number!
Let me start with the spoiler: Despite what you read, the notion of buying private jet charter flights online in real-time is mostly fake news. Aside from that, it’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t know what you’re doing. Still, if you really need to tap your way into the private skies, out of dozens, I found only a few apps and digital interfaces worth looking at.