““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Surf before you fly
Don't expect charter-flight Web sites to offer the kind of one-stop booking you get with the airlines on Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity. Nonetheless, many such sites now provide tools and data that make planning and arranging an air charter flight easy. For example, some sites have price-quote engines that provide estimated costs; e-mail services that can notify you when discount "empty leg" flights for specific routes become available; and even allow you to put a charter flight out for bid. But, said Fred Gevalt, publisher and founder of the Air Charter Guide, "Any fool can get his hands on beautiful airplane pictures and put together a well-crafted interactive Web site. So buyer beware!"
The Internet became a force in the air charter industry early in the decade. But pioneering charter providers that envisioned portals where customers could book flights as easily as they order DVDs online have scaled back their expectations, reflecting the realities of the marketplace.
"We learned a long time ago that when someone is purchasing [a charter flight], they want to talk to someone on the phone," said Greg Johnson, president and CEO of OneSky Jets. "With the average transaction slightly north of $15,000, people are just not comfortable plopping down that credit card [online]."
Jim Betlyon, president of CharterX, which supplies the proprietary software behind the price-quote engines used by many charter providers, agreed. "I don't see complete online booking being a major factor in our business," Betlyon said. "Eight years ago [when the company was founded], I was singing a different tune. We thought it would truly be an end-to-end Expedia-like booking service."
It's not just a matter of the size of the transaction. Booking a charter flight involves far more variables than buying a seat from an airline. The make, model, age and onboard amenities of a charter aircraft are often important to travelers. Ownership, operational control and crew experience issues are a consideration. Details on catering, ground transportation and luggage limitations need to be addressed. And unlike with commodities sold on the Web, price typically isn't the driving force behind the sale. Charter customers want service, quality, safety and value. And the Internet provides more ways to find those attributes, even as it gives greater camouflage to less-than-competent providers.
"To advertise that you have charters available, all you need is a Web site and cell phone," said Joe Moeggenberg, president of Cincinnati-based ARG/US, an aviation research and operational auditing company. "That's attracted a lot of people with very little aviation expertise."
The first place to examine on a charter site is the "About Us" page. If it doesn't highlight the company's history and principals, call and ask about them.
"An amazing number of sites won't tell you who's behind them," said Johnson. "That should be a big red flag."
Customers also need to determine whether the provider is a charter operator or charter broker. An operator has operational control, as owner, leaseholder or operator of an aircraft owned or leased by a third party. Brokers arrange charter flights aboard aircraft operated by others. Operators sometimes also act as brokers, putting customers on other operators' aircraft if their own are unavailable. Operators typically offer more consistency in service because they have a fixed fleet of aircraft. And if you use an operator based at your local airport, you can avoid the repositioning fees that can be assessed when an aircraft has to be flown from its home base to pick you up. Brokers, on the other hand, can draw on hundreds or even thousands of charter aircraft, so they can provide more choice of equipment and range of prices. Good brokers use their knowledge of the marketplace to deliver the charter experience their customers want.
"A quality broker does not necessarily have to be on Madison Avenue or in Beverly Hills," said Betlyon. "I think some of the best brokers are onesy-twosy [person] operations. They operate with a Palm Pilot and a Blackberry and have access to all the safety reporting tools. It's all about having access to information."
Indeed, increased access to online data among operators and brokers lies behind the charter boom. There are more than a thousand charter operators in the U.S., and it has taken time for them to get comfortable sharing information about their fleets and flights with brokers. Business-to-business air charter sites and facilitators like legfind.com and Avinode now enable the industry to more efficiently deploy charter aircraft. This is especially evident in the availability of one-way "empty leg" or "deadhead" flights.
One-way trips used to be the bane of charter customers. They had to pay for the flight time for the empty jet to fly back to its home base. But operators and brokers can now track and market these empty-leg flights on their sites, often offering them at a discount.
"There isn't a charter operator out there that isn't trying to fill empty legs," said Johnson. "It's in its infancy still, but every operator is trying to figure out how to do that. The industry will evolve to one where flights are sold on a per-leg basis."
Already some operators, such as Phoenix-based Swift Aviation Group, use a "floating fleet" model, adapted from the trucking industry, to offer one-way pricing for charter flights. Paradoxically, charter data indicates that the price of empty-leg flights has actually gone up in recent years. According to industry experts, operators previously were happy to take whatever they could get for such flights, but now that a way exists to market them, suppliers have gotten more savvy about charging appropriately.
As it is, the cost of charter fluctuates widely based on demand level, hitting high points during times of peak use such as holidays. Some experts predict charter pricing will gradually shift to the yield-management approach the airlines use, with prices changing frequently based on algorithms designed into computer programs.
Looking ahead, industry insiders see the Internet as the key in making air charter more efficient, easier to access and more affordable for potential customers.
"It really is an exciting time," said jets.com CEO Nathan McKelvey. "We faced some difficult years, but now a combination of great technology and all these players coming in and spending a lot of marketing dollars is bringing more and more new customers into private aviation. Everyone will benefit."
Finding Charter Online
Here are some Web sites where you can learn more about online charter planning and get price quotes for flights:
www.aircharterguide.com Air Charter Guide, (617) 547-5811
The Air Charter Guide is considered a definitive listing of charter operators and brokers around the globe. The company's Web site features a flight planner that generates price quotes for specific trips. It also has several useful search functions, including ones that can lead you to information about operators and their fleets; let you find brokers by name or location; and help you locate operators with a specific aircraft model. In addition, the site has general information on charter operations, operators, brokers and aircraft types.
www.airroyale.comAir Royale International, (800) 776-9253
This charter broker, with offices in Los Angeles, New York, London, Dubai and Hong Kong, claims access to 5,000 aircraft. Its Web site's quote engine provides prices and flight times from operators of everything from turboprops to executive airliners and displays each of the available aircraft for the customer's flight. For "One Way Exceptional Fares," you can input information on where you're going from and to, along with travel dates, and the site will provide a list of flights with similar origins and destinations. Price information for these flights requires submitting a quote request to the operator.
www.charterx.com CharterX, (609) 671-9300
This data aggregator provides availability and pricing information on 1,500 jets on its Web site. The company also supplies software used by about 150 charter providers to generate online quotes for potential charter customers. The site has a directory of selected brokers and operators and airport search engines for finding charter operators near user-selected locations. CharterX's Industry Xchange is a business-to-business service for linking customers with aircraft that arranges about 3,000 trips per day. In 2006, the company purchased Wyvern, the aviation safety auditing company.
www.ellejet.com ElleJet, (888) 355-3538
Specializing in empty-leg flights, this San Diego-based broker's Web site maintains a list of featured empty legs with aircraft type and date of travel and has a search engine for customers to find suitable empty legs by inputting prospective itineraries and dates. However, empty-leg pricing information is provided via phone or e-mail rather than online. You can also receive e-mail notification of empty-leg flights between specified locations. In addition, the company can arrange traditional charter flights if a suitable empty leg is unavailable, and prices are displayed immediately online. The site includes a tool that compares the costs of ElleJet's charter solutions with those of other charter brokers as well as with fractional and card programs.
www.jets.comJets International, (800) 370-7719
Headquartered in Quincy, Mass., this charter broker's online charter auction function allows you to post a trip, have providers bid on it and then choose your preferred solution. Registration is required to use the price quote and auction functions but the Web site's "Hot Deals" section is viewable by anyone, and lists upcoming empty-leg flights, aircraft types and costs. The company's Titanium membership program for frequent charter customers provides guaranteed hourly pricing (displayed on the site), choice of make and model of aircraft and the opportunity for additional discounts through its charter auction service.
www.onesky.com OneSky Jets, (866) 663-7591
A Manchester, N.H.-based charter broker, this company claims access to 1,500 jets. Its Web site's cost calculator allows you to select whether price or schedule is more important and provides a general hourly rate and trip cost for aircraft types, but it does not list or display available aircraft. You can submit a request for more exact information. However, the empty-leg search on the cost calculator displays available aircraft types and exact prices. The company's "Latitude program" targets members of major fractional and jet card programs, promising to beat prices on some of their trips, and allowing members to choose the make, model and even tail number of aircraft for their flights.
www.privatair.com PrivatAir , (203) 337-4600
This charter operator offers a luxuriously outfitted fleet of 50 aircraft, which includes ultra-large-body models like the Airbus A319, Boeing 757-200 and Boeing BBJ, in both all-business-class and luxury executive configurations. The company can also access hundreds of additional aircraft through partner operators. Its online-quote function allows for pricing flights in both the U.S. and Europe by total cost, cost per passenger and cost per seat.3