Fifteen years after inventing the jet card, which simplifies the purchase of a block of charter hours, Sentient Jet sees no slowdown in demand for the product it pioneered. “We’re having a great year,” said Sentient president Andrew Collins. “In many respects it feels a lot like stuff we’ve been talking about is coming to fruition.”
Last year Sentient Jet’s revenue exceeded $150 million and it sold 32,000 flight hours (upwards of 1,300 twenty-five-hour jet cards) to its 4,000-plus cardholders. The company, which was purchased by Directional Aviation Capital in June 2012, is responsible for sourcing an enormous amount of charter flying, primarily through a network of charter operators that Sentient has qualified through its Sentient Certified safety certification process. These operators represent fewer than 20 percent of the 575 jet charter operators in the U.S. Directional also owns fractional-share providers Flight Options and Flexjet.
For people who want to travel on business jets but don’t want to buy an airplane or even a share, the charter market offers many options. Aircraft range from piston singles to turboprops, helicopters and jets of all sizes. Even though anyone can contact any charter operator to arrange for a charter, the majority of charter buyers work through brokers. Sentient Jet is essentially a broker, but it bundles charter into 25-hour blocks–jet cards–that buyers can use at any time and for any size of aircraft, depending on their needs. Sentient also arranges charters outside the jet card model.
What makes a business model like Sentient work is that it not only satisfies the need for customers who want to contact just one company for their charter needs but it also holds its charter partners to high standards for safety, insurance coverage and service.
“I think the jet card has become extremely relevant because it’s a guaranteed solution,” Collins said. “We will provide a charter with 10 hours’ advance notice anywhere in the continental U.S. at a price that’s transparent [to the customer]. We don’t let people down. We’re the largest purchaser of aircraft hours in the charter market, and we have access to supply. Private aviation is not perfect. It’s how we build relationships with the customer as well. We don’t own jets, but we do own relationships. If we can’t deliver premier service, we can’t maintain relationships.”
Unlike some charter brokers, Sentient maintains infrastructure that might seem as though it belongs to a fractional share or charter certificate holder. This includes a command center with a large group of flight planners who oversee the schedule 24 hours a day. If an aircraft becomes unavailable, Sentient has backups ready to pick up the slack. Sentient guarantees many of the charter operators it works with up to 60 hours a month for certain aircraft, prepaid. “We know how to do capacity planning,” Collins said. “We will prepay and be able to have great pull on the schedule of that aircraft. We have a logistics and flight-planning team that can address needs that can occur. It might be weather, a late client or a variety of factors that can adjust supply. We know to deal with these issues.”
The service aspect doesn’t stop with the charter operator but is something that Sentient adds to the mix. “We like to surprise customers,” he said. “We track their personal milestones and acknowledge them.” Sentient also tracks and satisfies customer preferences, from the type of aircraft to catering, ground transport and so on.
Collins believes Sentient will continue growing. “If you look at takeoffs and landings for us and fractional operators, I think we hold just 10 percent of the market.” In June Sentient arranged 1,300 charter legs, and that was expected to reach 1,400 in July. “If the average is two hours, you’re looking at close to 3,000 hours. We’re doing a significant chunk of [Part] 135 flying, but I think the market is pretty vast and there is a lot of opportunity for us.”