“Everybody is sensitive to the price of jet fuel,” said Steve Elefant, explaining why he founded fuel-pricing Web site AircraftFuel.com last year. The Web site’s purpose is simple: to consolidate discount and contract fuel programs in one place so pilots and dispatchers don’t have to go to each program’s Web site to find the best price.
“I’m an aircraft owner myself,” Elefant said, “and it took too long to look at all
the fuel sites.” A serial software company entrepreneur, Elefant figured there ought
to be an easier way to check discount fuel programs without having to look up each one separately, a process that he said can take up to an hour-and-a-half.
For each program, users typically must enter a username and password; then they can check fuel prices for upcoming trips. AircraftFuel.com stores all the customer information for each discount program, allowing users to check and compare prices at once. Discount programs vary, and sometimes one program will have a better price than another. Or the user might plan on buying only 300 gallons and will find a discounter offering an attractive price for that quantity while others might have prices that look good only at 500 gallons and higher.
Users have to input their customer information for each program when signing up with AircraftFuel.com. This information is encrypted, according to Elefant, and all price-checking is done using only that customer’s information.
While some discounters are happy to work with AircraftFuel.com and allow their pricing information to flow through Elefant’s system, there are, he said, “others who say it’s terrible and don’t think we should be doing this.” The companies that don’t cooperate, he added, are afraid to have their prices compared with those of other discount programs. He compared the situation to the airlines’ response to travel-information Web sites during the early years of the Internet. “We’re the Expedia of jet fuel,” he said. “It makes it a much more level playing field.”
Colt International is one discounter that resists AircraftFuel.com’s electronic overtures. “We play cat and mouse with them,” Elefant said. “They keep trying to change things to make it difficult for us to get in, changing their Web site and making us rewrite our software all the time.”
Colt president Malcolm Hawkins has no problem with companies trying to earn a profit, but he doesn’t feel that there is any benefit to inserting a third-party like AircraftFuel.com (and others that have tried similar efforts) between Colt International and its customers. He also doesn’t agree with Elefant’s contention that it can take an hour-and-a-half to look up fuel prices.
More important, Hawkins added, is that Colt often includes information in its fuel-price quotes that wouldn’t be transmitted through an AircraftFuel.com quote. “We use our Web site and distribution channel to cross-sell products,” Hawkins explained. If an airport is closed or there is a fuel-availability problem at the destination, Colt makes sure that information gets to its customers. “If I go through a third party, that information gets lost and I’m responsible,” he said.
Hawkins added that not all contract-fueler information is up-to-date, and users of third-party systems might not understand that. Colt will warn customers that
at a certain destination the fuel price is about to change the next day and that it might make sense to wait or buy early when purchasing a big load of fuel, to get the best price (depending on whether the price is rising or dropping).
Another question is whether the third party is comparing prices accurately, with all costs included such as ramp fees, taxes and into-plane fees. “You never really know what the price includes,” he said. “You’re much better off developing a relationship with two or three contract companies than paying a fee [for a third-party service].”
Hawkins has asked that AircraftFuel.com not include Colt in its price-quoting system and even sent a cease-and-desist letter. “I don’t participate with any program that intervenes between me and my customer,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot to develop these relationships. I don’t wish any of these people ill will and that they not be successful. But it’s my data and I can choose who it goes to.”
Elefant said that AircraftFuel.com’s members number in the hundreds. Membership fee is based on fuel volume at fillup and ranges from $499 per year for zero to 400 gallons to $999 per year for 900 to 2,000 gallons, plus $100 for each additional aircraft. Elefant doesn’t think that airport-information Web sites such as AirNav provide the same information and believes that his company’s pricing data is more timely. [AirNav does offer vendors the opportunity to provide current pricing.–Ed.] Elefant said, “[Their] pricing can be days or weeks out of date. With prices fluctuating as they do, people want prices up to the minute. Contract fuel is the name of the game.”