‘Total solution’ charter options abound on Web

 - June 4, 2008, 9:54 AM

The recent launch of Sentient Flight Group’s Privatejets.com and Virgin Charter introduced a new element to the charter industry: the ability to book flights online using a process that mirrors that of airline and travel Web sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity. Scott Duffy, founder and CEO of Virgin Charter, said one customer completed an entire transaction–submitting a trip request via the Web site, receiving a quote and booking the flight online–in less than 10 minutes, for example.

But Virgin and Sentient are not the only companies that launched new programs in the last year. Other Web sites, such as Charter Matrix.com, CharterLogic.com, Jet combo.com and Jets.com, also offer programs and services that set them apart from others in the industry. One Web site combines commercial and private jet flights in a single itinerary, for example, while another claims to be the only online marketplace that doesn’t charge a commission fee. So how do the various Web sites differ, and what benefits does each offer?

Comparing Web Sites
There are three categories of charter Web site: operator-owned, online marketplace and broker. Operator-owned Web sites allow customers to submit charter requests directly to the company that has operational control of the flight, while online marketplaces and broker Web sites are managed by a third party who generally receives a commission from the operators or the customers, sometimes both.
According to CharterX cofounder and CEO Jim Betlyon, Sentient’s Privatejets.com is the only operator-owned Web site to offer direct online booking. Most operators have Web sites, he noted, but customers must submit their contact information and speak with a company representative before booking a flight.

Privatejets.com is unique, however, in that it can access the scheduling systems of more than 100 operators, in addition to that of Sentient’s fleet, to provide real-time aircraft availability and price quotes. Customers can submit a request, select the option that best suits their travel needs, enter their credit-card information and reserve a jet in the same way they would reserve a rental car. “We focused on the experience a customer would want,” said Matt Sevick, Sentient’s vice president of corporate development. “The Web site tells them which flights are really available and tells them what they will cost… Delay is eliminated.”

Privatejets.com was also the first charter Web site to introduce a “hold button.” By selecting that option, a customer can place an aircraft on hold for up to three hours. During that time, the jet is removed from the system’s inventory of available aircraft. “Unlike airline seats, each individual jet is unique,” Sevick explained. “If we sell it to someone else, that jet is gone and no longer available. The hold button allows customers to set a jet aside while they finalize details.”

Unlike commercial travel arrangement Web sites, however, Privatejets.com does not yet offer customers the ability to search for or select alternate airports. However, Sevick said that ability will soon be available. “In the future, the site will be able to do radius searches,” he said. “If a customer types in Memphis, the Web site will list all the airports associated with that city.”

Virgin Charter was among the first charter companies to heavily promote the term “marketplace.” However, there are a number of marketplaces in the industry, including CharterX and Charter Matrix.com. The marketplaces are neither operators nor brokers. Instead, these Web sites post information about the operators, including available flights and price estimates, and allow the customer to contact the operators directly to arrange and book the charter flights. Once that contact is made, the marketplace removes itself from the transaction.

“We don’t do the bookings;
we just connect the buyer and seller,” Betlyon explained. Likewise, CharterMatrix president and CEO Terry Cooper said, “We don’t broker the flights or get involved in the selling of the flight. We let the charter company and the customers do that themselves.”

CharterMatrix is different from other marketplaces because it doesn’t charge commission fees. Instead, the company sells advertising on its Web site and designs online quote systems for other aviation companies. “I think we’re one of the only companies that does not charge a commission fee,” he said. CharterX does not charge a commission fee, but an operator must have a paid subscription to place information on the Web site.

The Charter Matrix Web site also includes a map-search function and request board. The color-coded map-search function allows users to select a region and view all empty-leg charter flights available in that area. Users can also post bids for flights and ask for specific empty-leg flight destinations on the request board. Operators list their scheduled flights on sister Web site FlightOps1.com, which automatically posts the empty-leg portion of the flight on Charter Matrix.com.

Virgin Charter, perhaps the most well known name among marketplaces to date, is similar to others in that it connects buyers and sellers and charges a “small fee” for its services, but it differs in that it allows customers and operators to arrange flight details, review charter contracts and book the flights through the Virgin Charter Web site. In addition, passengers can submit changes, passenger manifests and catering orders via the Web site once the trip is booked. “That’s something that no one else in our competitive set has yet addressed,” Duffy said. “The stuff that happens post-purchase is fantastic, and it’s one of the biggest differentiators.”

The process also differs from that of other marketplaces in that it is similar to an online auction. Customers submit a flight request, and operators then compete to offer the lowest bid. Most marketplace Web sites simply post an operator’s flight details and price quotes, without allowing operators to compete against one another.

However, for customers who don’t want to wait for operators to outbid one another, Virgin Charter’s Web site will be launching a “hold button” and real-time quoting system this month, similar to that of Private jets.com. “Customers will get real-time aircraft availability and a real-time quote, similar to Expedia or Travelocity,” Duffy said. “This will give customers the ability to purchase the flight immediately–buy now–or place the aircraft on hold.” Customers can also choose the online auction, however. “You’ll get the best of both worlds,” Duffy said. “You’ll have the real-time nature of the service, and you’ll have the operators who continue to compete for your business.”

Broker Web Sites

Unlike marketplaces, brokers manage every aspect of a charter flight, from the departure time to catering and ground transportation. The customer generally has little or no contact with the Part 135 operator.

“I think we’re seen as the evil stepchild,” said Jordan Brown, COO of Charter Logic. “We are the man in the middle. But the market has shifted. I would say a majority of all operators get their business from brokers.”

Naples, Fla.-based Charter Logic recently announced a new program, Options on Demand, which gives customers a choice of aircraft during the booking process. “Our closure ratio doubled when we started offering three aircraft of every size–light, medium and heavy–through our Options on Demand,” Brown said. Most brokers offer a number of options, but only one option per aircraft size.

JetCombo.com also made headlines this year by offering customers a combination of airline and private jet flights, which can save thousands of dollars. A private jet flight from Newark, N.J., to Santa Barbara, Calif., would cost approximately $64,000, whereas a first-class airline ticket to Orange County, Calif., followed by a business jet flight to Santa Barbara would cost $7,000. “We are the only Web site that can combine airline and charter in a single itinerary,” said Jet Combo.com president George Khairallah. “It’s the perfect marriage between airlines and private transport.”

The company offers customers three different membership programs, which include discounts and information about the charter operators. The highest level membership–which costs $2,500 annually– also provides free emergency medical evacuation from anywhere in the world through a subscription to third-party provider Medjets Assist.

Another broker, Jets.com, in February became the only ARG/US-certified broker. (A-List Jets is set to become the next certified broker within three months.) “ARG/ US has so many different levels–DNQ, Silver, Gold, Gold Plus, Platinum–which causes a lot of confusion,” said Jets.com CEO and founder Nate McKelvey. “Just because an operator is using ARG/US doesn’t mean that it has a good quality standard. We are the first and only ARG/US-certified broker, so we’re using only Gold and Platinum-rated operators.” Jets.com also has a sister Web site–Legfind.com–which is more like a marketplace, in which customers and operators search for, buy and sell charter services.

Jetset Charter and OneSky Jets have also been around for a while, but the two companies use technology to strengthen their relationship with customers rather than as a replacement for personal interaction. Each Web site offers a live chat function, for example. “Some people use technology to commoditize the private jet industry and offer the best price,” said OneSky president Greg Johnson. “We think that’s off the mark. Most people aren’t looking for the lowest-priced option. It’s a small industry, and it’s relationship-driven. Technology has to support that, not replace it.”