In 2006, when Bob Seidel, now CEO of Alerion, was new to the aircraft management world, he sat down with the owner of a Boston-area sports team. His then firm, Jet Aviation, managed an aircraft for the owner. The owner “was rather animated about a situation,” Seidel said, recalling him pulling out a rudimentary paper calendar he had printed out.
“He thrust these papers at me and said, ‘This is how I keep the schedule on this airplane,'” Seidel continued. The owner explained how his assistant took an orange crayon to mark out charter flights and a green crayon to mark the owner's flights. A red crayon tracked when the airplane was down for maintenance. “This is a modern, private business jet,“ the owner said and then asked, “Does that seem like the right way to manage a schedule?”
Only six months into his stint managing the aircraft, Seidel initially sat with a blank look on his face, finally responding, “No sir, that’s a terrible situation.”
That, he said, “was the beginning of my search for the holy grail.” In the more than 12 years since, he joined JFI Jets as CEO and then merged it with ACP Jets in 2015 to form Alerion. Now, Seidel is rolling out an online owner portal that can provide insight for owners, not only on tracking, but on nearly every aspect of managing the airplane.
Getting to that point was not easy, he said. “It seems like a very silly thing. Why can't you just tie your system together with Outlook or something like that. But it's not so easy.”
The systems charter-management firms typically use are complex, designed for multiple purposes such as scheduling, managing operational control, matching crew schedules with requisite rest periods, ensuring pilot records are up-to-date, ensuring runways are long enough, and tracking “all sorts of other checks.”
Simply tying that together to provide owners with access to such a system proved to be a complicated task. “None of the makers of the software really created a side view that could be given to the owners,” he said, adding quotes to develop such a system ran well over a half-million dollars.
Then he jumped to JFI Jets and other priorities took root. “But almost three years ago, I really…got the bug again. I said, 'we need to do this.'” Seidel began developing the portal in-house with a “very talented” person who worked hand-in-hand with management and its enterprise software firm.
The portal, which launched in beta version in December, is designed to provide access to an array of real-time information, including schedules, expenses, maintenance updates, and passenger lists. It enables owners to look both backward and forward to have a more comprehensive overview of operations and trends. In addition, the portal will enable multiple owners to coordinate schedules with aircraft itineraries. The data is accessible anywhere on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, according to the company.
Alerion, working with customers who have been testing it, hopes to incorporate any resulting changes and roll it out to all of its customers by early spring.
“Customers need this,” he said, adding it answers “the kinds of questions we get every single month as they look at their statement. It's the sort of thing that if they had this information, it would save numerous phone calls, fretting, and hand wringing. It would save all kinds of miscommunications between us and the customer.”
For instance, he said, a customer’s assistant might call up and say the boss wants to go to Columbus on Thursday the 12th. But the assistant may not specify or be clear on which month; or even which "Columbus." The portal will confirm that the planned trip is exactly what the customer requested.
Seidel said he once ran into a similar situation. His firm took an urgent “pop up” trip from New York to Minneapolis and then, just before the flight took off, received a request to change the destination to "Grand Rapids" and generate a new quote. The new quote was lower, because of course Grand Rapids, Michigan, is closer to New York than Minneapolis, Minnesota. The quote puzzled the travelers. Then it became apparent after the flight had departed that the travelers wanted to go to Grand Rapids, Minnesota. So the pilots altered the flight plan and refiled for the correct destination.
“That just goes to show you how important it is to have everything in writing and acknowledged,” Seidel said. One of the advantages of the portal, he added, is it enables an owner or any person designated by the owner—whether a spouse or assistant—to look at the schedule and confirm the plans.
It also gives owners an overview of the future plans for the aircraft and the crew and perhaps alter their travel schedules when they have flexibility. “They can look and see, oh, the crew is down this week for training,” he said. Without that information, the customer may have asked for the aircraft during training. “If we're told that a customer wants to use the airplane, we would cancel the training skills session.” Then the crew would need rescheduled training, which could launch a domino effect on scheduling issues.
“But if the customer had known and could wait one day, the customer could have easily made that change,” he said. “So just the simple matter of sharing a calendar that shows the maintenance schedule, the training schedule, the airplane status, the owner's schedule and the charter schedule…can save so much in the way of miscommunication, errors, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction.” And it can be done at all hours since it is online. “We're trying to show how we're trying to pack all the sausage into the casing,” Seidel said.
Another major benefit is transactional. The portal gives clients access to interactive reports based on the time period of their own choice. “They can see every single purchase of fuel. Since they're responsible for paying for the fuel, they would like to know how much they paid for the fuel, how much fuel is this airplane burning, and how are prices affecting cost of operation.” The portal provides access to multiple charts to provide clear views of such transactions.
The reports also cover maintenance, showing every step, labor hours, parts, and warranty. “They can dig down, select a particular maintenance work order, open it up and see all the subcategories within that work order.”
Clear Cost Outline
All monthly statements are posted on the portal, with expense reports that track “every single expense down to a pack of gum.” Trips are mapped, including multiple legs, hotels where crews stayed, rental car costs, and potential cost savings, he added.
“Ultimately my goal will be that we don't have to do monthly statements anymore,” Seidel said, adding all those reports would be accessible on the site. “I think that's one of the areas where some of the customers in this industry have been frustrated, because it's all mumbo jumbo. I mean, they know how much a bagel costs, but they don't really know how much a nose wheel costs.”
By having receipts for every transaction, customers will have more clarity and assurance that there is no markup. “There're a lot of tricks of the trade that less savory people could use to really pad the bills. [With the portal, customers] don't have to be suspicious. They can see what's happening, and they have an understanding.”
Further, any mistakes can be easily identified and rectified, providing confidence for the owners.
Also, owners have a better understanding when invoices arrive, which can be unpredictable, particularly for international travel. Seidel noted that he once received an invoice from a country in Africa for €2,900 ($3,307) in fees five years after the trip. “We were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’” Then Alerion was in the position of having to either pay or protest the charge. “Some of the Caribbean islands are notorious. They get around to billing when they get around to it.”
In addition, insurance premiums are listed on the portal, as well as passenger manifests. The passenger manifest was particularly welcomed by clients as they attempt to track each flight for tax purposes.
As word of the portal initiative has become better known, Seidel said, he has begun to receive inquiries from competitors and software companies. “This has been a holy grail for them too,” he said.
The site will be a value-added benefit for customers, but Seidel believes it will pay for itself in time saved managing inquiries and transactions. “Hopefully it'll bring us more customers. Customers who are experienced in aircraft management will really know what the value of this is, and they're going to say, 'Well, I want that.'”