Appily ever after


If you have a smartphone, you probably use several apps on a regular basis. However, they’re still a relative novelty in the conservative world of business aviation. But this is changing, as several firms are now conducting the vast majority of their business online, with phone calls as a backup or a continuation of the service. These disrupters have been using apps for some time, and see them as an essential part of their business in terms of driving traffic, and in at least one case, directly making bookings.

PrivateFly was the first in Europe

PrivateFly was first to inhabit the space in Europe. The company has more than 7,000 aircraft on its books and recently expanded into the United States. “Five years ago we were the first to offer a private jet application, explains PrivateFly CEO Adam Twidell. “Today, 15 percent of our bookings are initiated on the app.”

Twidell sees it as just another part of the firm’s offering to customers: “It’s easier to do things on a desktop, or iPad,” he continues. “Mobile sites are better than apps, which have to be rejigged to work on a smaller screen. We don’t push our customers down any one route to contact us, we try to have lots of channels.” He points out that the PrivateFly app is ideal for when there is no Internet reception, adding that there are downsides to even the most sophisticated apps. 

PrivateFly uses several back-end search engines commonly used by operators, which it has integrated into its own search functions. The main advantage of the app, Twiddle says, is to offer customers information on the day of travel. “We send them directions, delays to a flight’s destination, weather information, etc.” However, he does caution users against the notion of “instant” pricing in some cases. “Some can quote straight away,” he says, “but if you get a request for somewhere a little more remote like St Maarten in the Caribbean, you may not get an answer immediately.”

Stratajet offers real-time pricing

That being said, a key part of Stratajet’s marketing is its ability to offer instant, real-time pricing. The firm’s app became available for users at the end of last year. With more than 1,000 active users in just four months, Stratajet says it has seen an increase in downloads of 300 percent month-on-month.  Clients mostly come from the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland.  

According to CEO Johnny Nichol, a big differentiator is cost. “We sold a trip to the South of France for £180 per person this morning – a price that is typical,” he says. Stratajet offers partial empty leg flights as part of its service offering. This means people can book an empty leg flight that isn’t quite where the aircraft is going to and from, e.g. a jet en route to home base in Luton from Cannes could go from Paris to Biggin Hill instead. At the end of the day, the operator still makes a profit on the flight, as the aircraft is flying nearby anyway. Most importantly, according to Nichol, there is demand for the service, citing, a story in the UK’s Financial Times last year that generated 280 downloads within six hours of publication.

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Stratajet, too, has headed stateside, and Nichol has just completed a marketing tour, taking in California, Florida, Georgia and Texas. He adds that 23 percent of bookings come in via the app. There are now well over 600 aircraft in Europe on the system, with an additional 130 in the US. But even in the era of apps, not everything is entirely web based. “As soon as we take the booking we become the broker,” Nichol says. “We also offer a 24/7 phone service with our operators speaking 16 languages.”

FlyVictor founded on application technology

FlyVictor has taken the concept a step further and takes around 40 percent of all its bookings via the app, where customers can actually book and pay for their flights directly.

CEO Clive Jackson explains: “We offer the function within the app, which has bank transfer and authorization forms.” The app is available for various platforms.

A serial entrepreneur, Jackson has founded several technology companies, including Global Beach, a leading UK digital design agency, which served brands such as Bentley Motors, Hewlett Packard and Jaguar Cars. He reckons FlyVictor offers transparency in a hitherto fairly opaque market. Users search for a quote in real time and see exactly who is providing the price.

So why wouldn’t the customer go directly to the operator? According to Jackson, in the entire time the firm has been operating there has only been a handful of clients who have abused the system. But the company does have one inbuilt safety net: regular customers pay a deposit they can draw from, which Victor holds in a ring-fenced account, separate from the firm’s operating costs. “This offers them peace of mind,”says Jackson.

FlyVictor sees its clients using different software at different times of the day. “Desktops are in the evening or during the day at the office, but someone might glance down at their phone during a meeting if they need to book a flight,” explains Jackson. “It is much more useful for people on the go to have an app. You can search for a quote and book and be airborne in just over two hours.”

Like Twidell at PrivateFly, Jackson too questions the value of  “instant quotes” in service offerings. “How much of this requires instant decision-making?,” he asks. “It sounds like a good idea as long as operators do not negotiate on price.” He believes online searches can keep the market a fairer place. “Some operators play broker versus broker and send multiple quotes to multiple brokers for the same flight.” This, he says, can cause unwanted turbulence in the marketplace and confusion for those that work in the private jet charter industry. “We need to have a consensus and have the same level of transacting,” he says.

FlyVictor has international ambitions and Jackson believes he’s backed a winner with his latest company. “We are the fastest growing technology company in the UK based on capital growth with three-year average sales growth of over 142% per annum, and we are in the top ten internationally in the digital space,” he says. 

Still acting as traditional brokers

There is security for clients, too. Although they are innovators in the sense that they offer a different way of accessing a private jet, all three online companies act like traditional brokers in that they have to guarantee a replacement aircraft in the event of a cancellation.

Many of the established offline brokers are also employing technology in their marketing. Swiss firm Vertis, for example, is working on an app. “It is not amazingly revolutionary,” COO Neil Turnbull explains. “It won’t take the place of people as ours is very much a personal business.”

After surveying its customers, Vertis is creating an app that will offer such information as real-time updates of destination weather and news about handling agents and crews, as well as directions to airports. Apart from attractive empty legs, it will generally be a passive offering. “People don’t like info pushed on to them,” says Turnbull, reckoning that Vertis’ customers are not “entirely comfortable” with getting quotes via a 100 percent web-based system. “They want to discuss what their flight will be. That is part of the experience,” he explains. That said, the company has an attractive addition up its sleeve to roll out at EBACE.

Today, the online players are the disrupters and form “less than 1 percent of broker offerings,” according to Jackson. However, given the speed of technology adoption, that is likely to rapidly change. He believes that operators should be the beneficiaries with a greater number of potential customers to access. The good news for operators, he says, is that passengers should shoulder the costs of the transaction. “I firmly believe you can’t take from both ends of the trough,” he says.