Realizing that I wouldn’t be able to attend the annual Air Charter Safety Foundation’s Safety Symposium (ACSF) in Washington last week got me thinking about how little publiscize charter jets at a transportation assett. For those unfamiliar with the concept, aircraft charter is essentially a commercial service operation using business jets … Falcons, Global Express, Citation etc.
Just like a taxi or a limo, a charter jets or turboprops will pick the passengers up at virtually any airport and deliver them precisely where they need to go at precisely the time they want, usually avoiding the major airline airports too. Best of all, the customer pays a flat price for the airplane whether it carries two passengers or six. That’s why, just like a traditional business jet, chartered airplanes wear the “time machine” moniker like a badge of customer service excellence. A chartered aircraft offers customers all the conveniences of their own aircraft without the overhead worries.
Of course, someone does need to keep the operational costs of a $30 million airplane in mind. That job falls to the charter company itself, of which there are more than 2,500 in the U.S. alone according to the FAA. That means thousands of chartered airplanes flying each week, sometimes on a one-way basis because that‘s what the customer needs. And in this business, the customer decides how the service will operate.
The downside for the charter operator though is that if they are based in Chicago and the customer pays only for the one-way trip to Dallas, the aircraft is now stuck on the ground with no paying passengers 1,000 miles from home. Sure the aircraft and the crew could simply wait in Dallas for the next charter to be booked, but those crew and aircraft parking costs can add up pretty quickly. Of course the cost of returning the aircraft to its home base empty means the charter company must absorb the entire cost of that return trip.
If filling an empty flight leg is the problem, the solution is a private aircraft charter broker, a company that can help sell that empty one-way leg back to Chicago to someone in Dallas or another nearby city, thereby easing the cost burdens for almost everyone. Brokers even know how to help the aircraft owner determine how close to the home base the aircraft can fly and still make the trip worthwhile. For instance, what if the customer in Dallas doesn’t want to fly to Chicago, but really to go only as far as Indianapolis or Detroit?
Charter brokers represent the true middlemen of the charter industry. Although brokers don’t actually own the aircraft, their technology-equipped employees are savvy about how to make all the pieces fit together to connect a potential customer with a waiting airplane. The customer gets where they want to go in comfort, while the charter operator enjoys some revenue for the flight back home.
Levi Lieder, a travel portfolio manager for charter broker Pasadena-based ElJet, offered some input to the work involved in connecting a customer to the right airplane, from the broker’s perspective. “Charters can originate anywhere in the United States or almost anywhere in the world,” he said when queried about ElJet’s southern California roots. “We have the contacts to find a jet in Dubai to carry customers to Paris if they need one.”
The broker’s job entails considerably more work than simply tagging a customer to an airplane however. “We have lots of details to work on for each flight,” Lieder said. “We must find the best airplane to meet our customer’s needs which means size and price. We also must be certain the company we choose to carry our passengers meets certain guidelines. Does the airplane meet FAA safety maintenance standards for example? Are the crews properly trained and current on the aircraft? Is the charter operator’s insurance coverage adequate for the trip?” The best guide about the quality of any charter operator Lieder said is a passing grade on a recent safety audit. Wyvern or Argus, are two of the leaders in conducting those studies. The Air Charter Safety Foundation also recently developed it’s own safety audit program.
And then there’s the issue of finding a good charter broker. Lieder said, “ElJet doesn’t conduct any direct marketing efforts to find customers. Ours all come from either personal referrals or from our website. Customers return because of the personal attention we offer. We follow up with everyone after every flight, from the passengers to the flight crew to make sure every piece of the puzzle for the trip fit together perfectly for everyone. Our customers know we’ll never leave them sitting on a runway somewhere. Chartering an airplane is all about safety and service.”
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) offers a glimpse into how charter brokers operate in its best practices guide for charter brokering.