Want to book a private flight? There’s an app for that

Wealth

Gone are the days when booking a private jet required a long conversation on the phone. Now, mobile apps let flyers book charter flights in a matter of minutes.

Major players in private aviation, as well as emerging competitors, now have apps. Many follow a similar process: Customers choose where they’re coming from and their destination, select dates and their preferred plane size.

Private aviation company Sentient Jet, which is mainly focused on trips in the U.S., saw $50 million in bookings through its app in 2020 alone, with more than $125 million in mobile bookings since the app launched in late 2017, CEO Andrew Collins told CNBC on a video call. He said he expects up to half of Sentient Jet’s bookings to come via its app in the next three to four years.

Collins said the coronavirus pandemic had “unlocked a larger addressable market,” as more people looked to avoid crowded flights or travel to areas where commercial operators wouldn’t typically fly.

He said that private aviation had “felt a little less like premium service and more like a utility for a lot of people” over the past year, and suggested that apps would become essential to the industry in the future, instead of simply a “nice-to-have” feature.

Booking through the Sentient Jet app takes two to three minutes, according to Collins.

The app is lowering the average age of Sentient Jet customers too, from those in their mid-60s, to a “much wider band” which is “getting younger,” he said.

‘Natural extension’

Sentient Jet’s app is available only to holders of its jet card, something the operator claims to have invented more than 20 years ago and which is now common in the industry.

Jet card programs vary depending on the company, but the basic concept relies on paying a deposit for fixed hourly rates.

In the case of Sentient Jet, clients can pay about $150,000 for 25 hours on a light aircraft, and the hours are debited from the card holder’s account every time they travel. Journeys can range from around $5,800 an hour for a light aircraft to just under $11,000 for a one-way trip on a large-cabin aircraft, Collins explained.

Mobile apps, which are being used by younger customers, make booking private jets easier and faster.
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Before jet cards came onto the market, Collins said people could only really book a private jet through chartering, or renting the plane, as well as buying an entire aircraft (or a fraction of one).

Collins said the growth of apps in private aviation is really a “natural extension” of the jet card.

Thomas Flohr, the founder of private aviation company Vista Global similarly told CNBC via email that traditionally, customers booking private jets needed to “call or email their broker with a trip request, wait hours to get a response with quotes, be provided opaque prices and then sign a physical contract.”

Vista Global launched an app in November as an extension of its online booking platform XO. It is free to use for any client. Flohr claimed both the online platform and app allow customers to book in “seconds.”

Users of XO have the option to “crowdfund” a flight, essentially letting them buy just one seat on the plane instead of the whole flight.

‘Uberization’ of private jets

Private aviation firm Wheels Up has a similar feature that lets customers use a “shared flights board” feature on its app to view flights on offer for sharing with other users.

Kenny Dichter, CEO of Wheels Up, said that the advent of apps represents the “Uberization” of jet booking.

The Wheels Up app is free for both members and non-members. However, pricing and availability are different for members, who have access to their own benefits portal via the app.

JetASAP is perhaps most different from these more established names, as it claims to be the first free jet charter marketplace. CEO Lisa Kiefer Sayer, who founded the business in 2018, explained that the app shows bookings available with different charter operators.

She said that the coronavirus pandemic has had a “huge impact” in terms of the demographics of its users.

Typically, people chartering private jets had a net worth of $10-$20 million, but she said the pandemic had opened up the market to people with a net worth of $2-$3 million.

Sayer said that half of the users on the JetASAP app are seasoned private fliers, while the other half are new to private aviation.  

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