WINGS OF DESIRE
The Uber for Private Jets Has Landed
First class is about to go the way of peanuts. A new app helps rich fliers charter their own jets to almost anywhere on extremely short notice. And next it’s targeting those in coach.
It’s 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, and I’ve got a hankering for Paris. With a quick click of an app, I find that I can take off on my own private jet at noon the very next day with seven guests of my choosing for as low as $70,000. No, wait, really I’m feeling more like San Francisco. That will only set me back a cool $29,000 (and maybe a few friends—the “entry level jet” only seats four). If I’m willing to open my wallet and cough up $250,000, I can upgrade to my very own airliner for 30.
Thanks to JetSmarter, I can go just about anywhere on my own private plane (Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, even Bora Bora) within short notice…often as little as six hours. This is the hope, at least, of Sergey Petrossov, the 26-year-old founder and CEO of JetSmarter, a new app that helps highfliers charter a jet with the ease of booking a car from the now ubiquitous service Uber. No airport hassles, no security lines, no other passengers taking both the armrests or falling asleep on your shoulder (OK, you’re on your own with that last one—choose your guests wisely).
After selling his first IT company in 2009, Petrossov found himself with a little extra money to indulge in flying private. While he enjoyed the experience once in the air, he found the process of booking the flight to be archaic and obscure. It required phone conversations with a broker, tedious insurance paperwork, and the risk that the plane he thought he was booking wasn’t the one parked at the gate. More importantly, it was a bit harder to track down the safety history of the specific jet that caught his eye.
He convinced a few of his friends in the charter business to share their companies’ information—flight schedules, plane GPS coordinates, safety ratings, price and handling fees—which he loaded into his new system. In August 2012, Petrossov let a few lucky friends test the new app, and, he says, they were “wow’d.”
JetSmarter was released to the public in March 2013, and it’s been only wings up from there. Now with over 200,000 downloads and 3,000 planes in the system, Petrossov claims “you can put in an itinerary anywhere [in the world], and you’re going to get jets pop up.”
There are other app-based services that have similar missions: PrivateFly has more available planes than JetSmarter (7,000, according to its website), but it is active only in Europe. BlackJet embraced a book-per-seat service, but relied on the “classic network effect” to build up a membership in order to populate its flights and had to take a step back at the end of 2013 due to financial difficulties.
And then there's Uber, the company all others are defined against. The ride-sharing service has primarily stuck to the road, every once in awhile coming to the aid of poor, stranded Hamptons weekenders by offering helicopter rides to and from the luxe beach retreat. They also have teamed up with specific charter companies to offer private flights at articular big events, like the Cannes Film Festival, but the service is always limited, both in duration, destinations, and number of planes available.
While charter companies actually own the planes, JetSmarter acts as the concierge service, helping their tech-savvy users book flights and meet their travel needs, primarily through a messengering service on the app (although 24/7 human phone support is available). Petrossov frames JetSmarter as “more of a technology company, we’re not trying to be an airline,” but in reality the app seems to share the role of “airline” with the planes’ owners.
The charter companies maintain, pilot, and deal with the inspections of their planes, but JetSmarter acts as the travel agent-cum-flight attendant, helping connect fliers with their dream jets and fill all passenger requests, even the really crazy ones.
“Somebody requested from Ecuador through Malta for us to transport, I think it was like a ton of gold,” Petrossov says. “That was a total nightmare. That was definitely the craziest thing that we’ve had.”
These requests are to be expected when your service is used, according to Petrossov, by celebrities, royalty, and high net worth individuals. But the real kicker: Petrossov claims that the app is so easy to use, that it empowers these influential figures to take “control of [their] flying patterns” and actually book their travel themselves. Assistants and secretaries worldwide, rejoice!
While this may incite a few eye rolls (I would need at least two witnesses before I would believe that an assistant-dependent A-lister or high-powered CEO was willing to book her own travel, regardless of how easy the process is), Petrossov’s end goal is broader and could change the way that a large majority of us travel. He wants to “democratize the space and make it more available to absolutely everybody.”
Just as Uber has recently launched a split-fare service, allowing customers to team up to cut down on the cost of a car, JetSmarter hopes to enable jet-setters to sell unused seats on their chartered flights. Currently, “empty legs” are available at a discounted rate. According to Petrossov, 30 percent of charter flights are completely empty as it is often necessary for planes to “reposition” themselves to their client’s departure location (someone flying from New York to Miami may have picked a plane that’s parked in Dallas).
Many charters are willing to take passengers on these flights for up to 70 percent cheaper, sometimes even just the cost of fuel. But this still entails booking the entire plane at the lower rate.
JetSmarter’s plan is to launch a service by the end of 2014 that would enable a single flier to claim a single empty seat on someone’s chartered jet (a practice termed “jet-sharing,” of course). Yes, the price of the seat will be more than one on a commercial flight, but maybe not that much more.
For example, Petrossov cites the current empty leg service, where he says a reposition flight from Miami to New York could go for as low as $4,000 for a 10-person jet. Divided among the 10 passengers, each ticket would come to $400 per person, not a bad deal in the current world of ever-increasing plane fares. The hope is that the hassle and steep last-minute prices of the big airlines, even when booking coach (the horrors!), will make it reasonable to pay a bit more for better service and a more relaxed flying experience.
This will not only open up private air travel to a lot more people (“tens of millions” versus the current “hundreds of thousands,” according to Petrossov), but it will also offer competition to the ever-consolidating commercial airline industry. Petrossov hopes that in five years, “absolutely everybody, before they book their American Airlines [flight] or go on to Orbitz or Expedia, [will] go on to JetSmarter.”
Despite the good news for a broad range of fliers (really, given the option, who wouldn’t want to charter their own jet?), there’s one area that may never improve: booking a flight around Christmas. It doesn’t matter how you fly, getting home at the end of December—in a reasonable manner, for a reasonable price—will always be the ultimate holiday miracle.
“It all depends on the availability but we’re pretty much [have flights available] any day of the year, maybe except Christmas Day and New Year’s,” Petrossov says. “But, most of the time, there’s always going to be something available.” Of course, that “something” might, Petrossov admits, be the “ridiculously priced” G550 business jet—but hey, it is Christmas.