One might think that with private jet travel spiking to record levels – and no let-up in sight, there would be strong tailwinds for new private jet booking platforms. Flaws aside, the fact that there is a squeeze on available charter jets makes trying out new providers with little or no clout in the market more of a stretch.
That said, both Air Racer Pro and InstaJet debuted last month with the typical promises of revolutionizing booking private flights. While each has some impressive features, at the end of the day, neither really solve any problems those of you who book private jet charters currently have to endure.
If you’ve seen the TV commercial for Kayak where an entrepreneur pitches what he calls “the greatest idea you’ll ever hear,” you already know everything you will need to know about Airacer Pro, at least as far as I can see.
Like the make-believe Kayak competitor Canoe, Airacer is amazingly similar to FlyEasy, an industry platform that brokers use to source aircraft for clients. Data is what you would find from Avinode, another B2B platform. Both offer consumer interfaces that allows a broker, platform, or whatever a company wants to call itself, an opportunity to spin stories about how they are changing the way you will book private flights.
To that end, Airacer is a graphically pleasing adaption of what appears to be mainly a feed from one or both. After a challenging discussion with the founders, their PR rep emailed me to admit what was obvious. “To answer your question, they are aggregating their data from sources such as FlyEasy and Avinode, and then they are verifying that information with the assistance of a dedicated team which reviews and confirms this information.”
Since I found quite a bit of inaccurate information – for example, listing floating fleet aircraft at bases – and operators that no longer exist – for example, Delta Private Jets – I can’t say much about how closely the information is vetted. The entire point of floating fleets, by the way, is that they don’t have bases. Trips are priced point-to-point since they float and don’t have to return to a base airport after they drop you off.
The initial pitch promised, “What’s unique about this software platform is its reliance on real-time data.” It doesn’t, at least as far as I could discern.
Regarding how it works, you can essentially lookup operators based on where your trip is starting and ending. You then request hard quotes for your trip from the operators you select. Initial pricing is the same estimated pricing operators offer up and that brokers use as a starting point to figure out which operators best fit your needs.
What you see on Airacer Pro doesn’t mean the jets listed are available. Bridging the gap between live inventory and pricing, combined with crews who can fulfill those flights days or even weeks in advance, is something major players like Wheels Up and Vista Global have been investing tens of millions of dollars to accomplish.
With Airacer Pro, if you don’t know what you are doing, you can easily pull up companies with helicopters or single-engine propeller aircraft when looking to fly from, say, Los Angeles to Hawaii. That’s because there are operators in Los Angeles that have those airplanes.
Before the pandemic, Airacer had been selling sightseeing flights. It’s hard to tell how successful that was, but it is trying to pivot.
While the maps look nice, the operators you are requesting pricing from already get hundreds of requests a day. When there is record demand, operators are focused on their top customers, some are direct, but in many cases, they are large brokers and other operators who book millions of dollars in charters annually.
As a case in point, one private flyer who uses the FlyEasy interface – consumers can create their own free accounts, recently emailed me, “I put out a bid on FlyEasy last Friday for this Wednesday from Dallas to (the) Detroit Michigan area and got two quotes back—one on a King Air 350 (turboprop) and the other a (Citation) M2 (very light jet). I used to get 20-30.”
Airacer executives claim they are rolling out an integration with operators that will provide real-time pricing. However, after more than a month of waiting, they never provided me with any operators I could speak with, and several operators I talked to weren’t familiar with this outfit.
Airacer may do a better job of vetting the feeds they are using in the future. The data seems a bit more focused when I looked earlier today, so perhaps it’s a work in progress. That said, most consumers would find themselves better off working with a reputable broker who has relationships with operators and knows which ones have the types of aircraft best suited for the mission at hand.
Good brokers also know which operators are reliable – versus those that are likely to cancel – and the established players also have the clout with their preferred operators to get things back on track when something goes wrong, which is happening more and more these days.
Another concept that’s not new – but not widespread – is the idea of a broker or platform going to operators with a customer’s payment in hand instead of asking for a quote based on the hope a booking will materialize later. Big players like Vista Global’s XO and Wheels Up offer confirmed quotes you can book online that they have to fulfill either on their fleets or via partners.
Operators may only convert one or two percent of the quote requests they get, many of them from tire kickers flowing from B2B2C integrations being used by the likes of Airacer.
In the case InstaJet, which is a platform, it gives you a hard quote – a firm price. Once you’ve accepted it and they have taken payment, they then shop your trip to operators. Since you have already paid, the idea is that the operators will give their request priority – the old bird in hand expression.
Launched by Nick Davis, who previously helped yacht company Sunseeker create private aviation partnerships for its UHNW clients, InstaJet wants to offer what he calls “NetJets quality without the NetJets commitment.”
In other words, InstaJet isn’t trying to be a price leader and you don’t have to commit to 25 hours on a jet card or five years on a fractional share. He says the goal is to offer consumers a price that will enable InstaJet to get top-quality aircraft from top-of-the-line operators.
Davis has a good feel for the market, and InstaJet ticks off some of the boxes that are typically downsides of booking charter flights on a one-by-one basis. The firm pricing means you don’t waste time haggling back-and-forth. Deicing is included in the quotes. He says InstaJet also guarantees recovery aircraft at no additional cost if the operator cancels, although its terms don’t back this up.
Davis says the guarantee is related to the fact that when they shop your trip, they have bids from other operators that weren’t initially selected. So, it’s not clear what would happen if, days or weeks later, those operators no longer have an aircraft available at the previously quoted price. It doesn’t seem like InstaJet is legally required to eat the difference.
InstaJet makes a flat $1,400 per booking and provides trip support, so while it’s an app, Davis stresses his outfit is focused on customer service. Yet the contract you sign is with the operator, which removes InstaJet from any culpability and wouldn’t be an issue in regular times.
However, when private flights are hitting record levels in the U.S., smaller brokers report increasing frustrations as operators favor large customers. That means when a jet allocated for a big customer has a mechanical, the customer of a small broker is likely to see their airplane taken away and allocated to said big customer.
That would include the likes of NetJets, Directional Aviation’s Flexjet and Sentient Jet, Wheels Up, and others that need capacity well beyond their own fleets and regular allotments. It also includes serving established mega-brokers like Vista Global’s Apollo Jets, which sells around $250 million in flights per year.
With InstaJet, you pay a $99 fee, and for that, you get three quotes. It’s applied to your first booking. If you haven’t bought by the third time, InstaJet is happy to see you go elsewhere. It’s not looking for price shoppers.
By the same token, you are only getting a category, light jets, midsize jet, and so forth, so if you are paying a premium, or even if you aren’t, one of the reasons folks book on-demand charter is they have specific requirements category jet cards don’t meet.
They want a super-midsize jet with a standup cabin. They only want jets less than five years old. They want a Challenger 300 or 350 that has a couch in the rear instead of a second set of club chairs since they like to take a snooze. InstaJet’s app is easy-to-use, but at this stage, you can’t even request a quote with guaranteed WiFi.
Davis says that by not focusing on the lowest price, InstaJet will offer customers aircraft upgrades and other perks. That sounds nice, but in a time when brokers and customers are reporting difficulty in securing the type of aircraft initially desired and sometimes having to settle for something less, getting more than you paid for may not be in the cards.
Airacer Pro and InstaJet aren’t unique in that there is a wave of platforms and brokers looking to cash in on the surging popularity of private flights with claims of offering a better way to fly privately. Indeed, it’s hard to cut through the clutter – and claims.