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Best of the Best 2008: Flight Services: Sentient Flight Group

Michael Schulze

In a cavernous, dimly lit room in an office building in Weymouth, Mass., dozens of people stare at a map projected on a bare wall. The map is covered with icons, each representing an aircraft transporting a client. On a busy day, more than 100 icons will appear at one time. Next to the map, columns of data provide information on each flight. This room is the new command center of Sentient Flight Group, which began in 1999 as a small flight-card company and is now one of the largest jet charter and management operations in the world.

During an interview in 2006, Steve Hankin, the soft-spoken, disarmingly candid CEO of Sentient, pointed to his most significant challenge: "Capacity," he said. "We need more planes." At that time, the company—then called Sentient Jet—was contracting most of its flights to outside charter operators. "We need better control of service," he said. "And as we grow, it gets very difficult to manage all these third-party flights."

Two years later, Hankin has solved his capacity problem—or demolished it, rather. The breakthrough came last year, when Sentient was acquired by Berwyn, Pa.–based JetDirect, a flight-services firm that brought a sizable stable of managed aircraft to the operation. Hankin ultimately became CEO of the combined company, called Sentient Flight Group, while JetDirect chief Gregory Campbell took the chairman’s slot. The pair immediately went on a buying spree, picking up more managed planes from a host of smaller providers, most notably the charter operator Air Group and the U.S. arm of Swiss-based TAG Aviation (both of which received honors in last year’s Best of the Best). Hankin also convinced a small group of trusted charter partners to dedicate their services to Sentient. The result is a company with a fleet of more than 250 dedicated or managed planes and a broader network numbering another 500.

"It’s been an interesting ride," says Adam Hohulin, director of flight operations, as he leads a tour of the command center in March of this year. "In 2003, the year before Steve came on, Sentient had about 65 employees. Now it has over 2,000, in 13 bases across the country. You’re looking at about 200 of these people here." His gesture encompasses not only the flight-tracking team, which is watching the map, but client-services and maintenance staff as well. "Everyone sits together," he says. "There are no walls between them."

The open architecture has a huge benefit. "These people talk to each other constantly," says Benjamin Gonzales, the director of the client-services team. "If the flight-tracking people see a storm coming, they alert us, and we contact customers to work out a solution. Maybe we can pick up a client before the storm hits, for example. Meanwhile, the maintenance people are telling us what’s going on with the planes. So we’re dealing with every issue as it occurs, right away, and keeping clients in the loop. And we’re tracking our response to every problem." The result, he says, is an almost perfect on-time performance, except for unavoidable delays such as those caused by weather.

In addition to aircraft management and traditional charter services, Sentient offers a flight-card program that has attracted more than 3,000 members. These clients pay an up-front, refundable deposit of $100,000 or $250,000 in exchange for benefits usually associated with fractional programs, such as fixed hourly rates and guaranteed availability of an aircraft at short notice. Unlike the owner of a typical fractional share, however, a Sentient member does not commit to a particular aircraft type but instead can choose the type most appropriate for a particular trip. A deposit pays for flight time at prices ranging from $2,750 per hour to about $12,000 per hour, depending on the size of the plane (light, midsize, large-cabin, or extended range). For clients who can commit to a certain amount of flying each year, Sentient also offers a Preferred Plus membership option, which provides an average 6 percent reduction in hourly rates in exchange for a nonrefundable deposit of $150,000.

In the middle of the tour, Steve Hankin appears and sits down for a brief talk. In 2006, he said that safety and service were top priorities, and he reiterates that sentiment today. "We’ve developed an amazing tracking system to make sure we get each trip right," he says. "Every leg is described in detail. Every deviation from expectations is exposed, and these reports are distributed to everyone in the company. There’s no hiding, no pointing fingers. We jump as a team on every issue, and if we can’t solve it immediately, we contact the client to discuss options. Every afternoon I look at our service performance myself for several hours. I can’t stay away from it."

But what about the firm’s new-business acquisitions and the inevitable headaches associated with such transactions? Each year, while preparing for Best of the Best, the editors of Robb Report solicit input from a number of aviation consultants (see page 369), and this year, all of them expressed reservations about Sentient’s rapid growth. There is no indication that the company’s charter service has declined, they said, but they questioned whether Sentient can maintain its excellence. Will executives grappling with the pressures of integration lose sight of their clients? Hankin addresses these issues with his usual candor. "It’s a concern," he admits. "You can never say never, but I expect we’ll take a break from acquisitions for a while."

He strolls down the hall to an office where Matt Sevick, vice president of corporate development, is working on some adjustments to the company’s latest innovation: Privatejets.com, an online aircraft charter-booking service that launched in late January. The service narrowly preceded Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson’s Virgin Charter, another virtual booking site that appeared in March. Sevick calls up the Sentient site, which has an interface akin to Expedia’s. "Unlike Virgin Charter, this one provides real-time availability and pricing," he says. "You can book right away, instead of waiting a few hours. The site gives you access to just the 800 planes in our fleet—which we firmly control—not the entire universe of charter aircraft. And you can take advantage of Sentient’s membership program." Sevick is especially excited about a new feature that allows members to put a booking on hold for as long as three hours, giving them time to discuss the option with traveling partners.

The tour is completed. On the way out of the office, the group passes a room where six people sit hushed, staring intently at computer terminals. "Our daily flight review," Hankin murmurs. "Each day, top people review every leg of every flight for the following day." He smiles. "That meeting has lasted as long as 10 hours."

Sentient Flight Group, 781.763.0380, www.sentientflight.com

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