Uber Apps for Private Jets

  • Illustration by Jean-François Martin
    Illustration by Jean-François Martin
  • The Victor and Ubair apps.
  • The Ubair app
  • Gulfstream private jet
  • Illustration by Jean-François Martin
  • Michelle Seaton

Originally published in the September 2015 Robb Report Private Aviation Sourcebook as "Touch and Go."

At an aviation conference in 2007, PrivateFly founder Adam Twidell made a presentation in which he introduced his idea for an online portal for booking charter flights directly. It would allow customers to choose jets from multiple charter companies, giving them much more choice than any single company could provide. Customers would be able to select the specific jets they were interested in flying and compare the prices online. 

Halfway through the presentation, Twidell was shouted down by an angry aviation executive. He asserted that Twidell did not understand the luxury industry and that no one would ever book a private jet over the Internet.

The executive had a point. Most private-aviation clients are over 40, and eight years ago many people in that age group were not yet accustomed to making large purchases online. Nevertheless, Twidell, a former Royal Air Force pilot, and his wife, Carol Cork, sold their home and exhausted their life savings to finance PrivateFly. 

They struggled at first to get charter companies on board and to attract clients. Around this time, Apple introduced the iPhone marketing slogan “There’s an app for that.” Twidell saw it and thought, why not design a smartphone app that would be a companion for his company’s service? The initial PrivateFly app was simple. It enabled users to locate the nearest airport and to view their charter reservations. “The philosophy was, ‘Well, this app is just a great marketing tool,’ ” says Twidell. 

Now PrivateFly receives more than 200,000 unique visitors to its website every month, and many of its clients first contact the company through the smartphone and tablet app, which has been upgraded so that travelers can book a jet through it. The app will also find the nearest airport and help in choosing an aircraft that can land on that airfield. On the way to the tarmac, a user can contact the pilot through the app and discuss the itinerary. 

PrivateFly is one of several companies with aircraft-chartering apps. These companies include JetSmarter, which charges a membership fee of $8,999 for access to its network of private planes and deeply discounted empty-leg flights. Victor and Ubair charge no fee and serve more as clearinghouses for the locations, flight schedules, availability, and prices of thousands of jets available for charter. All of these apps are designed to make chartering easier and more accessible. They also offer the ability to price any flight at any time, making pricing more transparent for jet owners and charter companies as well as passengers. This accessibility and transparency could change the charter business for everyone. 

Twidell says these apps have an “eBay effect” on charter flights. Because you can use them to select an individual jet and can see what several operators charge for similar jets on similar routes, they can drive down prices. “PrivateFly is used by operators as a pricing benchmark,” he says. “If they have a new type of aircraft, they contact us and see what kind of pricing is appropriate. It stops operators from inflating their prices.”

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