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How Private Aviation Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Booking App

The biggest challenge is offering instant pricing like commercial airlines do.

XOJet Mobile App Courtesy of XOJet

Given business aviation’s reputation for white-glove service (and attendant costs), one would expect a similarly pleasant and easy way to book flights—via an app, surely, or at least a website, especially considering commercial travelers have been using Expedia since the late ’90s. But the diffuse nature of private aviation, with hundreds of mom-and-pop charter operators (many still working by spreadsheet), has impeded the development of a consolidated, industry-wide solution.

“There are so many pricing permutations that you’re herding cats,” says Andrew Collins, president and CEO of Sentient Jet, a leading jet-card provider. “It’s an incredibly dynamic and complex market—in five minutes, prices can be different. We don’t have a centralized way to get to market pricing like the commercial airlines.”

Still, Sentient and several competitors are attempting to tackle the problem in the most comprehensive way possible, even during this period of record demand when scheduling is a daily nightmare. Over the past 12 months, Sentient clients have booked 25 percent of their flights via the company’s app, a number Collins expects to reach 30 percent this year.

Wheels Up has also seen its app use rise, currently accounting for 50 percent of bookings, up 15 percent from 2020. The company has invested tens of millions of dollars into the technology as well as a new team, headquartered in Seattle, with many of its members from industries outside business aviation, including commercial airlines, sites such as Airbnb and the broader tech sector.

“We want our app to be a discovery portal for our customers,” says Gene McKenna, chief product officer for Wheels Up, who previously worked at Groupon. “They should be able to manage every aspect of their current itinerary.”

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He says that, for many clients who book via app, the “pilot is the first person they’ll speak with,” though catering, aircraft changes and flight delays can still be handled over the phone.

XOJet Challenger 300 Over the Bay

XO’s Challenger 300.  Courtesy of XOJet

Considering the current market’s nonstop demand, the biggest challenge is offering instant pricing like the airlines do. Sentient, Wheels Up and XO—the last of which claims 90 percent of clients use its app—say they’re able to accomplish this in part due to their company-owned fleets but also thanks to their networks of preferred charter providers. For owners of smaller aircraft fleets, the scale of these companies makes them more attractive partners than a regional broker who might book a single flight every few weeks.

The goal of these apps is to have an easy, intuitive way to provide information and feedback—for both the client and the company. “There are many things we could layer into it,” says Sentient Jet’s Collins, “but we’re trying not to overwhelm the end user. We want them to have a feeling of control.”

McKenna agrees that usability is key. “The app’s magic is about hiding the complexity and sheer amount of information behind it,” he says, noting that Wheels Up uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to manage its fleet in real time and is constantly adding new charter operators to the system to provide more choices for its clients.

“This is a complex problem, and the more data points we gather, the more robust the algorithm becomes,” Vinay Roy, chief product officer for Vista Global Holding, parent of XO, says. “As the marketplace digitizes supply and demand in real time and in one place, it allows customers to view more flight options and easily compare guaranteed pricing.”

But despite these advancements by some of the biggest names in business aviation, the sheer number of options remains a massive hurdle to a unified booking solution. According to business-aviation market-research firm JetNet, there are more than 550 charter companies in the US (known as Part 135 operators), a full 500 of which have fewer than 10 aircraft; those with more than 50 planes number less than 10. Like all holy grails, a book-everywhere app may remain just out of reach.

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