Uber of the skies redefine charter flights
NEW DELHI: Startups such as Book-MyCharters, JetSetGo and JetSmart want to oust traditional private plane brokers with online marketplaces that they say are transparent, reliable and offer more choice.
Those who can afford private planes — the cheapest Mumbai-Delhi charter costs around Rs 7 lakh on a six-seater — have long relied on brokers to make bookings, an exercise that can take days and is restrictive in terms of choice.Brokers typically represent three-four private plane operators, most of whom don't own more than one or two aircraft. Negotiations among operators, brokers and customers on price and availability can drag on for days.
The three startups represent the first attempt to take booking online. BookMyCharters, which has signed up 16 charter operators, was launched in December by Rajeev Wadhwa of Mumbai-based Baron Aviation. Wadhwa said his website is the Uber of Indian skies and an app is in the works. But getting customers to shift isn't easy. "The response has been mixed," Wadhwa said.
Of the three, only BookMyCharters enables instant bookings. Customers of JetSetGo can view aircraft types and get price estimates of the flights it aggregates. JetSmart also aggregates planes, but bookings can only be made on flights returning empty.
Charter companies have taken to offering rock-bottom prices, even as low as Rs 5,000 per person to fill empty seats. The sites are similar to that of online travel aggregators such as MakeMyTrip and Yatra that allow users to compare prices and schedules before booking tickets. Users can also select aircraft types and add amenities.
One effect of the startups has been to make available a greater number of charter planes. Book-MyCharters lists 40 aircraft, meaning travellers can access 22,000 routes at 149 locations in India. A recent search for a Mumbai-Delhi flight on JetSetGo threw up 90 planes of all sizes with prices ranging from Rs 5.75 lakh to Rs 1.34 crore.
The startup fares are significantly cheaper than those quoted by brokers. Planes are not based in the city where the customers are located, which means they need to pay for the empty leg flights. Along with broker commissions, a customer could end up paying up to Rs 75,000 extra.
While anyone is free to use the sites, most of those using charter planes are Bollywood stars and wealthy industrialists. These travellers are accustomed to the personal touch of brokers, who can quickly offer about five options to a customer and pay on his behalf to book a jet, said Rohit Kapur, managing director, Arrow Aircraft Sales and Charters.
"Such customers are reluctant to book on a website due to a lack of familiarity and fear of uncertainty in the transaction," he said. Some also cite the flexibility of cash payments under the broker system. Booking through brokers isn't unique to India. Online charter sites have proliferated globally but brokers continue to thrive, said Alex Wilcox, chief executive officer of JetSuite, a private jet company in California.
One factor holding back the growth of online sites is the minuscule size of India's charter fleet, which shrank 2% to below 160 in 2015 owing to exorbitant taxes, excessive regulation and poor infrastructure. Things haven't changed much this year, said Jayant Nadkarni, president of the Business Aircraft Operators Association lobby group. "Several operators are still shutting down, some are barely surviving."
India's air Ubers will only grow if the charter industry grows, Nadkarni said. "It is a long haul."