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PERSPECTIVES – Business aviation through the eyes of the charter broker: Online and on call: it's a typical day in the life of the charter broker
Successful air charter brokers today need to be able to provide a rapid on-demand response – both online and in person. Clients, who often want instant answers, also have access to a great deal of information on the internet and, if minded, can do a great deal of research themselves.

Successful air charter brokers today need to be able to provide a rapid on-demand response – both online and in person. Clients, who often want instant answers, also have access to a great deal of information on the internet and, if minded, can do a great deal of research themselves.

However, Alison Wressell of Private Jet Charter is among the vast majority of brokers who are confident that online booking systems will not mean the end of the charter broker but the continued advance of a new era: "I don't think so, there are too many variables for them to be booked online and also it's not a fixed price market, so negotiation and relationships will always play a key part."

Charter operators offer an extremely wide range of quality which can be difficult to monitor, according to Pál László of Air Connect Hungary. "The style and standard of approach to the business depends more on people in charge than on prescribed standards so it can change time by time even within the same company."

Emre Islek, md of Istanbul's AFDair, says online booking systems are already competing for market share especially for brokers who rely mainly or exclusively on just locating suitable aircraft. But complicated projects need special expertise. "Air charter brokers who have the ability to deal with complex projects will remain. Others will disappear in the same way that many others have disappeared in recent years."

Air Charter Dubai charter sales manager Claire Brugirard says she strongly believes that there will always be people who want the personal touch and the convenience and reassurance of speaking to an expert on the telephone. "The customer service of a good broker cannot be provided via an online booking service," she points out.

Olga Sevcuka, senior broker for the Russian broking department at Private Jet Charter says: "As far as online booking systems are concerned, our Russian clients do not like this and would not use it. They want to book private aircraft with confidence and they appreciate that speaking to an experienced and professional broker whom they can trust will ensure that they have the right aircraft for their trip."

Adam Twidell, md PrivateFly, which sets great store in its online services, confirms: "The traditional charter broker role is now evolving much as the role of the traditional high street travel agent role has changed over the past 10 years. Searching for the perfect luxury holiday is as complicated and as fragmented as searching for the most suitable private jet. Just as global distribution systems and other online databases have revolutionised the search power of a travel management company, the private jet broker now can use services such as Avinode to dramatically speed up the response times to their clients."

Online systems are becoming ever-more sophisticated but the private jet customer does have different, and sometimes hard to categorise, expectations that may depend on region and cultural differences. "Russian clients will often request new aircraft (less than five years old), negotiate hard on price, vip lounges are always requested and catering requests are normally more complicated."

For the American client, especially those travelling to parts of the Middle East and Europe, safety is much more part of their make-up and they are very informed about it. Wyvern and Argus ratings are household names in the US for private jet customers.

Highs and lows are part and parcel of the broker's life. With 24-7 service required, working long shifts and being on-call are all part of the job description. Twidell says: "The highs come when deals are made and passengers are happy. Slots, technical delays and airport closures are a few of the lows."

Two operators at the same airport can offer completely different interpretations of good customer service but experienced brokers get to know who to trust. Twidell says: "Take for example a possible technical failure on an aircraft. A professional operator will inform the broker immediately so, if bad news is required later, it comes as no surprise and alternative arrange-ments can already be initiated. An unprofessional operator may have the attitude that 'maybe it will be alright' and 'there is no need to bother the customer yet' – which can obviously cause major problems later on."

Holger Rathje of FlightTime GmbH says the so-called 'online booking systems' are useful but will not mean the end of the broker, as they do not include all operators and cannot be a substitute for experience and market knowledge of the broker and the personal contacts with the operators.

However, Jens Dreyer of Aviation Broker says the development and proliferation of online booking system will definitely make it even harder to win and keep customers. "I would guess that a lot of broker companies could disappear from the scene but the advent of online systems will not spell the end of all charter brokers. Online shopping has proved a serious threat for all shops – especially those offering standardised products. If a customer knows exactly the size and brand of a pair of jeans he wants to purchase, he gets it way cheaper through online shopping. The message is that some clients with enough experience in flying private might be able to do without a broker. Many others will not have that expertise or wish to spend their time shopping around and organising their trip."

Ascent Jet is combining online booking with personal service. Carl de Verteuil, md, says: "Online booking – at least online booking the complementary way we are continuing to build our system – will by no means spell the end of charter brokerage as we know it today. Our system will provide pricing indications and estimated flight times on entering an itinerary. Testing has shown that we are consistently very realistic in our pricing and flight time estimates. The client can then solicit offers which can, as a first step, be submitted by Ascent Jet.

"As a second step, qualified operators will be sent requests directly from our site and they will be able to respond directly to the users' login areas of our application. This adds a large degree of automation to the entire process but changes nothing with respect to customer care or the due diligence necessary to qualify an operator transit to their offers through our system."

Wael Al Marjeh of JetEx Flight Support says there is absolutely no chance of online systems replacing brokers. He adds: "Brokers still get good deals, they extend favourable credit terms that operators may not be so generous to offer and a lot of the time the 'human touch' makes a great deal of difference."

Will online booking systems mean the end of the charter broker? "Not at all," says Catarina Martins, md of Blue Heaven Portugal. "The client still trusts more in a person than in a software process. The online booking systems are good to give a price estimation but usually we offer a better price and a better service."

The answer from Dino Rasero of Italy's Top Jet is: "I doubt it. It is still a job based on public relationships and customised client services."

And it won't mean the end in the near future, according to Richard Seeberg of Skybrokers. "There are many elements involved that an experienced airbroker has the advantage of knowing through his experience which can financially disadvantage a client who does not know much about the business and does not have expert advice."

Thierry S Huguenin of TSH aero points out that the internet and the multitude of various applications linked to it bring an easy access of information to pretty much anyone. But: "I am convinced that reputable and experienced charter brokers will always have a tremendous role to play for their clients in carefully arranging trips. Most charterers are looking for personalised services that only a dedicated broker is capable of offering. Most of the time, clients are shopping around for the best possible price for a particular trip. Our goal as a charter broker is not only to make sure that the price is right, but also that the service being offered meets and even exceeds our client's expectations and that the operator, the aircraft and the crew are diligently selected for a safe and comfortable journey."

Air Connect Hungary's Pál László also says: "Definitely not. This is a fast changing industry. Not only newcomers, but also experienced clients need continuous updates and explanations of new or existing possibilities. Contrary to scheduled airline flights, where passengers often look for purely or mostly the best price among similar variations of services, in private air chartering the price is just one factor in a wide range of service portfolio. We expect an uplift of online booking systems in the short term, but after experiencing its disadvantages, we believe many of the important customers will return back to their trusted brokers."

The charter operators that buy rotary and fixed-wing aircraft often greatly rely on attracting business from brokers. The aircraft must appeal to the broker – or at least make them confident their clients will like to travel on them.

Mark Green, director of Oxygen Aviation Ltd, says there is no chance that online booking systems mean the end of the charter broker. "Private jet bookings are a personal thing – so many jobs change, with so many variables and so many potential issues. Even in this day of modern technology and web-based companies, I would suggest 95 per cent of our clients need and want to pick up the phone to an account manager.

"That said, I recall I booked a flight purely via SMS with a client, from enquiry and quote to confirmation – happily payment arrived by BACS not via SMS though. This was, however, an established and experienced client! Ordinarily, chartering a jet is an investment. Could you imagine any business person with an ounce of acumen investing a substantial sum of money without actually talking to someone?"

Patrick Raftery of Imperial Jet says: "Brokers are an essential and fundamental part of how private aviation functions. As with any business, those that are professional and really look after their customers will evolve and grow. Those that don't will struggle. As for online bookings, technology like this will undoubtedly be a feature of the broker world and may lessen the direct interaction with customers. Having said that, the very best personal service will always be attractive to and valued by private jet customers. Those who can marry the opportunities presented by technology with outstanding service will prosper. "

Chapman Freeborn's Alex Berry says there are critical differentials such as his company's in-house auditing department. "This works with all our suppliers to make sure that they maintain, and exceed in some cases, the safety requirements necessary to safely carry out the wishes of our customers."

Julian Burrell, md of The Charter Company, says the life of a charter broker has changed markedly over the years and the advent of online services has made a big contribution to the altered environment. "Where years ago it may have been possible to book a charter for a client and rely on the operator to do the rest, there is now increased competition in the market, not only from new broker-ages but also web-based booking vehicles. Professional brokers are therefore differentiating themselves from others by offering a far higher quality of service. Clients are supported from the first call until they land, 24-7 flight watching and support, on request seeing customers off at the airport, or even providing an onboard flight rider to ensure that the charter goes smoothly."

He adds: "The Charter Company has found that its customers still like to talk to someone in person or on the telephone in order to discuss their requirement and aircraft options most suitable in the market. Often the enquiries will involve multiple sectors and during the flight programme there may be changes in departure time and also destination. Customers like the benefit of a 24-7 service so they can speak to their broker at any time and receive an instant response."

Gokcehan Dace, md of Apron Aviation, says clients always want to speak to a human being who is knowledgeable about the subject. "Filling in a booking form on a web site that is filled with beautiful visuals and getting the message 'we will get back to you as soon as possible' does not make them happy."

Both operators and brokers appreciate that it is who you know, what you know and how you apply your knowledge and contacts rather than impersonal online systems that bring in the business.

Rachel Kelly of Heli Riviera explains that the company's business is about more than offering simple vip transfers from the airport to the villa or yacht. She says: "It is also about providing something a little bit different to allow them to experience the region, whether that be heli-dining at exquisite restaurants, heli-adventure such as heli-golf, heli-ski (snow and water ski), heli-polo or a more relaxing option such as heli-spa or heli-picnic and wine tasting experience. The options are endless and we are always working hard to come up with new experiences to keep our clients happy." Such services are hard to replicate online.

The consensus is that online technology will supplement and complement personal service but never replace the charter broker entirely. With all high-end and luxury travel verticals there will always be a requirement for professionally excellent and bespoke service. That said, online innovation is giving more search and booking capability to the customer, the broker must evolve to carve out their niche – be that superlative concierge-style service, exclusive deals or industry insight.

Brokers and intermediaries in other travel sectors and other industries have already gone on this journey and, while some have thrived, others have failed to respond to the challenge.

The charter broker needs to be online and on-call to survive and prosper.

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