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Business Air News Bulletin
Business Air News Bulletin
The monthly news publication for aviation professionals.
Luddites or realists? Business charter is yet to embrace new media
The average business aircraft owner or operator spends his working life in close proximity to technology at the cutting edge. Whether it is fly-by-wire, glass cockpits, flight planning and tracking or satellite communications, it can all be part of everyday flying.

The average business aircraft owner or operator spends his working life in close proximity to technology at the cutting edge. Whether it is fly-by-wire, glass cockpits, flight planning and tracking or satellite communications, it can all be part of everyday flying. So you might expect such technophiles to also be at the forefront of new media, building business by providing new and exciting ways for customers to be in touch. For the most part, you would be wrong.

In this survey we asked helicopter, turboprop and business jet charter companies across the EMEA region to tell us about their new media experiences. We found that most felt it was essential to have a professional-looking web site with pictures and facts about the fleet and capabilities, some thought it was useful to supplement this with Facebook or Twitter offerings to promote new developments, but very few have taken the next step to provide users with mobile apps.

Even the social media users were fairly evenly split between "it's not very useful" and "it is good for driving up traffic to the web site." Virtually nobody makes sales through it.

And so it is that the iTunes store and the Android marketplace remain uncluttered by air charter operators, with the early adopters few and far between.

Premium Jet is one of the industry's app pioneers, and makes use of Avinode's iPhone app that allows customers to search for regular business jet charter round trips and empty legs. Sales and marketing director Marcel Wepfer reports that it has found some popularity, with several hundred customers downloading it since it hit the iTunes store. He says: "We were Avinode's first customer. The development was easy for us, since Avinode was doing the programming; we just had to send in pictures and colour codes so that it fitted to our corporate identity."

In Premium Jet's case, the app is certainly helpful. "This is measurable since we get requests (and bookings) through it every now and then," says Wepfer. "However, sometimes it's impossible to find out how a new contact got to know us – maybe through the iPhone app, maybe by personal recommendation, through our web site or otherwise."

On the web site, users can find an online charter quoting tool and all available empty legs, both features developed by Avinode.

Avinode's apps were first developed two years ago when it was looking into new ways for member charter companies to reach their customers. Versions are available that allow the operator to provide quotes for all charters, empty legs only, and to offer just its own fleet or the whole Avinode system.

As publicly-distributed software, tail numbers are not quoted and on the broker version the operator name is not quoted, but the figures and availability are real. To date, ten operators are using the apps. Avinode reports that, in general, members are happy about the marketing effect it has, helping to spread awareness of their brand. "However, success is not automatic and it has to be seen as part of a broader strategy," says the company.

Some apps are simpler than others. Henley Air is a helicopter and flight training centre based at Rand airport in Johannesburg and its iPhone app HenleyCam features frequently updated panoramic views of the activities taking place on the helipads.

Webmaster Marc de Fontaine reveals that HenleyCam has proved successful and continues to draw in users. "During periods of downtime for the app we have had requests from as far afield as America, Australia and the UK asking when the webcam will be functional again," he says. "From a more local point of view, the app has provided an important safety feature for pilots flying into and out of Rand airport. They are able to see the weather conditions here and plan flights accordingly."

Although Henley Air has both a Facebook page and Twitter account, de Fontaine finds it difficult to say whether these social media tools have improved charter business, but he does believe they have increased the profile of the organisation in general. "Henley Air recognises the importance of being on these platforms and they link in well with the web site to provide good coverage to all our users."

He suggests that a good web site is essential to any business nowadays and even more important in the competitive world of helicopter charter and training in South Africa. "I think this is where Henley Air has done particularly well but for a different reason: our web site does not have all the fancy programming features of major graphics. We find these are time consuming when the web site loads and can be very irritating to users."

Rizon Jet's charter business is currently developing an app which it expects to be available early next year. In the meantime, the company's offerings in terms of charter availability are covered by third party broker apps. "We recognise the importance of an enhanced web and mobile presence to help brokers and direct clients find better charter deals," says ceo Captain Hassan Al-Mousawi.

Doha-headquartered Rizon Jet has Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles to raise awareness of the brand and gain a competitive edge. Al-Mousawi says: "If we can encourage our customers to share their experiences and talk about our brand, we will be one step ahead of our competitors who have yet to fully embrace the opportunities presented by social media. We don't necessarily see these platforms as sales generators, but we appreciate the advantages of having 'brand ambassadors' spreading the word about Rizon Jet."

Al-Mousawi does not believe that a fancy web site will attract customers: "What's important about a web site is the user experience. Innovative features are great if they enhance the experience, but there's no point being too innovative if the user doesn't want clever gimmicks."

Developing an app that meets the need to customise each flight to the client's requirement is the challenge facing Anastasios Economou at Athens-based ICSS SA.

Once the app has been launched, Economou believes that a considerable number of customers will make use of it. "However, as our service is very customer oriented and every flight takes a large amount of personal customisation, it is hard to set up something standardised that the customer will find useful."

Planned for launch in time for next summer's seasonal traffic, it will work on both iOS (Apple mobile operating system) and Android platforms. Features will include alerts about the flight; an update on helicopter location; weather updates; request for quotation; suggested destination; safety of flight information; and things to see at your destination.

"Our business has a Facebook and Twitter account. We think it will be helpful in the future to gain new charter business, as social media marketing is one of the latest methods of advertising on the internet," says Economou. "We try to use these tools not only to attract new customers but also to increase the traffic on our web site, and we try to make use of the biggest advantages of social media tools – the speed of communication and the ability to tailor marketing messages to the audience."

Economou believes that a web site is the face of a company: "A lot of people do online research before purchasing something and an attractive web site can draw more and more users to visit it. The more traffic our web site has, the better the chances are to generate higher profits."

Another company working towards making an app available is Arab Wings, based in Jordan. Head of sales and marketing Manal Obeid says that the company's Facebook and Twitter presence do not give a lot of return in new business, while its web site is updated regularly to give potential customers a good idea of what Arab Wings is about.

Qatar Airways' private jet division has launched a Russian language web site to promote its product in the buoyant Russian market where luxury travel is on the rise. Akbar Al Baker, ceo, says: "Russia and the CIS nations are one of our key markets due to the continuing booming economy in the region. The launch of a Russian language site improves Qatar Executive's ability to serve existing customers in the region and attract new clients."

Chel-Avia in Russia has a Facebook page that, while not utilised for its charter business, is helpful for its training and sightseeing side of the business. Irina Manatina believes that the ideal web site should offer a medium through which the customer can find answers to all their questions.

Cost is the barrier to the development of an app at Oya Vendee Helicopteres, according to Nicolas Boltoukhine. Alongside that, the company would like to connect its web site to its helicopters in-flight, ideally via iPad, although again cost is proving prohibitive. "We are still dreaming," says Boltoukhine, adding that Facebook and Twitter accounts have not boosted business at all.

One of the most obvious issues that a fully functioning app in charter business presents is the loss of direct contact with customers, the point at which a more suitable service or aircraft could be offered. Ghaith Semaan at NasJet (SA) reports that, while its commercial airlines makes full use of all forms of mobile and social media, the private aviation side is better suited to a more personal approach. "We are already one of the largest operators for private jets in the region with more than 30 operating aircraft. Facebook and Twitter help more when a business is new and growing. Personally, I am unsure how it would help when the organisation has been established for over 20 years and has a very large client base."

Emphatically stating his case against booking through an app rather than over the telephone is K5-Group's Erik Scheidt: "I am aware of a lot of fancy apps and features but we decided at K5 that we should concentrate on our business of flying passengers from A to B.

"None of our clients ever managed to get to B by swiping along on the iPhone! I leave it to others to develop apps that tell you what to do and how. Those apps are counterproductive concerning communication. I appreciate talking to people and perhaps finding out that there is another airport close by which suits them better. Or by talking about their last flight we can improve on the next trip."

Turkish Helicopter operator Sancak Air has a Facebook account which is used mostly for the latest company and aircraft news. General manager Yavuz Murat Yüzgen looks on an effective web site as an important tool: "The information you provide and the initial impression of the web page attracts customers. Having a good and up-to-date web page takes the company one step above its competitors."

Kenya's Phoenix Aviation has a news section and video on its web site, an element that Ingrid Strahammer believes gives added confidence to those making bookings. "I feel a good web site is the key to gaining confidence in potential clients," she says. "Most people will look at the web site of a company before making any enquiries, especially in aviation in Africa. Internet in Kenya is not quite what it is in Europe. We are slowly but surely getting there and the internet speeds are improving every day."

Phoenix has made a conscious decision not to involve itself in social media. "We decided to keep away from Facebook and Twitter, which might indeed gain us new business but we decided to not follow the 'migration'. It definitely has its pros and cons but I decided to steer the company away from this. I might look into an app for Phoenix though!"

Another believer in the power of a good web site is Carol Sobey, ceo of JNC Helicopters in South Africa. "It is a very strong business tool – it's the only way of getting your name out there internationally as well as locally. The would-be student and client gets a good understanding of what the business is like, size of fleet, and prices." Online tools include the weather and student videos.

Ari Tiittanen, managing director and pilot at Finnish operator Heliwork Oy, is also focusing on a strong internet presence. "A good web site is very important, this is the way you are found today. You have some idea (name of the owner, type of work wanted, name of the company, etc) and then you use Google. We are still working on our web pages."

Hangar8 does not have its own app, but commercial director Andy Baker has prior experience having set up an app around two years ago for his company Air1Charter. Simple screen shots of the site and a direct contact page where a press of the screen can call in or email an enquiry are available to users.

Baker is one of the few respondents who felt that a web site was not of great importance: "People don't read web sites any more, it's how you present your quote and listen to the needs of the client. Industry knowledge, ability and flexibility are key," he concludes.

"Our company Grossmann Jet Service is indeed friendly with social media," says marketing manager David A Couto. "However, we have decided that it is best to use it only to strengthen brand awareness, to increase transparency and to improve our reputation."

"There is something we need to be careful about in our industry, namely the privacy our clients require. Therefore we discounted the apps which could have a negative impact, such as those based on geo location or the ones to share pictures, even when there is a good chance we would benefit from an indirect endorsement since we travel often with celebrities. There are times when they chose to make their life non-public."

The use of Facebook to indicate a company's popularity can be misleading. Couto cites the instances where some are happy with getting 'likes' in high volumes which may be entirely irrelevant to the business. He adds: "Twitter is unfortunately not widely used in the CEE countries, although we do have it and use it from time to time."

Efficient customer care, a good service, and continuous affordability are more important than a good web site, according to MyJet marketing manager Laura Rossi. Facebook and LinkedIn accounts do not help the company gain much business, although Rossi admits that it is not very active in this area.

Will Banks, chief pilot at Cheshire Helicopters, believes that his company's Facebook and Twitter pages do not generate any bookings directly but do help to raise the main web site up the search engine rankings. "I wouldn't say we have any innovative features, but we have a very dynamic, professional site," he says.

"Web sites must be kept up-to-date to encourage people to revisit," says Christopher Mace, md of SaxonAir Charter, which has a Facebook page, with Twitter to follow shortly. "Facebook is a source of information, and we use it as a tool to update our clients about the company, new offers and services."

Mace reports that the company's own online charter quote system, a form that generates a personal call back, works well and receives many enquiries: "It is a chance to showcase the company; we at SaxonAir feel this is a very important aspect of our overall marketing and brand image awareness."

A six-month trial of the Avinode Broker link had its pros and cons, according to Mace: "While it was an excellent tool and gave an indicative price and filtered many of the requests, the filtering system also cut out any direct client liaison which we felt was more important."

For Executive Air in Harare, Zimbabwe, the most universal form of electronic communication, the humble email, remains king. "Being in the bookings office, we are constantly on our email and frequently get simple requests from clients as regards aircraft capacity and routes flown, for which we can refer clients to our web site," says Lara Langlois.

"In my opinion a good web site is very important for a company, especially in a world where so much research is now done over the internet. Our site is useful in that we can refer clients to it to look at our aircraft, find out about our fleet, pilots and maintenance support.

"We do have a Facebook page, but find most of our business is generated by email. Facebook is really only a place where existing customers view an updated status, or pictures of recent flights posted by our pilots," Langlois says.

Baltimore Helicopter Services does not have its own app, but does make use of Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube frequently. Jessie Bowling, director of sales and marketing, says: "I believe social media plays a large role in establishing brand credibility, especially for our regional helicopter charter services in the US and Israel; while many of our followers may not lead to a direct sale, I think it is important to make the service known and desirable to everyone in the area."

Bowling feels there are similarities here with the marketing strategies of luxury goods brands in that social media helps create value to clients by offering them a product that is desired by many but obtainable by only a few.

"More importantly, using social media has been a great way to improve our online visibility and search engine optimisation. When a client is looking for your service, it should be right at their fingertips. Social media offers the chance to have a multitude of web sites advertising your service while only spending a few man hours to update and keep pages interactive," adds Bowling. "This has certainly led to more people finding our service and, subsequently, more charter sales."

Web and social media form part of an integrated marketing strategy at Cello Aviation. The airline says it has total belief in its product but as a relatively new operator, having just celebrated two years in business, raising awareness is a key objective.

Cello's sales team reports that it is almost unheard of now for those they speak with not to have some awareness of the airline. Social media like Twitter is used to 'drive' traffic to the web site. As well as providing vital information about the airline, there is also a YouTube link featuring a variety of company footage and a regularly updated news section.

Cello recognises that the web is the first port of call for people looking for information about a business and believes that an attractive and informative web presence is essential.

Using a Facebook page to lead clients onto its web site is a strategy that works for ACM Air Charter. Director of sales and marketing Jonas Kraft says: "We designed a new web site in spring, where we show our customer an interactive 3D hangar in the style of our facilities at our Baden airport base, with useful anchor points to zoom to the different services offered, such as charter, fleet, handling, maintenance, training etc.

"We also have a fleet navigator to get a comparison of our different aircraft in terms of range, space, baggage space, age etc."

The company web site is the modern day equivalent of the business card, suggests Kraft. "The first impression is very important to get a feeling of the company. But it must also have useful information and images."

Agreeing with Kraft's belief that the web site has replaced the business card is Bjorn Mollet of ASL Private Jets. "A good web site is very important, it's a way people can start to know your company and we have just built our new one."

Vladimir Petak, ceo of ABS Jets, explains why the company does not have an app for its charter business: "The main reason is that charter business is not our core business, therefore we didn't set preference for it when we were creating our new web pages.

"We started our Facebook account several years ago to keep our customers updated about our news and achievements, but I don't think it generates new business for us."

ABS Jets launched its new web site just weeks ago. Petak feels it is very important to offer clients a credible source of company and corporate information. "It describes our services, introduces the team, shows the latest news, company achievements etc. It is very modern, elegant, offering plenty of information; at the same time it is user friendly and easy to check on iPads or smartphones. In the customer zone, our customers can get all necessary documentation."

Privatair has plans to develop its own app in 2013. Also in the pipeline, but currently under wraps, is an online project for charter: "It is too early to talk about it," says Tanya Molskaya. "We also have a new web site up to the latest standards of design that we are very pleased with."

Take your pick from the commercial apps

Those providing services to business aircraft operators have been rather more eager than the operators themselves to invest in new media communications.

A professional pilot who took an app he developed for his flight department and turned it into a commercially-available product believes the iPad is revolutionising the aviation industry. President of Cockpit Apps Robert Creek says: "Pilots on everything from a Gulfstream 550 all the way to a Cessna 152 are using the iPad. We have just scratched the surface with respect to using its full capabilities. It is having a positive impact on flight operations, in terms of efficiency and saving money."

We found a variety of companies with apps already well established in their marketing or product support strategies and these are just a few:

  • Cessna's Citation Performance Calculator maximises takeoff and landing data and offers a tool for determining engine-out performance. It is FAA-approved on the PC and in the process of FAA approval on the iPad. Cessna's Loading Calculator uses an aircraft-specific weight and balance file to determine takeoff and landing weight and centre of gravity after entering passengers, cargo and fuel load. Cessna is currently working on the Electronic Operating Manual, which uses a worldwide airport and navaid database to plan a route, calculating time, fuel and distance. 

  • ARINC Direct's iPad app provides a paperless cockpit experience. It gives access to the flight plan, with Bluetooth simultaneous annotation for pilots, GPS moving map with radar weather overlay, access to weather and NOTAM information, European and North American AIP charts and approach plates available.

  • Multi Service Aero's smartphone app of its FBO Locator allows pilots and flight planners to locate Aero Card accepting merchants around the globe. A variety of fields including IATA, ICAO, country and city can be searched. The map utility zooms into an area, showing all accepting merchants there.

  • Colt International has released a trip-planning app that provides customers with the same information digitally that they could get by calling in for updates.

  • TAG Farnborough airport's iPhone app gives pilots information about the airport, including METAR/TAF feeds and radio frequencies, services and facilities available locally. Users are able to submit handling requests and find lists of useful contacts. 

  • Duncan Aviation has improved its contact app. The AOG Service app enables stranded operators to find the nearest location and offers 24/7 phone numbers and tech representative contacts. Mobile-friendly versions are available of myDuncan aircraft project management web site and the parts search site.

  • Universal Avionics offers UniNet Mobile for Android, a mobile version of the UniNet web site. It allows operators to browse account information, view orders/invoices, download database subscriptions and access customer support information. Remote operators are able to update FMS navigation data remotely.

  • G-OPS has revamped its image and web site to better reflect the company's international reach. A new navigation system and home page layout allows operators and flight dispatchers to quickly send a handling request online.

  • Cockpit Apps iLOG provides flight crews with a simple alternative to traditional pen-and-paper flight logs. The app follows a crew through a typical day, tracking components like duty and flight time, VOR checks, and RVSM altimeter settings.

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