Stratajet says conventional flight quoting tools fall way short of requirements. Its new pricing engine promises a definitive rate in seconds, taking into account the 14 variables that can influence what the client pays
“Imagine that we’ve just invented the business jet,” muses Jonathan Nicol from his office in London’s Finsbury Square. “The hardware is sophisticated, sleek, loaded with technology, all manner of digital control and optimisation. But on the ground there’s no technology, no software to help operators sell trips on the aircraft. They’re still using the telephone and e-mail to get things done.”
Like many industry realists, Nicol – an RAF and Army pilot, now on his third tech company as founder and CEO of Stratajet – believes the current charter model is broken, or at the very least has not kept up with change elsewhere: it’s fragmented, it’s slow (who wants to wait up to two days to get a price?), prone to error and inconsistent.
There is little choice and no transparency, he argues – something that end users now demand, because most other industries provide it willingly. And worst of all, it’s inefficient – 40% of charter legs fly empty. What other industry throws away a third of what it produces?
You need only look around for the evidence of decline. Charter companies are struggling or ceasing operations, and investors are pulling support from service providers. Governments impose ever more taxes and levies. Some of the crisis relates to the recession, but it would be wrong to think that a business uptick will solve the industry’s problems.
The disconnect between stunning bizjet technology and a broken, outdated business model is what drove Nicol to develop Stratajet, an integrated package of advanced software that will create an efficient market by balancing supply and demand.
Charter operators will provide the supply by committing their aircraft to the Stratajet pool. Operators are still free to set all parameters for use of their aircraft, such as additional costs and availability limitations. Demand will come from an easy-to-use website. Instead of phoning intermediaries, the travel managers, PAs, or direct customers will be able to enter all information relevant to their journey, in order to filter, search and compare combinations of airfield and aircraft options, depending on what they value: speed, comfort or price.
Lots of brokers and charter companies have a flight quoting “tool” on their homepage, resembling those on airline or price-comparison websites. Where Stratajet differs is that behind its consumer-facing website is a sophisticated pricing engine that calculates the precise cost of a flight between any two airfields, in any aircraft, at any time of day, 365 days a year. The Stratajet software links 14 different variables such as landing fees, handling charges, noise and emissions levies, and of course fuel burn. A process that could currently take days is done in seconds. Now customers receive much more than a quote – they are able to book an aircraft at a fixed price.
By using an advanced routing algorithm, Stratajet will solve the problem of empty legs, which Nicol claims will give charter operators much more profit than before. Stratajet’s model provides flexibility lacking in other solutions, matching aircraft movements to customer requirements rather than the other way around. For example with an empty leg from Madrid to London, and a request for a flight from San Sebastian to Paris, Stratajet combines scheduling information with the routing and pricing engine to calculate operator costs and pass on empty-leg savings.
Many other companies purport to have solved the empty-leg problem, but often their approach and limited technical capabilities have actually exacerbated the situation. Instead of fostering efficiency and transparency, their offerings narrow choice and squeeze operators. Stratajet believes its solution will save the industry time and money.
Breaking the circle
“They said building a virtually instant pricing calculator couldn’t be done,” Nicol says. “People with massive finances, including Virgin Charter, tried but gave up.” Stratajet persevered, spending two years and committing significant resources, to develop the solution. “We have finally broken the vicious circle of ‘it’s hard to do, so we won’t do it’.”
It’s clear that the industry wants a solution. When Stratajet first floated the idea to industry experts, the reaction was almost universally positive.
Nicol has a track record of bringing innovation and efficiency to organisations that urgently need both. In 2008, he convinced the Ministry of Defence to hire his small company to build a digital personnel database to replace records that had been kept on paper since well before Wellington’s time.
“They told me that’s the way they had always done it,” he says. “I simply replied that the status quo was not the answer.” Not only did the new system save massive amounts of money, but it enabled the forces to identify patterns that were invisible in a paper-based system.
One of Stratajet’s unique features is that trips are planned from postcode to postcode, rather than airport to airport. How many times have charter passengers spent more time in the car, stuck in traffic to or from an airport, than in the air? The company’s advanced routing techniques find the shortest overall combination of car plus jet plus car, from true origin to true destination, using real-time ground travel time, rather than actual distance. Nicol has long considered the airport focus symptomatic of an operator, not customer-centred business.
For example, during the Olympics, a traveller wanting to go from Notting Hill, just west of central London, to St Moritz received a number of quotes from Biggin Hill to Samedan, whereas Stratajet routed the passengers from Fairoaks to avoid the likelihood of heavy traffic, put them in a smaller aircraft and saved more than 150 minutes in travel time. “Isn’t the whole idea of private aviation to save time? Nicol asks.
Stratajet understands that it’s not just about technology. Behind its software is an experienced operations team that will collaborate with partner operators to ensure total quality and the highest standards. Stratajet’s ops team will provide comprehensive support, from proactive weather monitoring (in the Samedan example above, when summer storms threatened the planned airfield, Stratajet suggested minor re-scheduling that saved the client three hours) right down to the small but vital details like the passengers’ desired vintage or dietary preferences.
Charter companies invited
As an integral part of its first phase, Stratajet is selecting charter companies to provide a supply of aircraft, seeking a broad mix of equipment size and capability. It’s entirely risk-free. Operators can commit some or all of their fleet, and of course retain operational control.
The information Stratajet needs is basic:
• aircraft performance, noise and emissions data;
• schedules for each aircraft; and
• desired revenue for the flights Stratajet books.
To eliminate duplication, the company will integrate with charter operators’ scheduling software, to obtain schedules automatically. Two are leading the way: the link to Leon Software has already been built, and others, including Airops, are underway.
In early 2013, after aircraft supply has been built, Stratajet will begin to promote its customer-facing website, where PAs, travel managers and end users can quickly and easily book a flight. First tackling the European market, Stratajet plans to extend its coverage worldwide over the course of the year.
The company has built a phased marketing plan to ramp up demand gradually, to prevent the “swamping” problem that would damage everyone.
“Our marketing campaign will be driven as though we’ve just invented the private jet,” Nicol explains. “If you had something as cool as that, you’d want it to be visible to the target market, and that’s precisely what we plan to do. And greater visibility will mean greater revenue for our operator partners.”