- 16 Aug 2022
- Andre Fodor
- Flight Departments
What are the differences between your regular Flight Department’s service levels and that of a charter flight? Andre Fodor identifies some key elements to help manage passenger’s expectations about supplemental lift…Back to Articles
Part of the job of managing most Business Aviation Flight Departments is procuring supplemental lift when the owned airplane is incapable of covering all the scheduled trips. In my Flight Department’s case specifically, because our principals have a large network of business partners and friends who do not own aircraft, we are regularly required to help secure private transportation.
Until this year, securing a charter flight was uncomplicated. With plenty of supplemental lift available, I could usually get a quote and book an airplane on the same day. That is not the case today. Demand is very high and charter brokers are stretched, lacking the fleet and crew to cover every trip. Moreover, the cost to charter has increased.
You may be thinking that the increase is largely due to charter rates and the cost of fuel. Because of the tight demand, however, it is also true that one-way booking has become a thing of the past if you have a schedule to keep. In today’s market, you will find it’s necessary to book round trips.
Owing to tight calendars for charter providers, a weather delay or passengers arriving late at the FBO can knock a well-oiled schedule off for many days, with crew availability and duty times compounding the issue.
With such a high workload as the current demand imposes, pilots may be less willing to accept overtime requests, occasionally leaving an otherwise flyable aircraft uncrewed and unable to generate revenue. A broker friend of mine recently said of the charter business, “These are the best of times and the worst of times”.
One of the most difficult facets of charter is managing passenger expectations. A few weeks ago, after booking a flight for our company’s sales team, I received a call from the charter operator letting us know that their aircraft had become grounded. The operator didn’t have a backup and had to cancel the booking, less than one day before the flight.
I managed to secure another charter, but because of scheduling issues that replacement flight could only leave three hours after the requested departure time. Unfortunately, after much re-arrangement of meetings from the team, the replacement charter flight was also cancelled on the morning of the flight, due to a technical issue during engine start-up.
As frustrating as the experience was, nobody was at fault. Nevertheless, careful explanation to our passengers was needed since they were uninitiated in charter operations.
Ultimately, charter is an extremely useful tool for supplementing flight, but there will always be elements beyond your control – and passenger expectations must be managed. It is necessary to be realistic about the limitations that come with charter. Here are some key areas to focus on with that regard…
Schedules: First (and accentuated during the recent surge in charter demand) you do not have full control of the schedule as you would with the company’s owned airplane. Without clarity between both sides of the scheduling grid, you may not realize that your trip is booked for the end of a day, or the return trip is booked for the middle of the day. The charter company could already have trips planned before and after your booking and may be experiencing restrictive schedules. Your flight needs to fit with that schedule.
This also means that if the charter provider is running late, then you will be too. Likewise for delays with Air Traffic Control or weather disruptions occurring in an entirely different part of the country to where you are – if the charter operator has been impacted, you will also feel the effect.
Flexibility: Accommodating a last-minute schedule change or new destination is much more involved than simply re-filing a new flight plan, as would be the case on the company-owned jet. That’s because pilots on a Part 135 charter flight don’t have the authority to start, end or change a flight without being properly dispatched (except in the case of an emergency). They must relay all changes to their operational team for re-dispatch.
When operating an aircraft under Part 91, we can be flexible and retain direct operational control. Only recently, for example, our Flight Department received a call from our principal requesting to be picked up at a different location from where we were waiting. Within ten minutes we had filled a new flight plan and were en route to him.
Simply put, don’t allow your passengers to expect the same service from a charter flight. Ensure that their plans are fixed, and there is no need for them to change at the last minute.
Service: Not owning the airplane removes elements of differential service. For example, its interior will not be personalized to suit your passengers’ tastes but will incorporate furnishings and materials suited for high-use and low wear, rather than aesthetics and opulence.
And on a related point, many business aircraft owners like to know who is flying them, having developed a trusting relationship with their crews (who often go out of their way to provide exceptional service).
Although the same familiarity cannot be achieved with the crew of a charter flight, an experienced charter buyer will attempt to ensure some confidence and trust, seeking word-of-mouth references from other users, and asking about a charter provider’s track record for safety and service.
Ultimately, as Flight Department Managers, it is our job to source a high standard of supplemental lift and then iron out any differences between the Part 91 service offered by our own operations and the Part 135 service offered by the charter provider.
Do your homework. Be specific with your schedule request. Find a broker who is quick and responsive with your phone calls and enquiries. You will need that relationship to ensure the charter experience works well for you and your passengers, both now and in the future. Don’t be passive in ensuring the interests of the passengers are well represented.
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