Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chicago site matches would-be passengers with private flights

A new Chicago-based website aims to match aircraft charter operators with passengers looking for private-jet flights, sometimes at steep discounts.

PlaneFinder.com of Chicago launched last month. While online brokers of charter flights are not new, PlaneFinder is different, said John Paul Beitler III, who cofounded the company with his brother Justin. For one, the site is free for passengers to search for or request flights and free for charter companies to submit bids and post available flights. Instead of charging fees to use the site, PlaneFinder takes a flat-fee commission on flight deals it helps consummate.

The site also allows passengers and flight operators to remain anonymous until a deal is struck. "We provide a place where everyone can come anonymously, and we act as a clearinghouse for the whole thing," Beitler said. "We're not trying to replace brokers, but we are another resource where you can go and shop your [broker's price]."

Charters, often for seven to 15 passengers, are expensive but offer such advantages as no airport security lines, no lost luggage, privacy, flexible times and rare delays or cancellations. A flight posted Tuesday showed a one-way trip on May 10 from Milwaukee to Boston available for up to eight passengers. It cost $5,500, or about $688 per person for a full plane.

The site targets wealthy passengers, corporate fliers and even families or large groups who would otherwise fly first-class on commercial flights, Beitler said.

Would-be fliers post their departure and destination airports, departure date, minimum number of seats they need and the price they are willing to pay. They don't have to supply any personal information to charter operators until a match is made. The site also lists available charter flights, often heavily discounted because many are deadhead flights, meaning they had a paying one-way customer but must return with the plane empty. The operator can make more money -- and offer a discount -- for filling those seats on the way back. In that way, it's similar to Priceline.com, which helps airlines and hotels sell unbought inventory of seats and rooms.

"That's what the model is built around -- how do we help operators fill those deadheads?" said Beitler, adding that the discount might be 20 to 30 percent.

So far, about 200 people people have signed up to request flights, Beitler said. It has been making two to three matches per week, he said.

One warning: While passengers can freely search posted charter flights, they can't request bids on customized flights willy-nilly. The site requests a credit card number and will charge $500 if you request a flight and do not follow-up with the charter operator. You don't have to strike a deal, but you must make contact, Beitler said.

Beitler and his brother, both pilots, cofounded the site to make use of a domain name, PlaneFinder.com, that Beitler purchased in the 1990s, he said. The original intent was to be a fare comparison site for commercial flights, such as Kayak.com, but Beitler concedes he didn't have the know-how. "I've just been sitting on it, and we (now) believe we found a niche in the market," he said.


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