Friday, October 10, 2014

Fill empty seats, fly in style using Portland native’s service • His new online venture connects the public with openings on charter flights, allowing luxury travel at a fraction of the cost

Trying to plan a corporate getaway for nine of your top managers, or pull off a memorable family get-together?

A new service offered through Maine Aviation Corp. and pioneered by a Portland native makes unused seats on private jets available to the public at steeply discounted prices.

College buddies Johnny Sengelmann, 24, who grew up in Portland, and Timmy Wozniak, 28, of Denver have created Fresh Jets, a company modeled after Airbnb. While that successful website finds lodging for people who want to rent a private room or house, matches fliers with empty private jets.

The savings are significant. For instance, a 16-passenger jet flying to New York City from Portland, normally costing $9,466, can be booked for $1,499. A nine-seater headed to Burlington, Vermont, can be had for $999, about a quarter of its normal fare.

The service is geared toward businesses or families that want to rent an entire aircraft at a discounted price, yet still experience luxurious travel. Private jets have many advantages over commercial airliners: Seats are roomier and more comfortable; there are no security lines and no need for early airport arrivals – passengers are ushered to their seats by the pilot; and private jets can fly into smaller airports, getting passengers much closer to final destinations.

Sengelmann explained that Fresh Jets is trying to derive revenue from what is essentially wasted flying time. Often, private jets hired for charter fly empty to the airport where the charter passengers board. Those one-way trips account for about one-third of all charter flights, according to Sengelmann, and represent lost revenue for the company.

“We saw this hole and just tried to figure how and why it was there,” he said.

Typically, charter companies try to fill those seats by making deals with brokers, who re-sell flights to consumers for a commission. Fresh Jets, which is based in Denver, has created a virtual marketplace that connects those flights directly with potential customers.

It has signed on charter companies with flights to most major cities in the United States, as well as international flights to China, Brazil, Mexico and Paris. Fresh Jets makes money by charging the charter companies a 15 percent booking fee.

Sengelmann, who graduated from Portland High School in 2008, says people who sign up for the service will be able to buy seats on a private jet for the cost of traveling business class and, in some cases, economy class on a commercial airliner. Maine Aviation, a Portland-based company that operates charter flights and offers aviation maintenance and other services, has recently begun working with Fresh Jets.

On Wednesday, a scan of the Fresh Jets website for charter flights from Maine Aviation showed nine flights available to or from Portland.

The nine-seat jet flying to Burlington, Vermont, and available for $999 normally would cost $4,120. Another nine-seat jet was flying from Portland to New York City for the same price. Each member of a party of nine would have paid $111, less than a coach seat on a commercial airliner.

Maine Aviation, which is based at airports in the Northeast and Florida, currently has 11 aircraft for charter, ranging from a 16-seat luxury jet to light jets and turboprops.

Robert Lombard, director of charter sales for Maine Aviation, is unsure how well will work, but said the company’s platform appears to give consumers a more “transparent” selection of pricing and options.

“It removes the broker from the process and gives more direct exposure to the passengers,” he said.

Sengelmann studied business at the University of Denver, where he met Wozniak. After college, they both worked at small airports in “guest services,” which means greeting private jet passengers and arranging services for them, such as hauling their luggage and getting rental cars.

That’s where they discovered that many private jets routinely fly empty and that the industry hadn’t figured out a good way to fill those seats.

Fresh Jets, which was launched in February, has six employees, including the two founders. About 1,500 people have signed up for the service, which is offering flights from 17 charter companies with a combined fleet of 313 jets and turboprops. That’s less than 1 percent of the 19,000 business jets available for hire in North America. Most of the flights it offers are in the Southwest.

However, Wozniak said the potential for growth is enormous because there is a $12 billion excess inventory in the charter flight industry.

“We see this thing being huge,” he said.

Wozniak said the company is focusing on how to expand the business and prepare for the first round of investment financing, which is scheduled to take place in nine months.

Discounts at a glance

Here’s a look at some flights available Thursday at, with the regular and discounted prices:

Oct. 10: Morristown, New Jersey, to Portland, nine-seat jet: $4,485 / $999

Oct. 10: Portland to New York City, 16-seat jet: $9,466 / $1,499

Oct. 11: Burlington, Vermont, to Portland, nine-seat jet: $4,120 / $999

Oct. 13: White Plains, New York, to Portland, 14-seat jet: $8,350 / $1,499

Oct. 14: New York City to Portland, 16-seat jet: $9,466 / $1,499

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