The Virgin brand name has found success as a music label, high-end hotel chain, commercial airline and mobile phone provider among its many endeavors. Now add charter aircraft brokering to the list. Virgin Charter went public in March with an online service that makes booking a private plane easier and more convenient. Passengers no longer need to contact individual operators to compare prices and aircraft now they can just input the relevant information and the website does the work. With the Virgin name comes an expectation of quality of service and confidence in making a large financial transaction. “Their approach is highly organized and on a national level,” said Steve Lassetter, president of Sun Air Jets, a charter and aircraft management firm based at the Camarillo Airport. Sun Air is among a half-dozen operators from Burbank to the Conejo Valley whose planes are available through Virgin Charter. Sun Air also works with other brokers to book charter flights from small operations run by a single person to large companies pairing would-be flyers with non-commercial aircraft. The difference with Virgin is that it enters the marketplace having made its name in other ventures. “Virgin is the only real recognized name outside the charter business that is doing this,” Lassetter said. Like Sun Air, Chrysler Aviation based at Van Nuys Airport was contacted by Virgin to participate in the service. The connection with Virgin means it is a well-funded operation and the key personnel know what they are doing, said Dimitri Rapis, director of business development for Chrysler. “We are optimistic and looking forward to future growth,” Rapis said. Virgin Charter founder and CEO Scott Duffy came from an entrepreneurial background of technology start-ups before switching to private aviation as an aircraft sales broker. His executive team includes Eric Hofer, who as head of sales took Travelocity Business from $10 million in revenues to $1 billion. Duffy’s staff work in a business park adjacent to the Santa Monica Airport although Duffy said new employees will require space elsewhere. Virgin Charter is owned by Virgin USA, the North American headquarters of the Virgin Group. Like other Virgin-branded enterprises throughout the world, a red British-style telephone booth stands in the lobby at the charter business. A timeline of the company’s history on the wall behind the receptionist notes that in 2007, Virgin Charter revolutionized the charter aircraft business. “It feels like we are part of a 30-year-old start-up,” Duffy said. “We’re doing all we can to provide the best experience for the customers.” A soft launch of the service began last September with a limited number of operators serving a limited customer base of frequent users of business jets. Access to the site for the general public began March 11. Demand for this way of booking private flights was underestimated, Duffy admitted, with Virgin experiencing more than twice the expected 100 to 200 inquiries a week. A high volume of the business came from veteran business jet passengers, travel agencies and consortiums of agencies seeking an easier way to book for high-end leisure customers. Passengers booking flights do not pay to use the system. The operators pay a commission to Virgin Charter for the trips booked online. What makes the service live up to the claim on the Virgin timeline of revolutionizing air charter is the streamlined process of comparing prices and planes from multiple operators; and the level of transparency about the charter firms and the safety ratings of their aircraft. Virgin Charter collects comments from passengers to use in a rating system of the operators to be made available in the summer, Duffy said. The 100 charter firms in its marketplace benefit by having access to new customers and being relieved of the burden of paperwork as Virgin takes on the payments and assumes the credit risk of the passengers, Duffy said. The service also provides a simple way for pilots to complete necessary paperwork so there is a quick turnaround on payment. “Payments are made in days rather than weeks,” Duffy said.
Virgin Charter’s New Online Service Lets High Flyers Book Private Jets With Ease