Private jet passengers are a rare breed–affluent and busy. Prowling for discount fares on the Internet isn’t how they’d usually be pictured spending their time. But JetSmarter CEO Sergey Petrossov is out to change that.
Launched in 2013, before a $20 million second round of funding found it backers in rapper mogul Jay Z and the Saudi Royal family, the app-based jet charter service is drastically undercutting the pricing system of traditional charter companies and making private aviation more affordable. Flights from Dubai to Riyadh, for instance, can sometimes cost upwards of $30,000, according to a number of charter agencies Aviation Business spoke to. Petrossov’s most popular tier of service in the Middle East charges approximately $10,000 annually, a one-time registration fee of $5,000, and offers unlimited flights at a fraction of the cost or free.
“We appeal to the mass affluent,” says the Russian-born Florida bred self-confessed serial entrepreneur. By that he means anyone with liquid assets over $100,000–a definition which includes anyone between the ages of 20 and 50, be they celebrities, entrepreneurs, business moguls or politicians. One of the app’s customers is still in college, claims Petrossov.
JetSmarter’s key to success hinges on the ‘empty legs’ which plague the industry–flights that return home empty. Over 35 percent of all private jet flights are booked to fly one-way, according to the company. What JetSmarter does is buy space on those return flights in bulk and sells them to customers at a fraction of the cost of renting out a private jet. But it doesn’t stop there–via a package called JetShuttle it allows members to pool together into jets, almost like a taxi service and offers trips to members for free. In an industry that has made pomp its bread and butter, JetSmarter is thriving by being lean–and it is forcing the competition to take notice. “We offer instant pricing for private jets around the world without having to deal with a broker or a middle-man,” says the company’s head of global expansion, Paul Grusevich. Traditionally what would happen is that a user would call a broker, and then the broker would go around looking for a private jet operator before getting back to you. “What we do is offer instant pricing and instant availability and eliminate that middle man. So we connect the consumer to the operators directly via the app.”
Popular press, including the Daily Mail and Buzzfeed have jumped to tag the company the Uber of aviation, although Grusevich shies away from the description. “We’ve been dubbed Uber of the skies,” he says, “but that isn’t necessarily an accurate comparison. We’re not exactly a taxi service, we’re just doing allowing users to get instant pricing through an app.” Even so, the company is dramatically chopping away at the industry’s affinity for the traditional. “The brick and mortar process of picking up the phone, spending hours speaking to numerous people, only to charter an outdated jet is inconvenient,” says Petrossov. “I began flying private in 2009, after selling my first company. And I soon came to realise how archaic the industry was firsthand. So after a while I began speaking with carriers I had chartered planes with to find out how much of an impact an app would have on the industry and we launched a beta version of the app in 2012.”
Since then the company hasn’t looked back and demand is shooting through the roof. In the last 12 months alone, the company has flown 20,000 passengers around the world. The app has been downloaded over 600,000 times worldwide and flies over 50 scheduled flights in the US, 20 scheduled flights in Europe and up to 20 scheduled flights in the Middle East. In the last year as well, the company has opened offices in Zurich and Dubai, as well as a satellite office in Riyadh. “We’re also about to launch a lower tier service soon,” says Grusevich. The Middle East is one of the company’s biggest global markets. “Most of the private travel in the region is out of Dubai and Riyadh, where we have our JetShuttles,” he says.
But growth might also be coming too fast for the young company. Petrossov didn’t hide that the surge in demand might be leading to strains in a number of business operations. “Our demographic is very diverse, and continues to grow with diversity every day as we unveil new services and add more inventory,” says Petrossov. For JetSmarter that has meant everyone from entrepreneurs, to every-day families, and more, have signed on to the service, meaning a change in the level and quality of service required each time. As new members keep piling on and requesting more flights, delivering on an inventory of flights at the expected quality of service will also be a key determinant to demand. Complaints about the quality of service, according to Grusevich, are taken seriously, he says, “although we’ve found the ones that fly the fewest complain the most,” he says. Still, the company chooses to not work with operators who receive less than favorable reviews from customers.
Keeping that focus will be the most important challenge the company faces as it grows. “When it comes to flying private, our members do not have to wait in long, tedious airport security lines, and they don’t have to wait in baggage claim either. They simply arrive for their flight and take off easily,” says Petrossov.
That promise isn’t unique to JetSmarter–it’s unique to the entire business of private aviation. According to Vincent Easton at Private Jet Charters, one of the largest in the business in the world, what new entrants to the business often seem to loose their footing on is when they compensate on the quality and luxury of service. Taking care of the itinerary in case of delays, or traffic, ensuring the best quality of service inflight, and having it personalised, are all benefits of a dedicated team of well-trained staff, says Easton. However, the 28 year old Petrossov, who founded his first company as a freshman in college, insists that the delivery of a quality service product is what he spends most of his time on. “The primary focus of my job is to with suppliers and product teams to deliver an absolutely amazing experience for our members. This is what I am obsessed with,” he says.