What new-age cab aggregators like Uber and Ola and self-drive car rentals like Zoomcar are providing is not just a great product to fulfil a need; they are also selling a 'dream' to the average aspirational consumer. And with a booking interface so seamless, they are further demystifying that dream and making it seem even more accessible. Hail technology and the startup wave, for the same accessibility and ease have now been extended to perhaps the epitome of the unattainable – private jets and charter flights.
Here is the story of BookMyCharters, an aggregator platform for charter air travel, which facilitates end-to-end discovery, comparison, complete with booking.
51-year-old Rajeev Wadhwa is a first-generation serial entrepreneur, and Chairman and CEO of Baron Aviation, a 100 percent subsidiary of Baron Luxury and Lifestyles Pvt. Ltd.
He has led and mentored several successful businesses in aviation, Information Technology and telecom sectors. Prior to setting up his own venture in aviation, Rajeev was Managing Director of European Aviation's SecureLimited. He went from being an employee to an employer in March 2011, with Baron Aviation, which offers comprehensive charter solutions to Indian ‘charter class’ customers. With the largest inventory of private jets in the country, the company has set new standards of serving the elite, with customised offering to meet their private charter needs.
The general aviation market in India was highly fragmented to major metros. The accessibility of the right aircraft was always a question. While major wealth management reports like Kotak suggested that 44percent of India’s UHNI’s were from non-metro cities and towns, the potential and the need of these markets to use aircharters for comfort and convenience was highly unrecognised. These realisations coincided with the younger Wadhwa's ponderings, as he was graduating in business studies from the Narsee Monjee Institute Of Management Studies, in 2013.
"When it comes to booking commercial flights, there are dozens and dozens of websites that let one do so. But I always wondered why a chartered flight cannot be booked with such ease. Before BookMyCharters, it took anywhere between four and 48 hours to make a charter flight booking. Customers have to call multiple operators to receive a competitive quote for their specific itineraries. After the limited choice they got, the price quoted and aircraft offered was under complete discretion of the broker. The customer had no avenue to discover and compare. There is a criminal wastage of time in this entire back and forth," Rajeev’s son, the 24-year-old Sachit Wadhwa says.
While he was not hot on the idea of joining his family business right away, and instead wanted to start something of his own, this seemed like a fair middle-ground.
"I remember the day when Sachit asked the board of Baron, ‘Why can’t we book a charter flight the way we buy regular air tickets?’ There was actually a technical reason for it - general aviation lacked a Global Distribution System, or a large, no-inventory aggregator platform for travel bookings with a common feed of all commercial aircraft," explains Rajeev.
While others would have seen it as a daunting abyss, this father-son duo saw it as having their job cut out for them. It took them three years to build a proprietary technology (patent-pending) that works as the GDS for general aviation—‘BookMyCharters’, a platform that enables instant access to more than 40 aircraft across 22,000 routes within India.
“BookMyCharters is a one-of-its-kind platform wherein you can instantly book a private jet, just like hailing a cab using an app or booking a regular air ticket,” explains Rajeev. They have contracted and aggregated 40 aircraft from 16 operators, making them one of the largest aircraft aggregators in Asia.
While online platforms are the latest trend in charter business, BookMyCharters claims to have a distinct advantage of building a “superior booking engine” powered by its own proprietary technology, which validates aircraft availability, operational feasibility and offers instant quotes with an itemised breakup, enabling the customer to make an informed decision and actually book a charter online.
With BookMyCharters, one can book a private jet in less than 60 seconds, claims Sachit. The company's patented technology automates several manual processes to give real-time, accurate pricing and availability.
“We are the only platform that generates instant prices for charter bookings across 22,000 routes within India,” he says.
Their site facilitates travelling to 149 airports across India – including Tier II and III hubs - as compared to the 33 airports that are serviced by commercial airlines. “Moreover, we heavily discount (60-80 percent) fixed route empty-leg flights, which makes for a great proposition for budget-conscious aspiring flyers,” says Sachit. They also try to standardise their services in spite of having various fleet owners and have a host of subsidiary offerings, like airport hospitality, in-flight amenities and onward transport after reaching the destination.
On the challenges the young company faced, the industry’s resistance tops the list. “It’s not a new industry, its led by aviation veterans. Trying to convince them was no mean task. But our experience with Baron really helped, and we already handled key accounts that we knew we had to bring on board here,” Sachit explains.
As far as tapping into the uncharted Tier II market was concerned, they reached out to 30 key influencers in those geographies to tap into their circuits. “We also fostered many strategic brand alliances – with leading hotel chains, banks etc, aligned with them very effectively to tap into their ultra HNI clientele,” says Sachit.
On the customer side, there were also a lot of aspirational flyers who looked up to this segment and always wanted to experience a private jet – but affordability was a concern. “For them, we rolled out the ferry flights. We offered more than a hundred ferry flights from the system with prices as low as Rs. 30,000 for six people,” he says.
At present, BookMyCharters is clocking on an average 30 flights a month, besides having generated over 10 lakh quotes since they started out. They also receive 50,000 unique visitors monthly. While there is high supply latency, the current charter market in India stands at Rs 1,800 crore and is expected to grow to Rs 5,000 crore by 2020. Globally, the market stands at $20 billion. Online charter booking is still a phenomenon and is at a nascent stage.
BookMyCharters is a globally scalable platform and is geared to address the $ 20-billion global opportunity. Locally, there are other online charter platforms, like JetSetGo, backed by Yuvraj Singh’s fund YouWeCan Ventures. They, however, do not offer instant booking and operate only as lead generation platforms.
As of now, the company is funded by its parent company, Baron Aviation. They are, however, looking for pre-Series A with in order to enter new geographies.
“Our strategic group is working on this international roll-out, by negotiating affiliations with operators across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Our goal is to enable customers to charter anywhere in the world,” says Sachit.