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Like Uber for private jets, Victor makes the old way to book look like coach

Clive Jackson didn’t set out to change the private jet industry as an aviation executive. Three-and-a-half years ago, he was just a passenger searching for an alternative way to reach his second home in Spain, after the airline he flies decided to cancel the route from London. Speaking to fellow passengers, the idea of chartering a private jet came to mind. But it was in researching for flights that he saw how broken this sector is: a system that requires dealing with multiple middleman brokers to request quotes, and never knowing exactly what the real price is. So with a handful of initial members and friends-and-family investments, Jackson launched Victor, an on-demand service and app for booking private jets almost as easily as hailing an Uber cab.

“I started the business out of pure frustration as a consumer, thinking there’s a lot of awful wrong with charting private jets,” Jackson says. “If I could fix it, what would it look like? So I got together about a group of 20 jet charterers, and we basically rewrote the rulebook.”

“I am not sure whether in the U.S. the industry has really woken up to the fact that technology is going to disrupt the old-world model.”

Rewriting that book meant using technology and harnessing big data: working with flight operators and tapping into their flight management systems; aggregating the world’s supply of private jets at every airport; presenting all that data in a manner that is easily understood. And while Jackson has never run an airline in his career (Victor is his 14th startup), he knows the underlying technology that’s required to run a data-driven business.

Victor launched its U.S. operations on March 26, and wants to transform what Jackson refers to as an “old world” business. We chatted with him to talk about what Victor is, and how it’s leveraging technology and data (the name stems from “victorious,” which is how Jackson sees his business in this industry), and why the traditional system is broken.

Most of us don’t book private jets, so tell us what’s wrong with it?

It’s predominantly a telephony-based old world economy where email plays a part, but there’s no transparency and no regulation. Although the U.S. department of transport is pushing for regulation, it hasn’t yet come through.

Traditionally, it’s a very labor-intensive process: (flight) operator to broker, broker to personal assistant (PA), PA to boss. Using the phone and email to talk to multiple brokers is grossly inefficient, and typically brokers don’t tell you who their sources are. Customers know they’re sort of getting ripped off along the way, so they’re going through three brokers.

So you have three brokers going to three operators, that’s nine quote requests from one guy. It’ll be 13 phone calls before the PA even gets the quote.

With Victor, how are you changing this business model?

Our aim is to make charting private jets faster and easier than ever before –- tech driven -– by aggregating all the supply around the world, under one consumer brand. Unlike the brokers and some of the new online players in the space, we’re the first and still the only company to provide that service with complete transparency.

And that’s what I think is a real game-changer in terms of what it means to the consumer, and that transparency starts with the supply: which is the operator, the type of aircraft, the actual tail number, the age –- all of the relevant information that you would have thought as a consumer, that you wanted and needed before you made the decision to buy that $30,000 jet from New York to Los Angeles. But that doesn’t exist in the private jet charter today.

So when you get a quote from Victor, you get all that transparency: You get a flat booking fee, and it works, because we have a very high level of customer loyalty and retention and it’s not built around having to pay an upfront fee. It’s free to join, it’s free to use. It’s completely transparent.

Time is money, as they say in business. That’s one value you’re providing.

It’s a big myth that it’s all about luxury. The reality is, you’re making a conscientious decision when you fly private, whether it’s business or leisure. Knowing the real price makes a big difference. It’s all about time and what you can get in productivity. Most people who fly over the world using this type of travel, it’s about what they do in terms of what they can create with the additional hours of the day.

But the perception is that private jets cater to the wealthy or CEOs. So why does money matter?

That’s what the broker market has thought; that’s what’s predicated that business model for the last 20 years. “They’re rich, they’re stupid, why do they care?” Well, that’s actually a complete opposite. They’re rich because they’re smart, and they remain wealthy because they don’t let money walk out the door.

And the private aviation world has just basically ignored it, and thought, the wealthier they are, the more we can rip them off. And up until now there’s been no alternative. So when Victor launched, with our proposition, we’ve grown from that 20 in my initial membership to over 14,000, who have said, that is important to us. They want value, they want control, they want transparency, and they want a deal. And if you’ve got a middleman sitting in between you, you don’t know whether you have a deal or who’s making the deal and pocketing the difference.

Why are you entering the U.S. market?

A percentage of our customers are already here, and they’ve been saying in the U.S. market there is no transparency, so they want it. And when you’re talking about market opportunity, globally, this industry is worth about 14 billion a year in private jet charter bookings, and the U.S. represents about half of that.

And the U.S. economy is recovering. The number of millionaires and billionaires are growing in this marketplace. They are becoming much more savvy and smart. It’s an interesting arena to be in, especially when you look at what we’re playing against, which is old-world monoliths whose cost of execution and cost of management is so much more higher than ours, cause not only have we built a front-end, but we’ve built a lot of good back-end processes.

And they are more techie, too.

All of that [broker] work is being done with Victor, and 14 seconds your quote request goes out to the market. They can see the price going up (in real-time). And that’s where smart tech comes into play, and I think what is insulting to the wide customer base is the fact that some brokers who are building apps, they’re superficial and they don’t offer transparency, and everything on the Internet today is about accessibility and transparency.

Victor private jet charter
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Your approach sounds a lot like what Uber and other on-demand services offer – brands that are disrupting their respective sectors.

[Laughs] Uber is that big word out there. What we’re trying to do is create one brand. We’re not an aircraft operator. We’re not just brokers, but we’re providing one brand with a level of customer protection and support and guarantee that stand behind that brand. So if your aircraft goes technical and we need to get a new plane in and it costs more, Victor picks up that difference. That’s part of our customer guarantee and we have real people who sit behind the scenes: If you need that support, one click and you’re straight through to an international call center.

What’s in the works for the future?

We’re certainly making it more accessible and in part we’re demystifying it, we’re reducing the cost, we’re making it more affordable. Over time, we’re going to make it easier for people to share and split the fare.

In making private jets more accessible, could you help this sector compete against first-class products from commercial airliners?

I don’t think we’ll compete. What we can do and are doing is talking to the leading national flag carriers about delivering the last two hours of an international flight. If you fly into London from the Middle East, what happens when you want to get to the island of Ibiza? You’re not going to land an A380 into Ibiza. What we’re talking about from a Victor perspective is integrating with and in support of national flag carriers to continue the first-class service seamlessly.

What do the “old-world” brokers think of you?

They hate us. They are up in arms, certainly in Europe they are. In the U.S., I don’t think they quite know what’s going to hit them. I am not sure whether in the U.S. the industry has really woken up to the fact that technology is going to disrupt the old-world model.

Les Shu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
I am formerly a senior editor at Digital Trends. I bring with me more than a decade of tech and lifestyle journalism…
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