Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Flewber is the latest private jet booking app to proclaim itself the category’s Uber or Expedia, boasting it will disrupt the market. The promise is always to change the archaic way private jet charters are booked and sourced. “Flewber offers only real-time pricing directly from operators, ensuring that app users get the price they are quoted for the flight they need,” according to its press release.

Like the others, it will likely get good coverage. The formula is to hire a PR company and make headline-worthy claims. “The launch of the Flewber app is primed to shake up the industry for the better,” said its Founder and CEO Marc Sellouk in the same release, adding, “The Flewber mobile app bridges the gap between travelers and aircraft owners and operators, just as ridesharing platforms have done with riders and cars.”

With private jet travel seeing record demand, there is heightened interest in the segment, particularly for next-gen solutions claiming to democratize this expensive mode of travel and digitalize what’s long been an opaque and labor-intensive analog industry layered by middlemen. Like others, Flewber has value obscured by hubris.

Flewber’s pitch from their PR agent to me read, “Founded in 2018 as the first of its kind, Flewber utilizes its own aircraft along with a vast network of partner operators to deliver on-demand, private, regional, and long-range flights throughout the continent. And with no annual membership fee or long-term commitment, Flewber’s network of on-demand jets allows travelers to order a flight day-of in real-time for just a little more than commercial flight fare.”

In the Apple app store, the claims continue. “Just like ridesharing services allow people to locate a car on-demand, Flewber enables passengers to locate and book a private jet in real time.”

After spending time playing with Flewber’s app, I found several worthwhile features. But first, it’s let’s cut through the clutter.

Its “own aircraft” is a single 1976 Long Island, New York-based Cessna 421C that flies under Ponderosa Air LLC, a Part 135 charter operator Sellouk also owns. Flewber, like the brokers it wants to replace, acts as an intermediary for all jet flights and the turboprop flights it allows you to book via its app, except for any flights it can fulfill in the Northeast its airplane.

When I challenged Sellouk that one turboprop based on Long Island isn’t integral to what he’s promoting and selling – an app for on-demand charters nationally, he countered, “We are not rushing into aircraft purchasing as the app would allow Flewber to better identify types of craft and routes to put them on. It’s this future, laser-focused growth that we would only be able to achieve due to the fact that we own an operator, and that sets us apart from the pack.”

That’s fine. Sellouk told me that after initial media coverage, the app had been downloaded over 11,000 times. He is getting calls from aircraft owners who want Ponderosa to manage their airplanes to have them chartered via the app. I guess it’s a little like Sam Walton when he had one store versus Walmart decades later. Everybody starts somewhere.

As to the “vast network of partner operators,” Flewber boasts access to 9,023 aircraft, but that’s no different than what any other broker can offer. It’s like a travel agent saying they can book you in any hotel in the world accepting guests if they happen to have space when you want to stay.

In terms of providing an Uber-like ability to book “day-of” private charters, Sellouk told the Big Sky Franchise podcast back in January, “[W]ithin two hours of your flight, you’ll have the flexibility to book, drive right up to the aircraft, and everything that you need will be there, in order to get you back, either that same day or the next day.”

In testing the app (image below), and later confirmed by the company, I found the lead time to hail your airplane is 31 + hours. You can book flights departing at 7 am two days out. So, on a Monday, the shortest booking window for a departure is at 7 am on Wednesday. The earliest Flewber can Uber you into the skies on Tuesday is Thursday at 7 am.

That time-lapse has to do with the complexities of finding an airplane that’s available to fly you, so certainly nothing disruptive or different. You’re still going to have to pick up the phone and call brokers and operators or make online requests for availability if you want to fly today or tomorrow.

Like most other digital private jet interfaces that give you bookable hard quotes, Flewber only confirms a cabin category – light jet, midsize jet, super-midsize, etc. You can’t choose a specific aircraft type or configuration, a core reason some regulars charter on a flight-by-flight basis.

What’s more, you can’t even specify the cabin class you want for jet flights. The app provides a nonstop capable jet based on the number of passengers you enter, so if there are only four people going from Miami to New York, it gives you a light jet. Sellouk says that will change in the future.

Even though you get a final price when you pay with your credit card, your flight isn’t booked until you receive an email confirmation. Sellouk says it can take up to 24 hours or as little as two hours. Again, that’s because, like every other broker, Flewber needs to get an operator to confirm they have an aircraft available to fly you.

Sellouk says he has spent millions developing proprietary technology to digitize the backend of the booking process, has a team of 15 developers, and expects to hit $10 million in sales this year. That revenue level makes Flewber a minor player. The four largest private aviation providers – Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets, Inc., which includes NetJets and charter arm Executive Jet Management, Directional Aviation’s OneSky (which includes Flexjet, Sentient, and charter broker FXAir and PrivateFly), Wheels Up, and Vista Global (including VistaJet, XO, mega-broker Apollo Jets and soon Jet Edge) each have over $1 billion in annual revenues.

In terms of selling instant pricing, any intermediary can sell instant pricing. They just want to make sure that the prices they are selling are higher than their costs to fulfill the flight at the end of the day. That’s, in essence, what fixed or capped rate jet cards and memberships do.

So, how sophisticated is Flewber? With limited information provided, it’s hard to tell. Sellouk declined to offer specifics, citing proprietary methods and technology.

In a telephone interview, he said, “For me to sit here and give you a workflow, our chief technology officer has a whiteboard the size of 39th street east to west with all different logic and workflows…But I can tell you that the extent it is automated with API interfaces with different platforms in terms of creating certain workflows that fall into certain buckets and certain groups. These are all things that are automated, in terms of prices that are coming back or prices that are pre-negotiated, in terms of profit margin, empty legs, databases, all these things are built into the logic…That’s part of the secret sauce.”

After much cajoling, the company did agree to let me talk to a charter operator in their network. It turns out that flight requests from Flewber come in via email or a text message. Just like with other brokers, the operator then checks availability and, if they have an aircraft and crew, provides a quote.

Sellouk subsequently said that operator was not reflective of others where he has sophisticated interfaces and “specific aircraft allotted…at pre-negotiated rates.” He declined to put me in touch with any of those providers.

However, the core claim that many of these on-demand broker apps infer is that they somehow automated the booking process, instantly sourcing a jet the way Uber gets you a car or Expedia allows you to book airline tickets and hotels.

While the company does say flights are based on a first-come, first-served basis, in a market where availability on peak days or with short notice can be slim, Sellouk says Flewber has been able to fulfill all flight requests.

When I first reviewed the Flewber contract, it enabled the company to substitute commercial airline flights, aircraft that need a refueling stop, or even a turboprop for a jet at the same price. After I pointed this out to Sellouk, he said that wouldn’t happen and that you would get a nonstop capable jet unless you were booking its Xpress turboprop product. He said the contract was representative of Ponderosa’s local flights and, to his credit, changed the contract to read, “Flewber and the air carrier reserve the right to substitute another duly licensed air carrier and/or to change the aircraft type within the same category and capacity.”

Flewber Benefits

So, what is Flewber good for?

On the plus side of the ledger, it is one of a handful of online private jet booking tools you can book and buy at a confirmed flight price instantly. In theory, it saves you the time of going back and forth with multiple brokers. This means you bypass the typical process of calling a few brokers, filling in online request forms, or waiting on websites that only offer estimated rates and then must source airplanes based on your request and return with hard quotes. In these instances, after you get the hard quote, you need to quickly act, or the airplane associated with that quote could be taken by somebody else. With Flewber, you have your charter price locked in, assuming they confirm it.

A useful feature with Flewber is you can bid for a lower price. The app will search for possible discounted empty leg repositioning flights. Sellouk says, “If there’s an empty out there and in our system, our platform will return that result hassle-free.” If the system returns an offer, you have 15 minutes to book it or counter.

Sharing buttons allows you to leverage your social media, alerting friends that you are open to them joining a flight. Sellouk says, “This feature is the beginning stages of the community, which we are building, which long term will be the hub for sharing and will ultimately include payment integration.” The vision is your buddies can pay you to join your flight and offset some of the costs.

Its digital interface offers maps that highlight the thousands of airports serving private jets, often closer than the commercial airports you may be familiar with. You can search by departure address as well. I was impressed that it didn’t offer jets from airports with short runways or turboprops on flights to Hawaii, something other apps do.

Flewber also doesn’t oversell safety. Its website simply explains that it utilizes Part 135 operators that are authorized to operate charter flights by meeting government requirements to do so. Too often, there’s more sizzle about vetting and procurement than steak.

Then there’s Flewber Xpress (pictured below), which offers turboprops for flights under 300 miles at a fixed rate of $3,700 one-way domestically with the same notice period.

In terms of costs, Flewber’s charter prices I searched were competitive with others that offer instant booking. At $24,091 for a light jet one-way from Oklahoma City to Pittsburgh, it wasn’t the cheapest, $18,915 – nor the most expensive, $34,042. When I looked at Los Angeles to Seattle for a random date in late May, it was similar. Flewber quoted me $25,547. The lowest was $16,805, but another was $30,229. From Miami to New York for the middle of June, its $17,033 one-way price was the lowest instant booking price I found by about $1,300. After using the Bid feature and offering $11,000 it countered at $16,300, plus tax.

Flewber says it provides on-demand pricing for 57,360 routes between 1,964 airports. In terms of its pricing sophistication, I queried the OKC-PIT route on four different dates over several months, and the app gave me the same price each time. I tried Miami to Los Angeles on three separate dates, including the Friday of the July 4th holiday, a peak day, and again, it quoted me the same price each time. When I did the same between Miami and New York, the app gave me a higher price for Memorial Day Monday, which I would expect. For three other dates over the next three months, it gave me the exact same price. For Los Angeles to Seattle, it gave me different prices for two different dates.

Should you use Flewber?

One negative is the Flewber app doesn’t have the facility to search for the lowest price over a range of dates or even for the entire day you want to fly, so you would have to keep entering dates and departure times to see if there was a lower confirmed price.

Flewber has had an app for about two years. This is version 5.0.0. There are only 25 ratings in the Apple Store with it scoring a 3.9 out of 5. The most recent was April 7, so not reflective of its current version. It has a 4.4 on Google Play with 14 reviews, the most recent being May 3.

If you fly privately regularly – instead of just writing about it – the rubber hits the runway when you spend that $25,000 on a charter flight.

How well does Flewber deliver?

While Uber for private jet press releases make good fodder for the media, the true benefits are more limited, and it’s hard to tell unless you book a flight.

Sellouk wants Flewber to be a user-friendly marketplace that will attract operators wishing to bypass traditional brokers and consumers who want a fast-and-easy way to buy, the opportunity to share their flights, and bid for lower pricing.

He also says there will be high-touch service, and customers will receive personal calls prior to their flight. Flewber Luxe is a traditional broker you request a quote from via online form or calling. It is an Argus Registered broker, and he says it is working to achieve Argus broker certification.

In sum, Flewber is typical in that it’s hard to know what’s behind the glitzy websites and new-fangled apps glazed with big promises. There are around 2,000 charter operators like Ponderosa in the U.S. today, the vast majority with a handful of airplanes. There are numerous brokers like Flewber, many of which are small shops with two or three people. At the same time, Kenny Dichter started Wheels Up with just three King Airs less than 10 years ago; Thomas Flohr has built Vista Global into the biggest global player in less than two decades from a single light jet. Whether Sellouk makes Flewber into the Walmart of private aviation or remains part of its long tail of small and midsized players will be interesting to track.

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