Richard Branson wants to make chartering a small jet or plane as easy as booking a flight on Expedia. Today, he launched his latest startup: Virgin Charter. The site is invite-only for now, but by September it will be a full-fledged travel portal matching charter operators with those seeking to book such flights. Virgin Charter CEO Scott Duffy tells me:
There are over 2,500 charter operators and 10,000 business jets in the U.S. alone. Nobody has ever brought them all together. There's no glue.
Don't think of this as just some online travel site for fat cats. Virgin Charter is Branson's and Duffy's way of making the air charter, and budding air taxi, industry much more efficient and accessible to more people. Duffy, a former executive at Quote.com, Sportsline, and Xoom, came up with the idea and was out raising venture funding when Virgin swooped in and bought the whole startup (except for some shares Duffy and his employees still own).
Branson, who is recently got clearance to offer commercial air service in the U.S. via his new Virgin America airline and is dveloping a suborbital space travel service with Virgin Galactic, had also been toying with starting his own air taxi service. When I visited Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque last year for an air taxi story, CEO Vern Raburn told me that Branson had once come for a tour, but never became a customer. I asked Duffy about this, who confirms:
Virgin had looked at owning aircraft. But the problem is not that there are not enough jets. The problem is that it is too hard to buy and sell what is already out there. With Virgin Charter, they felt they could effect the entire industry.
The charter business is notoriously inefficient because there are always planes flying empty everywhere. Last year, 40 percent of charter flights flew empty, according to Duffy. That's because if you charter a flight to Aspen, there might not be anyone who wants to charter the return trip that same day. So you normally end up being charged for two round trips instead of one, since someone has to pay to fly the plane back to its base.
What Virgin Charter is trying to build is a better scheduling system. Says Duffy:
We believe we will reduce or eliminate the concept of an empty leg.
That will go a long way towards reducing prices overall, and saving jet fuel. (The profits will go towards Branson's $3 billion pledge to find ways to fight global warming). As more air taxi services pop up, they wil be able to use the system too. In fact, such an online resevation system might be just what the industry needs to get off the ground.
But coordinating thousands of different small mom-and-pop operators won't be an easy task. Luckily, Duffy's chief scientist and CTO are both former rocket scientists from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His CTO, Ron Garret, was also the lead developer on the first release of Google's AdWords. Nevertheless, they are not attempting anything nearly as complicated as DayJet's per-seat-on-demand scheduling system. Virgin Charter is working on a simpler per-plane system (i.e., you will be able to book only a whole plane, not a single seat). Still, it should be a far cry better than the phone-and-fax methods still used by many charter operators today.
(Here's Businessweek's take).