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Anyone involved in aviation knows about charter. Right? Right? Yeah, it’s a bit elusive isn’t it? Just try to contact a small charter company. There’s hundreds of AOC holders listed with CASA, as approved for charter operations with all sorts of aircraft. Many with light twins and even single-engine piston aircraft. There is obviously work out there, in all shapes and sizes, and it’s time to lift the lid on what these small, and not so small, operators get up to.

First, let’s look at the loose term that is ‘charter’. Simple in definition, charter is to contract or make an agreement for a flight service between the aircraft operator and a private party or company. Not so simple, is the broad category of possible services this covers. A client could charter a group of passengers to another country, charter a helicopter to a city meeting, charter some spare parts to a remote location or any number of other requests. This leads us to the most important benefit of charter – flexibility compared to airline services.

In business, the clock is cash. Waiting for scheduled services or trying to make assorted connections can be costly. So it’s not at all surprising that companies charter aircraft, especially for executive travel or high level corporate work.

Today’s airlines, whether they are the major or the low-cost carriers, are entirely geared to the mass market.

The airline controls the customer and, in return, the customer pays a low fare. Premium business passengers can pay more to travel in greater comfort and with some flexibility of ticketing, but the airline still remains in control of the times it flies, the aircraft and airports it uses, who else it lets on the plane and what happens when service is interrupted by weather, operational delays and so on. With a private or corporate charter, aircraft availability, qualities of travel and service levels all make airline services seem rather second rate.

Chartering an aircraft puts the writer of the cheques in control, not only of their travel arrangements, but also their security. This can serve many purposes for a travel group who wish to continue meetings or work while onboard without compromising sensitive information or having to resort to using their secret shoe phone. It also means there is complete control of who is onboard, so a company head executive or VIP does not have to suffer several hours next to that big smelly guy with the annoying cough. In addition, they may be travelling for a purpose they prefer to remain confidential and an unlisted private charter flight allows this.

As the decision maker, a charter client can set the schedule, and vary it as situations change (yes this can be a little bit annoying from the operator’s perspective). In many cases, they can also choose the aircraft type, the level of comfort, the facilities on board along with which airports to use, and which to avoid.

Flexibility also extends to carrying freight. With businesses such as mining contractors and the oil industry, it is most important to move freight straight away as down time is very costly. In this respect, the high cost of charter is irrelevant as Mr Big Boss wants his tools and wants them now as he loses thousands a day down the mine.

Now hold on a minute, there is a flip side of charter, where it’s all a little less, “the world will end tomorrow if I don’t get to Sydney today”. The other primary reason that people charter aircraft is…no real reason at all. That is… joy flights! A cost effective way for people to fly is to pool together in a kind of charter that takes them for a look around.

This is an area of aviation that is improving, as people become more used to aircraft travel, but it is still mostly for the wealthy or a very special treat. Joy flights win big where there are scenic locations either too far away or too remote to be accessed by land.

A flight out of Darwin could save the scenic tourist hours of driving, and that always nasty snake bite, by taking them over several local attractions and down the beach for less than a tank of fuel and a pub meal per person.

In New Zealand, a chopper ride to the summit of Mount Cook and a landing on untouched mountainside will cost only a few hundred dollars and trust me – it’s too far to climb and way too cold!

A scenic flight operator might be able to do some quick advertising to rope in some new customers but how does a charter business attract that corporate travel? Convenience is surely the name of the game. So the receptionist looks up the local airfield and gets the name of a charter operator. One could guess this is how it happens most of the time. Otherwise the best form of advertising is always word of mouth, which is highly effective in big business.

With so many great reasons to charter an aircraft, it’s still odd that, even to those in the industry, this seems to be a very quiet or elusive area of aviation: anyone can see there is some room to improve.

The larger operators have really got it made with good reputations and fast aircraft. But the smaller operators need to get off their soft comfy bits. With a bit of effort they could attract more small business operators who need to travel. Perhaps getting proactive might include offering a free costing of a trip they might regularly make, or even returning their phone calls…

Charter will probably remain expensive as long as there are big companies prepared to pay a premium price, aircraft operating costs remain high and fuel prices continue to soar. There will always be a need for charter but, as for the hundreds of companies out there who are in business as charter operators, one wonders how much business they really do?

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