Jonny Nicol with his PA31 Chieftain at Innsbruck Airport in Austria
“I’d like to say I fell in love with aviation when I was taken around the airshow circuit as a child by my father, but I think realistically it was because of Top Gun. I watched it when I was 11 and fell hook, line and sinker for it, joining the RAF cadets when I was 16 and learning to fly.”
This refreshing honesty comes from Jonny Nicol, CEO of Stratajet, who nevertheless admits that his career hasn’t necessarily lived up to the glamour and action of the 1986 movie. “I was really lucky that when I started flying it just came naturally, and is one of the only things I’m actually any good at,” he adds modestly.
Nicol was in the RAF for almost 2.5 years as a Tornado F3 pilot before moving into the army in 2000 and touring with the Desert Rats on various missions around the globe for eight years. In that time he developed a system for digitizing the military’s soldier information database in a bid to streamline the paper-based process that had remained unchanged for 400 years.
“The resistance to change was phenomenal. It took a lot of time and effort to show people the benefits of moving to a digital system, but once they understood and changed over to my way of thinking they never looked back – their workload was dramatically reduced and there weren’t the same errors.”
Nicol is flying around Europe to talk to operators about the benefits of Stratajet
It is this style of thinking that Nicol is now taking to the private aviation industry with his company, Stratajet. Described by Nicol as “the world’s only real-time online booking engine for private aviation”, the system aims to streamline the private jet booking process, although Nicol is quick to point out that it is not just another of the online ‘quote getting’ sites that have popped up on the internet in recent years.
“Every other company that claims to be an online booking service has some level of going backward and forward to get quotes from the operators because they don’t have access to all the real-time prices. Stratajet is the only system in the world that has all the pricing, from the actual costs of the aircraft to the other 14 costs associated with the flight, such as landing, parking and handling fees. You can pick your route and your aircraft and book and pay for the flight there and then.”
In simple terms, Stratajet is a pricing engine – it stores all the data associated with the cost of flying each aircraft and then uses a large number of algorithms to work out the exact cost down to the last penny of flying between any combination of airfields in the database. Nicol’s team of researchers collect all the data themselves by calling up each airport and sourcing each of the 15 costs associated with the flight.
“The world has moved on over the past 40 years and people no longer expect to have to pick up a telephone and go through the process of requesting quotes and being bombarded with emails to be able to book an aircraft – they expect immediacy and choice,” Nicol says. “Scheduled airlines have been very quick to embrace this – most of them are online and will tell you exactly how much it costs to fly from point A to point B at the time of your choosing, but there are also other sites, such as Skyscanner and Expedia, that will give you the price for all available airlines and options in one place.”
According to Nicol, the private jet industry is missing a huge trick by not adapting to this market need and providing a real-time cost proposition. “The private jet market is shrinking while the wealthiest 1% of people globally are getting richer by about 6% a year, so the reason for the fall in private jet use is not financial. I think it is this closed market, which is disjointed from the rest of the travel world and lacks the ability to effectively pass information over the internet and cell phones. The power of being able to give real time pricing is vast because suddenly we have this transparency and the ability to let anyone see exactly how much a private jet will cost. It also enables us to go through more traditional online travel booking routes – private jets can become just like an airline in those sorts of marketplaces.”
The Stratajet team gets together for fitness sessions in London’s Hyde Park at 8:00am
Stratajet also has the ability to show prices for partial empty legs. For example, if an empty leg is going to be flown from Madrid to London and a customer requests a flight from Barcelona to Paris, the system can work out what the cost difference to the operator is of flying via these cities and apply a higher profit margin while still making it cost-efficient for the customer. “Those partial empty legs are key because it means we can compete very well with, if not better than, business class seats,” says Nicol. “We have to imagine what happens if someone goes onto one of these travel marketplaces to book business class tickets and suddenly they see a private jet there for less money. That is key to getting people back into this industry because it is an absolute no-brainer.” Nicol hopes to provides access to this information via online platforms such as Expedia and Skyscanner when Stratajet launches to the consumer.
Stratajet has been four years in the making with plenty of naysayers along the way who believed that the world of booking private jets would never move online. Nicol persevered, drawing on his military training to lead his team through the challenges of developing the platform. “I think the military way of doing things is probably something a lot of companies would benefit from. We have become so check-box centric and health-and-safety focused that we’ve lost a lot of the soft skills of being able to lead and inspire and encourage people to see the big picture and keep going,” explains Nicol.
He also organizes fitness sessions in London’s Hyde Park at 8:00am to motivate the team: “My poor team are confused as to whether they’re working for a civilian company or in the military themselves!”
The next step for Nicol is to spread the word about his new business venture and he’ll be doing so using his own private aircraft. “We’ve bought a beautiful PA31 Chieftain that we’ll be using to fly around Europe to meet operators and ground handlers. It has a wonderful 1970s interior that is a mix of faux leather and crushed velvet complete with a secretary desk and make-up area – everything you need for private aviation in 2015!” Nicol jokes.
Stratajet visited a number of airports in the UK, including London Biggin Hill, as part of Operation Long Reach
Operation Long Reach
Operation Long Reach is an “airborne marketing roadshow” with the aim of promoting Stratajet’s technology to charter operators and FBOs. The program began in April with visits to Bristol, Cranfield, Fairoaks, Gloucester, Biggin Hill and Luton airports in the UK before moving on to Austria for EBACE in May. The Stratajet team have now moved the campaign into the rest of Europe.
“I have always firmly believed that it is the industry that is going to grow itself, so we have to make sure that whatever solution Stratajet becomes it is one that the industry wants and needs,” Nicol explains.
Following the European promotion, Nicol is opening a US office in California in July and will continue to grow the business into the Middle East and the rest of the world. “Stratajet is a self-fulfilling prophecy – if people want to embrace this new world then it will work brilliantly. I know consumers want to see this, so it is now up to the industry to decide whether to accept it or not,” Nicol concludes.
This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of Business Airport International
June 30, 2015