Imagine that you want to drive to Calgary but need an SUV full of passengers who will split the cost of the trip. You’re not fully committed to going, but you’d like to make it happen. So you put out a call for fellow road-trippers. Friends fill the vehicle, each kicking in gas money, and off you go.
Now imagine that you want to fly to Calgary instead. You know of an airplane that could do a charter flight for a per-person cost that’s about half that of a commercial airline ticket. But the flight won’t go unless enough people are interested. So you help spread the word on social media to find those passengers.
That’s the idea behind Jump On Flyaways, a Calgary-based tour company that has just started developing software for its website to enable flyers to crowd-source charter flights. “It’s like car-sharing, in a way,” explains CEO Roger Jewett, speaking to the Straight from Calgary. “If we all kind of work together, we can get some cheap flights going but have to collaborate to make it happen.”
The website software, which Jewett plans to launch in April or May, is a new approach for the company, which has been offering charter flights based on demand since April 2013. Jewett started Jump On Flyaways after realizing that many charter planes used to transport Alberta’s oil-industry workers sat dormant on weekends. The company arranges to use these aircraft to fly from Calgary to other destinations at times when commercial airfares are comparatively high.
Jump On can keep its airfares low because flights aren’t a sure thing: they don’t take off unless they hit the “jumping point”, when about 80 percent of the seats are sold. That way, the company doesn’t lose money on half-full flights. Flexible travellers get a cheaper fare and are notified about a week before the proposed date if their trip is a go. (They secure their spot with a credit card, which isn’t charged unless the trip is confirmed.)
Jewett’s company offers flights out of Calgary to destinations like Las Vegas, Kelowna, and Vancouver. They’re sold through Jump On’s website, which lists proposed flights, the number of seats needed to hit the jumping point, and the number already booked. Many of the flights are “dependent”, that is, they’re sold as a one-way flight (e.g., Calgary to Vancouver) linked to the return of that aircraft (Vancouver-Calgary), and both legs need to sufficiently sell for either to fly. This creates a challenge if demand doesn’t match up—more Calgarians want to fly to Vancouver than vice versa, for example.
According to Jewett, 10 out of the 20 flights he’s posted have actually flown since the operation started. This includes return flights between Vancouver and Calgary over Grey Cup weekend last November. (The website shows previous prices for the Calgary-Vancouver route at about $300 return, including taxes and fees.) But other proposed flights, such as Calgary to Phoenix and between Calgary and Vancouver over Christmas, didn’t reach sufficient demand.
So while Jewett has been experimenting with destinations and times, he’s also been brainstorming a way to better measure demand. “I’m very aware of the disappointment if the flight doesn’t go,” he says. Until now, he admits, he’s been “just kind of guessing” where and when potential passengers want to travel.
He hopes that the new software, with the working title Group Up, will change that by providing data that will translate into sales. “The idea of Group Up is people would crowd-source the flight,” he explains. On the website, they would express interest in particular destinations or dates. For example, bar charts for Vancouver would show which weekends people wanted to fly and to which destinations. “You can initiate a flight and invite your friends to join you,” he explains. “Anyone else can come into the website and see a flight that’s been initiated, and they can ‘group it up’ by expressing interest in that as well.”
As it stands, Jewett says he gets phone calls all the time asking him to launch flights to destinations like San Diego and Toronto. “This provides a forum for people to express their interest, and we will go where the demand is. It takes the emotional turmoil [of no-go flights] out of it.”
Group Up would act as a “hotbed of where people want to go and when” before the flights are arranged and offered for sale. “Once we get 150 people interested in flying to Toronto, when we launch the flight we’re pretty confident that a lot of those people will book. Not all of them, but we’ll understand the patterns over time.”
The software would crowd-source both parts of a return flight. “We would match the demand from Vancouver to Calgary with the Calgary-to-Vancouver demand, and that’s how we hope we could get those return flights going.” Better measuring of demand would allow more routes, such as a flight that originated in Calgary stopping over in Vancouver en route to Las Vegas, for example.
Potential flyers would express their interest with a token sum. “We want to make it more than a vote,” he says. “The commitment I would ask for is, like, two bucks.…If you fly, your two bucks would be applied to the flight. But if the flight is launched and you don’t follow through, you would lose your two bucks.”
Jewett hopes to raise awareness of his company in different cities so the pool of crowd-source buyers grows. “We have a way to offer cheaper transportation to Canadians if we can get the critical mass,” he says. “If we can build our audience in Vancouver…there would be a big-enough following that we could make this happen.”