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Branson's online charter plane service launches

By Kenneth Li
Reuters
Tuesday, March 4, 2008; 12:26 AM

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Richard Branson's first charter plane experience gave him the idea to start commercial airline company Virgin Atlantic Airways (VA.UL).

Some 25 years after the British entrepreneur chartered a private jet to fly 50 passengers and himself from the Beef Island, Tortola airport to Puerto Rico after their original flight was canceled, Branson will launch on Tuesday Virgin Charter, an online service to charter private aircraft.

Branson said the new business will court the approximate $30 billion market for booking private air travel by letting operators market availability and allowing customers to bid and book online.

He aims to make booking charter flights as easy as booking commercial flights on services such as Expedia, an online travel booking service.

Scott Duffy, Virgin Charter Chief Executive, said the new service is a combination of three of the best ideas on the Internet: the user and seller reviews provided by online auctioneer eBay Inc; Priceline's ability to let consumers offer their own bids on flights and the simplicity of Expedia Inc (EXPE.O) and Travelocity.

"They (charter operators) will have to get quality right," Branson said in an interview.

"They can't just get away with it (bad service) anymore," Branson said, recounting one recent flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a chartered jet that he described as "dire" after a glass of water crashed into his head while he napped.

Most charter flights are currently booked by phone through a broker in a process that can take the assistants of millionaires, celebrities and business travelers as long as a week to complete, executives said.

Virgin Charter, majority owned by Virgin USA, aims to bring a level of transparency and simplicity to a business that does not exist today.

The company launches in the United States, but will be expanded to other regions soon, Branson said.

Virgin Charter is targeting the 2,500 operators of private aviation companies as well as thousands of U.S. customers who currently pay brokers or have to dial-up dozens of operators by phone before booking a flight.

Booking through Virgin Charter's site will shave some 20 percent off the cost of traditional methods by cutting out the broker, a Virgin Charter executive said, as well as days off of the process.

Moreover, the company said its service lets operators maximize bookings and fuel consumption by offering them a way to market flights that are returning empty from an outbound or return flight on an already-booked trip, under a section called "hot deals" on the site.

As part of the launch, Virgin Charter has struck a partnership with Travelocity Business to offer its service to Travelocity's business clients, Virgin said.

Duffy said the company is participating only with operators who have been screened by the company for safety and quality. At launch the service will offer access to about 100 operators, with access to 1,000 private planes.

The service competes with traditional brokers as well as companies that let frequent flyers invest in the jets with other partners.

Well-known for his grand entrances -- just this week he jumped off the Hilton hotel in India to launch Virgin Mobile in the region -- Branson arrived in New York for a round of press interviews quietly on a charter flight booked by his secretary.

With the new service, "She will be able to pick the best price," Branson said.

Virgin Charter can be found at http://www.virgincharter.com/

© 2008 Reuters