Sometimes seemingly small things can have a big impact. At least, that’s the hope for Directional Aviation’s Sentient Jet, which like most in the industry, has seen demand soar. In 2021 the Boston-based inventor of the jet card flew 30,000 legs, up from 17,000 the year before.
Like others, it has struggled to maintain the high levels of service its well-heeled customers, who spend six figures annually, expect. For an industry that mainly relies on human interactions to make things flow, the pandemic has revealed various pain points, with members of programs finding themselves waiting on hold and waiting for callbacks, which made Sentient’s outreach about something that would help smooth the booking process perk my interest.
The pitch was straightforward: “With this digital advancement, card owners have quoting and booking capabilities via text, alleviating the need for human contact entirely. With user-authenticated, automated, artificial intelligence-like interaction, internal and external users can quote and book a flight in less than 60 seconds.”
The new feature is called Automated Text-to-Book. It’s being rolled out at the end of the month, and Forbes was granted an exclusive preview. It allows customers to book and confirm flights in the contiguous 48 states instantly. For salespeople, it enables them to quote trip pricing without being in front of a secured computer.
The text function first requires user verification since booking a flight is like essentially spending money from a debit card you’ve funded. It then prompts you to enter your departure date and time. Since it confirms your inputs after each step, you can answer in several ways, for example, writing out “three days from now” or simply entering a date.
There is the same process as you enter your departure and arrival airports. In the example shown in a brief video (above), if you enter Miami, it gives you several options to specify choose.
After you enter and confirm the number of passengers, you can select airplane type – light, midsize, super-midsize, or large cabin, with each type stating maximum capacity. You also get the estimated trip price for each class.
According to a spokesperson, the interface factors each client’s contracted fixed rate by aircraft category. That means if you have multiple card types, it will confirm which account you’d like to use before proceeding. The technology behind the interface accounts for daily and segment minimums, peak day surcharges, taxi time, current fuel surcharges, and taxes.
After selecting the jet type, you get a summary of departure airport, departure time, arrival airport, cabin category, how many guests are booked, how many passengers the aircraft can hold, and the estimated flight cost. The quote is estimated only because, like many jet cards, Sentient charges on actual flight time, which is calculated and billed post-flight.
It then asks if you would like to book the trip. If you answer yes, the booking process takes about 30 seconds. You receive a trip confirmation number, and from there, you can go to the app or card owner’s website to add details like catering and ground transportation. A facility to specify pets is being added to the text booking function.
Notably, the process enables users to bypass the need to call and book. However, it doesn’t replace other booking channels.
“Text to book is about meeting users…where they want to transact. (We) try to not have to push proprietary systems at them, so text is a very interesting way of doing that. Then at the end of the day, it’s just one more way they can work with us. If they want to call us on the phone, we still have a fax number. We’ll do what you need,” says Andrew Collins, Sentient’s CEO.
He points out that texting is pretty much something nearly everyone already does. The Local Project reports that 97% of Americans text weekly, and over six billion messages are sent daily.
Speaking of how it differs from Sentient’s app, Collins says, “It’s going to sound really obvious. You have to go through getting the app, downloading the app, signing up for the app, and then learning how to use the app versus you use text every day…We’re trying to be more thoughtful….and just make it easier and remove as much friction from the journey as we can”
This year, 35-to-40% of Sentient’s bookings will be consummated digitally with a similar flight volume to last year. That implies up to 12,000 online reservations. Before Covid, the percentage was around 15%, implying around 2,500 digital bookings, so while flight volume has increased more than 55%, online bookings have rocketed nearly five-fold.
Plans call for expanding automated text-to-book to destinations where Sentient offers fixed-rate pricing outside the Continental U.S. over the next several months.
An important delineator between what Sentient is doing and the coterie of companies claiming to be Uber or Expedia of private jets is that Sentient is not selling private flights online. It doesn’t sell one-off charter flights. Customers buy and prepay for blocks of 25 flight hours at fixed hourly rates based on aircraft size. They sign a contract agreeing to those terms, which guarantees a jet at those prices with various parameters so long as they book at least 48 hours in advance on non-peak days.
So, it is a nice feature saving the need for a call and possibly time on hold, or as Collins says, having to download and figure out another app. It will be rolled out later this month to various segments of Sentient’s cardholders and, based on feedback and adoption, rolled out more broadly after that.
Does it solve some of the problems members may be having? In terms of ordering catering and ground transportation, that still needs to be done through its existing digital interfaces or via phone.
Sentient also provided me access to the app so I could see what members see. It was straightforward, with more steak than sizzle. Getting around and reaching the various functions was easy. It has similar instant trip quoting and booking, and you can easily find a summary of past and future flights. Your current balance of what you have left in your account is easy to access, and you can reach it from virtually any page. You can also view your tail assignment and track its movement to anticipate any delays.
One of the biggest criticisms from private aviation users since the demand surge last summer is that providers haven’t been proactive enough in alerting them about delays, so being able to see where your airplane is would seem helpful. Often, delays come at the last minute via ATC or ground delays refueling before coming to pick up clients.
There is also a live chat, and you can review the preflight report detailing aircraft, operator – Sentient is a broker – pilots, and qualifications.
Ordering ground transportation and catering is relatively simplistic. For food, you view a PDF menu; in both cases, you simply submit what you want via writing in a text box.
There’s also an a-to-z list of partners, discounts, and value adds, plus how to book.
Of Automated Text-to-Book, Collins says while it looks simple, a lot of complicated programming went into the launch. To date, Sentient has generated $300 million of online bookings with its approach. With demand for private aviation showing no signs of letting up, supply, supply chain and labor issues still impacting service delivery, every little bit should help.