Jet set: Interview: iFlyPrivate founder Roula Rabbat
By: Elizabeth Broomhall
Flying in a private jet is traditionally something very few of us can afford. Perceived as the height of luxury, it has mostly been reserved for the millionaire businessmen and celebrities of this world, while the rest of us are happy to get bumped up to first class. According to industry experts, less than 0.5 percent of the world’s population has access to private jets.
In days gone by, those who flew privately were also, for the most part, unaccompanied. This is why, when most people think about a private jet, they usually envisage a rich individual surrounded by one or two of their business partners or friends, jetting off to their next big company meeting or VIP party.
Today, it seems all that is about to change. With the launch of a new website, iFlyPrivate, first-class fliers can now get an even better deal, and those who would normally fly economy have the option to treat themselves once in a while. The founder of the company, Roula Rabbat, says she wants to open up the market as the notion of flying privately changes.
“Usually private jet flights cost a lot,” she explains. “From the UAE to the UK and back it normally costs approximately $100,000 to $120,000. But if you go on iFly and you find this destination, it will cost anywhere between $3,500 and $4,500 each way.”
Up until now, of course, Rabbat says very few people have even tried to find out the price of flying privately, as most assume they can’t afford it. This has kept the market closed, she says, and stopped it becoming available to a wider audience.
“Because it is such an exclusive industry, people don’t even try to learn about it,” she explains. “They know it’s very expensive but they don’t have an idea how much.”
Aside from the price, the market is also changing from flying alone to flying with others. Now, when most people fly on a private jet, they will be accompanied by strangers as they would if flying on a commercial aircraft. The difference is that there are fewer people, and the service is significantly better. To accommodate this change, iFly offers a fully automated booking service, which allows people to book flight on a private jet via the iFly website, as they would book a commercial flight via a travel agent.
Under these circumstances, some have asked why fly private at all? Rabbat says there will always be a contrast between flying on a private jet and flying business class on a normal carrier, and it is simply that the market is becoming more open.
“People choose private jets for the experience,” she says, “in terms of the aircraft, the flight and the terminal. For example, you only need to get to the airport 15-20 minutes prior to departure; you don’t need to get there two or three hours before. Also once you land you can be out of the terminal in 10-15 minutes. So this is saving a lot of time. And the terminals are very small, so it only takes you a few minutes to get to the aircraft.”
Added to this, Rabbat explains that with private jets, travellers have access to smaller and different airports, and fliers don’t have to worry about their luggage being lost.
“Sometimes private jets also go to much smaller airports where normal airlines can’t go. One example is Al Bateen airport in Abu Dhabi. Commercial airlines don’t land there but private jets can. Also, your luggage will never go missing. Your luggage boards with you and is off loaded at the same time.”
If a customer books via iFly, they also have the option of giving the flight away to a friend or family member if they cannot make it, Rabbat says. This can be very helpful for passengers whose schedules often change at the last minute. “Once you book you cannot cancel but you can endorse it to other people. All you need to do is change the name.”
As a business, Rabbat says she has great expectations for iFly. Given its unique offering and the high demand for private jets in the region, she is confident it will attract a wealth of interest from those who traditionally fly on private jets, as well as those who typically travel business class and first class and haven’t previously considered flying privately. This year, she is hoping for around 700 bookings.
“We are expecting around 700 bookings in the first year. In the first couple of years it is likely to increase quickly until it reaches a mature level. Because it is a new service, people will want to try it at least once and then definitely you will have repeat customers in the future.”
Flights will initially only be offered within the Middle East region, but later to Europe and Asia as well. Eventually travellers will also be able to book flights to the US, Rabbat says.
“Initially we are going to service the Middle East, where I expect the market to be active mainly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with the rest divided among the other countries like Qatar, Lebanon and Kuwait.
“There is big demand in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. You have the highest number of private jets based in these countries. Hopefully we will be able to include the US after a year or so.”
The number and range of routes will obviously depend on the growth of the business, Rabbat says, and how popular the service is. In a bid to boost the website’s offering, she also plans to include links to additional services such as limos and exclusive hotels.
“We are planning to look at adding additional features and services to compliment our services,” she says. “Depending on how big the business gets, we may also need to hire more people.”