Charter Jets and Health Tourism

by Maria K Todd, MHA PhD

 CEO & Founder
Mercury Healthcare International

As a firm that coordinates corporate health travel, we are frequently asked to coordinate checkups and medical travel for groups of executives and their companion travelers.  Often, they are planning to travel anyway for a corporate meeting or event, a training course, or a strategic planning retreat. That was how the MICE & Medicine® program became a "thing".  

Corporate Jet Charters May Be More Affordable Than You Think

In the course of these requests, we've done some comparisons for business class travel for a group of 6 or 12 on commercial jets, and even with the generous discounts we can access with the airlines, sometimes it makes sense to consider charter jets to fly the entourage to the selected destination.

The Online Marketplace for Charter Jet Shopping

Where there is no one-click booking engine - yet, web-based platforms to shop charter flights is becoming easier and more competitive than ever.

"Deadhead legs" are like empty hotel beds; nobody makes money.

Deadheading is the term used for when a flight returns to a base or flies to another location with no one on the aircraft other than the pilots and crew.  The idea of using the online marketplace to fill deadhead legs is brilliant and its time has come.

The expert coordinators at Mercury Health Travel must be knowledgeable about many aspects of travel planning not required in the business-to-consumer (B2C) model world of medical tourism and health travel. One of these knowledge base areas cultivated over decades relates to executive travel.

Mercury Health Travel's coordinators are specially trained to coordinate medical travel itineraries that align with the patients' condition and the procedures scheduled. They must also collaborate with corporate travel agents from time to time, so they are completely fluent in what is permitted and the aviation rules for ticketing, airport and ground services, hotel arrangements and ground transfer options. They either research and prepare everything and book the arrangements, or they plan and coordinate everything and the corporate agency handles the actual booking per our experts' instructions. It is the research part that is the most time consuming for them, so below, I've shared a few of our go-to resources I believe you may find helpful. They've paid no endorsement fee to be named here, we just like their service.

We use online charter tools to view aircraft categories, itineraries, estimated prices and sometimes, we can even use them to book simple trips.  One reason that the online marketplace is slow to gain traction in the charter flight arena is because the pilots and charter operators themselves believe that the process is too complicated to do well in the online marketplace. Flights are too complex and prices are considered too high to support the cost of entering into the online marketplace. Charter operators, much like physicians decry the commoditization of a custom service that can be reduced down to a simplistic "Where to?" and "When?" and "How much?". They don't like having to post transparent price quotes according to an algorithm. On the other hand, charter brokers, corporate clients and even insurers are happy with a price-driven buyer's market because there's opportunity to make money.

The process is far from seamless, which is why, unless you've been trained as a travel agent or professional travel counselor, you could risk overlooking a step or detail that must be added to the online resource to complete the plans - something our experts know from end-to-end.  My advice if you are unsure include two critical recommendations: ask for help and start with simple arrangements (domestic) where visa, immigration, refueling stops and other complications are not necessary.  Don't attempt international or even long distance domestic flights without a few trips under your belt.

We use the online web resources to get estimates and frame up plans. We often encounter expired flights in empty leg lists, and sometimes that an operator has abandoned their online inquiry and sales interface because volumes were too low to maintain. This is where the professionalism comes in.  Our experts know that each charter aircraft has as basic configuration and passenger capacity , a flight range, and airspeed. So if one operator is flying a Lear Jet or a Cessna prop plane, we can make some valid assumptions even if the price and aircraft are not current listings.

We don't know if we will ever witness the development of a true online marketplace for charter jet arrangements like we see with Uber. That's because to do so requires automated quotes, algorithms and the fact that the charter operators sill want some discretionary power for final approval to sell the space and adjust the prices on an individual basis - which is not conducive to e-commerce.  When we've seen on online charter broker that touts "we have it all", we generally find that to be an overstatement and often discover click-bait tactics and search-engine optimization strategies that are tremendous time wasters. So if you choose the charter route, you'll come up with a few suppliers and sites you work with and gain your loyalty as a medical travel facilitator.  Major brokers who really "have it all" tend to do business directly, and not through online portals. Most charter brokers simply don't have the capital, expertise and technology to build their own online portal.

Mercury Health Travel Arranges Corporate Medical Travel Services in the USA and 106 countries

Online platforms used by Mercury Health Travel's experts:

  • PrivateFly
  • Victor
  • Stratajet
  • Avinode (established in 2002)
  • ReturnJet

Apps in the charter flight world we use from time to time

  • NetJets (fractional ownership)
  • VistaJet
  • The Aircraft Guide (from London brokerage Air Charter Service)
  • Skyjet ( and its sister companies, Sentient and Flight Options)
  • BlackJet (Major US cities / membership model)
  • JetSmarter (ad hoc and membership model)
  • JetShuttle (group charter flights)
  • XO Jet (From Stellar labs - an aviation yield management pioneer)

If a large corporate client intends to use their medical travel program frequently, we tend to recommend that they decide on one or two charter options and negotiate volume discounts for their company.

What do the clients think about using charter flights?

One objection we've received from some corporations is that they don't want all their top executives on a single aircraft. In fact, in some companies two executives at certain levels are not permitted to fly together - not even on commercial flights. In corporate medical travel, time is money and risk takes on a whole new meaning when the employer or labor union selects solutions providers for its health and wellness programs.

We help clients identify the right solutions partners for their needs. The most expensive mistake they can make is to select the wrong providers, destinations, and support partners for their program. We use technology and epidemiological data to conduct a detailed analysis of their population, its health and wellness needs, corporate travel patterns and preferences,  cultural and linguistic situation, and then we create financial models and identify which models make the most sense and offer the best opportunities for our clients. We recommend the solutions and partners that present long-term economies of scale, dependability, program expansion over time and value retention for their investment in the program they implement.

We help them choose the best providers, suppliers and destinations for their program. We share in no "sweet deals", no "understandings", no "special arrangements" or side deals with with providers. We represent the corporate purchaser and only the corporate purchaser in the process of selecting from our Pre-Approved Providers, but we always say yes if they want to do business with a provider who has not yet been approved. Approval centers on the results of an inspection and due diligence check. Mercury Health Travel receives no compensation from anyone other than our corporate medical travel clients for our services.  We go with them to conduct the pre-negotiation site inspection of health facilities, clinics, hotels, airports, and to meet with key medical and dental professionals and hospital executives. The team members who accompany the corporate buyers are intimately familiar with medical travel operations, hospital facility and clinical management and operations. Our team includes doctors and nurses who observe operations in operating theater, central processing, and on the nursing units, physical and occupational therapists who observe and inspect rehab centers, and former hospital executives who assist our clients through the negotiation proceedings.

Our knowledge of the medical travel industry helps our clients determine and negotiate value and rates.  Our experts are aware of the one-off consumer price ranges in the B2C world, but we negotiate a volume steerage, without commission payments that is more closely aligned with a wholesale buying model. Therefore we expect to help our clients negotiate exclusive, lower than internet advertised B2C prices for the services and procedures they will finalize and include in their unique programs.  We follow the market and our proprietary databases are like price guides - available only to our clients - that have been maintained over the years. The price information give our clients a general sense of current market and past pricing trends in the USA and abroad.  That requires both historical knowledge, managed care knowledge, an understanding of ERISA, Taft Hartley and other regulatory matters, and reams of data together with our proprietary analytical tools and modeling software.

We bring all the necessary specialists to work with our clients so that the deal can be closed quickly. This includes benefits documentation specialists, case managers, travel planners, epidemiologists and others. We serve as the transaction conductor, keeping teams and clients coordinated. We bring the technology to the deal that manages the details that extend far beyond the deal points where most benefits consultants drop off because they lack the competence to go further in the transaction.  In this highly regulated arena of corporate medical travel coordination and administration, a seemingly minor paperwork glitch can delay and add financial or plan participant risk that could otherwise be avoided. This is also what amuses us when we see conferences and events where novices expect to approach corporate benefit buyers and employer representatives and apply the B2C model of medical tourism facilitation to the corporate setting. That's a scenario that may sell lots of event tickets for the event organizer but little, if anything happens in the way of real business being transacted. We find the B2B meetings between facilitators and corporate buyers a waste of our time. After more than 30 years in medical travel, we've never brought home an eventual closed sale from any of them. We've determined that while it makes sense on paper, in reality, that's not how the business of corporate medical travel is done in most cases.

International transactions and negotiations increase the complexity exponentially. Facilitators who attends an event hoping to score a deal with a corporate buyer are often disappointed to learn that the buyer has a "Buy American" policy. That buyer won't be interested in speaking with facilitators who have no connections to US medical, dental and rehabilitation providers in their networks - no matter how much money they might save.

Medical tourism facilitators must learn every aspect of travel management and travel planning for medical and dental clients, checkup clients and wellness travelers. Otherwise, they are viewed as simply a commodity appointment seller with little actual value to the client.

FBO coordination

FBO facilities are another dimension of the charter world that facilitators and coordinators must learn about. FBO means "fixed base operations" in the aviation industry.  FBOs are an essential part of the corporate medical travel coordination world. FBOs offer beautifully appointed lounges and waiting areas for passengers and crews, and offer services such as fueling, de-icing, maintenance and shelter.  One thing we've learned is that the FBO is something that is an American phenomenon, not often seen in Europe and other locations.

When Mercury Health Travel coordinates corporate medical travel that will use charter air services, we inspect not only the commercial airport, but also the FBOs that will be used to determine alignment and integration of services and that it meets the client's requirements.  This includes and inspection and review of line services - the competence and professionalism of the workers who meet the aircraft on the ramp and service it; the passenger amenities - including the quality and decor of lounges, conference rooms, internet service and ground transportation availability; pilot amenities - to keep pilots refreshed, an allow them a place to relax, take a nap, get a shower and file flight plans, offer complimentary crew cars and entertainment and recreation offerings; facility management - cleanliness, comfort, upkeep, landscaping, and convenience of the FBO; and customer service - the professionalism of the customer service representatives, their familiarity with local attractions, amenities and dining and entertainment options, concierge services, meeting planning and catering.  

Mercury Health Travel inspectors and analysts benchmark our scoring against some of the best FBOs in the world, as rated by Aviation International News (AIN) rankings. Two of the top FBOs in the world happen to be in Colorado (congrats to Black Canyon Jet Center in Gunnison, and Xjet in Centennial - just south of Denver).

 

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