At first glance, Steve King and Bobby Bonilla wouldn’t appear to have much in common.
King is a venture capitalist and former banking executive who made his mark boosting profits for the high-powered businesses he consults with.
Bonilla — with an much bulkier frame and a more laid-back personality — is a retired major league baseball star who spent nearly two decades as a slugger in the big leagues.
The two met as neighbors, with one commonality that forged an instant friendship and an eventual business partnership.
Both men love to fly.
Each has a private pilot’s license and owns his own aircraft. They also were members of programs that allow them to charter private jets.
Forget the busy airport terminals, checking bags and boarding crowded airliners. These two only fly in private planes, where someone takes their bag as they walk up the stairs to enter a business jet with an interior as quiet and luxurious as a chauffeured limousine in the sky.
But both also often found themselves complaining to each other about the volatile cost and sometimes lackluster service of jet programs.
So maybe it only made sense for them to start a charter jet service together.
The duo now believes they’ve improved the experience for wealthy individuals who want the utmost luxury when they’re 40,000 feet off of the ground.
“We realized these guys are making a ton of money,” King said of the growing number of people turning to chartered planes. “They’re flying privately, but they were not always satisfied with the process.”
Filling a need
King and Bonilla launched AeroIQ LLC in 2012 to fill what they saw as a hole in the market.
The two use their insider knowledge of the aviation industry to scout for deals on charter planes, then tap into their connections with affluent frequent flyers to build up a customer base.
The company doesn’t own a fleet of planes. It’s not a fixed-based operator. Think of AeroIQ LLC more as brokers, who serve as the middle men between their customers who need a flight and jet operators who want to fill their planes.
From a fourth-floor suite in the downtown HuB building, where model planes sit atop desks in a modern, open space, the staff of six uses online software — almost like a real estate Multiple Listing Service for planes — to find available flights.
Although the company is based in Sarasota, most of its clients have never traveled here.
The goal is to find a private chartered flight with an empty leg that matches a route their customers need. That way, the owner of the plane is not wasting money gassing up and staffing an empty aircraft to return home, and King and Bonilla — and their clients — get a relative bargain because the operator already made the majority of its expected earnings on the first run.
They believe their business model can save customers money compared with using prepaid private jet cards — which sell luxury travel based on an hourly rate — and other companies that carry overhead to operate their own fleet.
“Our goal wasn’t to reinvent anything, because the infrastructure is already there,” King said. “In a jet, you could be sitting in the back seat, and I could be going 400 mph or 500 mph, and you would never know.” But such a difference in speed can make a difference in flight duration — and cost.
“When you’re dealing with thousands of dollars, every extra minute becomes very expensive,” he said.
Catering to the wealthy
Aside from the intricacies of playing aviation matchmakers, it’s also a very detailed, people business.
If a wealthy sports star likes Popeye’s Chicken (a popular request), they make sure there’s a box of crispy golden strips on the plane. If there’s a customer demand for purple Gatorade, a mini-fridge on the jet will be stocked full.
King and Bonilla are often on the phone late into the night, dealing with unusual requests like trying to find a barbecue joint near where a plane will land the next day or hooking up clients with last-minute flights.
Their clients include some of the wealthiest travelers in the country. Baseball all-star Prince Fielder once posted a picture on his Instagram page of himself traveling with AeroIQ.
But King and Bonilla say that, more and more, even the not-so-rich are turning to its services, especially families with young children and pet lovers with animals they don’t want to leave in a commercial aircraft’s cargo hold. In fact, about three-fourths of all AeroIQ passengers take a furry friend along for the ride.
Whatever the reason, once a customer flies private, they typically don’t return to the likes of Delta or Jet Blue.
“Flying private is sexy,” Bonilla said. “We never tell them it isn’t expensive. It is expensive. But if you can go somewhere and not have to pay the Rolls Royce price, why not?”
“We don’t have middle seats on our planes,” King said with a smile. “There are ways to fly private. It’s not just for the rich and famous.”
But not just the super rich
Company representatives declined to discuss earning estimates.
But King said since the launch three years ago, gross revenues have grown each year and the company has done “several million dollars” worth of business.
AeroIQ profits by taking a cut from private charter bookings. Unlike a real estate commission, that markup varies, depending on the trip.
The cost per flight also fluctuates widely, depending on the aircraft, distance and competing demand for the route.
But flights on such common routes as California to New York give a general idea of the costs. Flying west to east takes less time and therefore costs less because those flights usually have a tail wind, King said.
“On a heavy jet, that is usually a $26,000 to $28,000 leg,” he said. “We have been able to get that same leg for our clients in the $20,000 range, depending on availability.”
Another common leg, from New York to Florida, might normally cost $13,000 to $15,000, and AeroIQ routinely can charge $10,000 to $12,000, he said.
But the company says it is possible to fly on a private jet for under $500, especially if the flyer doesn’t mind a little driving to get to the plane or traveling at unusual hours.
“You have to know how to look, where to look and have a good relationship with (aircraft) operators,” King said. “The people we have flying private now would blow your mind.”