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Charter travel, then and now

SmarterTravel

Charter travel—like cheap standby and courier travel—is an air travel legend that has fared better in the public mind than in reality. Once a major player, especially in international travel, charter travel is now at a small fraction of its peak. Still, travelers are curious. A reader recently asked, “Can you tell me if there is a site where charter airlines’ fares are compared?”

The short answers:

  • As far as I can tell, there are hardly any true charter flights available to the public these days, and the few that remain almost never list fares online.
  • Although not actually charters, several airlines continue to operate the way true charters used to operate. Some of them show fares through the big comparison sites, others don’t, so if you want to check all your options, visit each individual line’s website.

If you want somewhat more detailed answers, here they are.

The basic charter idea

As the name implies, a true charter flight is operated by an airline on behalf of some third party: a tour operator, vacation packager, sports team, a government, a church, or whatever. The key factor is that the third party, not the airline, is entirely responsible for setting prices (if any), filling the plane, and everything else except the pure operation of the flight.

In a “part charter” flight—now rare, as far as I can tell—a third party charters some of the seats on a flight, and the airline operates the other seats as it usually operates its own flights.

Charters used by the public have had a checkered history in the U.S., and almost all of the problems arose because of the split responsibility between airline and third-party charterer. In several well publicized worst cases, tour operators went broke after they had collected the travelers’ money but before the airlines completed the flights, leaving travelers stranded—sometimes overseas—with neither their money nor their flights.

The rise and fall of the charter flights

Public charters became important in the 1950s and 1960s, especially for flights to Europe. At the beginning of the period, the U.S. government (and other governments) were concerned primarily with “protecting” their major scheduled airlines, so they exercised strict limits on charter flying. Even before full deregulation, however, charter rules were gradually liberalized.

Single entity charters. At first, only “single entities” could charter flights. That class included governments, sports teams, churches, and such. But for the general public, only pre-existing organizations, with a primary purpose other than travel, could charter flights. Sometime in the 1950s, for example, an attorney friend took a charter flight to Europe for the Chicago Bar Association, with only Association members and their families allowed on those flights. The group paid the airline a flat fee for the flight, and spread the costs among its members as it saw fit. The average cost was much lower than the least expensive scheduled flights—less than 50 percent, in many cases.

Early on, several enterprising organizations figured out a way to sell single-entity charters to individual travelers. They formed phony “clubs,” with just enough of a social program to satisfy the governments, and arranged flights individually for members. At one point, the largest such club, United European American Club, had more than 200,000 members and ran dozens of flights every year. Other groups did the same thing to Asia as well as to Europe.

During this period, charter flights were operated by such charter-only airlines as Transamerica and World Airways as well as by the scheduled airlines. Typically, charter seating was tighter than economy seating on the scheduled lines, which was a lot better than it is now. The first charter flight I ever took was on a charter-configured Lufthansa 707. Flights operated on most routes only once or twice a week.

Travel group and public charters. As public demand for cheap air travel grew, the government loosened rules. Tour operators were first allowed to sell air/hotel packages, then air-only trips individually to the general public. Still, it was the tour operators, not the airlines, that set prices and sold tickets.

Deregulation. Starting in the late 1970s, the liberalization of airline regulation by the U.S. and European governments allowed the scheduled airlines to sell seats for about what the tour operators charged for charters. Without a big price advantage, the charter business slowly contracted. Because Asian governments dragged their heels on liberalization, the giant lines filled demand for low-fare transpacific travel by selling cheap tickets through consolidators.

Charter and charter-like airlines

Early on, specialized airlines dominated the charter field. But liberalization allowed those charter airlines to convert their official government certificates to conventional “scheduled” status, and most did. No U.S. charter-only line has remained successful purely to fly public charters. As far as I know, the largest remaining true charter airline in North America is Canada’s Skyservice.

The former U.S. charter lines now cater to some combination of niche roles. Some do most of their business as pure contract carriers, moving U.S. military forces and material around the globe, flying “hadj” pilgrims to and from Mecca, hauling sports teams, doing occasional special flights for big tour operators, and such. Some also fly “wet lease” flights for scheduled lines that need additional short-term capacity. ATA, North American, and USA 3000 operate a combination of scheduled and charter flights.

Several big European charter lines, including Condor, LTU, and Martinair, fared better, largely because the bulk of their business consisted (and still consists) of air/hotel packages sold to Europeans, with a minor amount of fill-up from U.S. travelers.

I describe those remaining lines as “charter-like.” Although they’re now under the same government rules as the scheduled lines, they still operate much as before. They fly each route only a few days per week and still sell many—if not most—of their seats as air/hotel packages.

On the websites

I checked a few routes and found that fares on some charter-like lines are available through such websites as Expedia and Kayak, others are not. Kayak, for example, has fares on Air Transat, Condor, LTU, and North American, but not Skyservice and a few others.

In some previous reports, I list some of the charter-like airlines that currently fly from the U.S. and Canada to Europe and Asia, with links to their websites. If you really want to check all the charter-like options, check out the individual websites to make sure you cover all the bases.

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)

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