Justin Crabbe has an appetite for pitting himself against players much bigger than him. Twelve years ago, at a Florida airport, he was sitting in a small plane waiting to take off. There was a Boeing 737 ahead of him and an even bigger aircraft lined up behind him.
“It’s absolutely amazing that you are flying with these massive jets, just so incredibly large, and you are in a very small aircraft,” he recalled.
A lot has changed since then for the Seneca grad from Richmond Hill. A born challenger or, in his own words, a disruptor, Crabbe, 32, is now an experienced pilot and founder and CEO of Jettly, an on-demand private jet charter company.
In its first year, Jettly earned more than $1 million in sales and at that time it was flying only within North America. Now, it flies to 190 countries and is challenging pretty much every global airline and charter broker, along with behemoths like NetJets, the first private business jet charter company in the world owned by American billionaire Warren Buffett.
“We’re up against big players,” Crabbe said. “I refer to them as the taxi cab before Uber in the sense that they are ready to be disrupted by a leaner operation like Jettly.”
Jettly, a mobile app Crabbe developed, is giving entrenched players in the field a run for their money. It connects clients seeking private travel with aircraft owners who have unused or underutilized jets. To charter a jet, customers simply log in to the app, select an aircraft type, enter their departure and destination and request a pickup. Think Expedia for private aviation or Uber in the air.
Through Jettly, owners of more than 9,000 planes are connected with 28,000 potential customers who pay between $370 and $997 monthly for a Jettly membership, depending on how many flights they foresee booking.
“You can put in an application from Canada for a flight to Germany and China, and the app would automatically start collecting quotes similar to how you would call an Uber,” Crabbe said. “The growth has been tremendous. We receive thousands of flight requests every month.”
The spurt in the demand for charter aircraft had Jettly recently arranging 20 planes — at US$55,000 each — to a festival in Nevada.
“It really starts to make sense when you have an airplane and you fill it to capacity with your family or friends,” Crabbe said. “In a lot of cases, it is less than the price of a commercial ticket at Pearson.”
While Crabbe has made himself one of the most successful entrepreneurs in private aviation, he had wanted to become a police officer at one time, graduating from Seneca’s Police Foundations diploma program in 2007.
“The policing attracted me because it isn’t necessarily academic, it isn’t a traditional profession and every day promises to be different,” he said. “It isn’t mundane or robotic. It’s like flying where you never know what awaits you at each landing and takeoff.”
However, at 19 years old at the time, Crabbe wasn’t ready for the force. He went on to enrol in the Honours Bachelor of Technology – Informatics and Security degree program, which, he said, changed the course of his life.
“We were tasked to build an e-commerce platform. The skills I learned then I used in my first business and it really took off,” Crabbe said.
That first venture was to import chemicals for use in university labs and even though he was a novice, he made money. The success gave him an appetite for more and he started sourcing in-demand products from China to sell in Canada. Eager for the rough and tumble of the business world, Crabbe left his second Seneca program prematurely.
That being said, “All of it, whatever I’m doing today, started because of Seneca and the informatics program,” he said. “I love the school, it’s a good school. I think it’s better than university because it’s applied education. Universities barely scratch the surface. They teach you general topics, but Seneca teaches you applied education, which you can transfer to your career, as happened in my case.”
While Jettly is on the cusp of expanding, Crabbe is in search of newer opportunities, perhaps something to combat climate change.
“It has never been as easy as now to start things,” he said. “As a millennial, you’ve just got to go out there and start. An idea is only an idea but execution is the key and it doesn’t cost a lot of money anymore to execute ideas. There are platforms and services available, just like Shopify. So where five to seven years ago, you’d have needed $100,000 or $200,000 to create an application, you have really low-cost platforms now. Things have changed dramatically.”