I had the pleasure to interview Joel Thomas, the President of Stratos Jet Charters. Joel has served on the board of the Air Charter Association of North America as President, as Vice President and Chairman. Thomas has been called on repeatedly to represent the air charter brokerage industry, from ACANA panel discussions to speaking at several key events; including the Wyvern “Standout with Safety Forum” and the Air Charter Safety Foundations “Aviation Safety Symposium”. Joel Thomas has also contributed to numerous articles that have been published by the Air Charter Journal, NATA’s Aviation Business Magazine, Business Jet Traveler, Charter Broker.aero and the Gallery Magazine. Under Thomas’s leadership, Stratos Jet Charters has grown into one of the nations most respected air charter agencies. Mr. Thomas attributes the success of his company to his faith in God and positive client experiences that have rewarded his company with a strong repeat customer base, key beneficial industry relationships and consistent year-to-year growth.
Thank you so much for joining us Joel! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was a kid, my dad became a private pilot. One day, when I was in 6th grade, after my mom dropped me off for school, he picked me up to go to lunch. We went down to the Orlando Executive Airport, he handed me my passport and pointed at the door of his Bonanza and said “Get in! We’re going to lunch in the Bahamas.” It was my first time in a small plane. As we flew over the barrier islands, I fell in love with aviation. Back then, the airport had a really great pilot culture. I used to ride my bike to the airport to hang out with dad and be around the planes. Always hoping to go for a ride with someone who was flying ‘touch-n-go’s. My dad was president of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and would often host Fly-in Breakfasts, First Friday cookouts and organize “EAA Young Eagle” events (where pilots would take young kids for their first flights in small airplanes.)
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Just out of college, I was dating a girl who was an executive assistant to a successful guy here in Orlando. He asked her to help him book a private jet, so she contacted me to see if I knew of anyone who could help. I connected her with a local guy and we put the the trip together. On the day of his flight, Dad and I went down to the airport to see the plane and get to know the guy who helped with the charter. After they departed, my dad told me something that I’ve never forgotten. He said “Son, you can build a better jet charter company than this.” That moment, those words he spoke to me changed the course of my life. I had a good job as a Financial Advisor at Edward Jones, but I wasn’t passionate about it. I loved aviation and dad believed in me. So, at 25 years old, I quit my job and started Stratos Jets. That was back in the fall of 2006. Ever since, I have set out live up to that charge from my dad and continue to build a “better jet charter company”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As I got the company up and running, I constantly asked my dad for advice. Should I do this? Should I put an ad here? One afternoon, I called him while he was at the office and desperately wanted him to help me make a big decision. He listened as I explained the situation, paused and then told me “Joel, you’re the CEO.” This simple four-word statement empowered me to become a CEO, to make decisions and to drive the company forward..
How deep does Stratos dive into the quality of maintenance and overall safety of the chartered jets? Since they are spread across the nation, can Stratos do more than rely on FAA required documentation? Does Stratos arrange for an onsite inspection?
This is a great question. Early on in my career, I enrolled in flight school and became a pilot. This gave me a wealth of knowledge and new insights into our industry. I strongly felt that one of the most important roles Stratos should serve, is to help expand the clients margin of safety with every flight.
As we began to book more and more flights, I discovered that not all air carriers are made equally. In fact, there can be a broad disparity in the quality from carrier to carrier. This led Stratos to develop an air carrier due diligence program. Initially, we asked the carrier to provide specific documentation assuring that they were a legitimate air carrier (Part 135 cert), that the plane they were flying was registered on their certificate (D085) and that we would be added as additionally insured. This gave us assurance that they were at least licensed and compiled with the FAR135 Regulations. But as our company continued to grow, we began to identify that there is much more to safety than certification. Safety is a byproduct of culture. The more we learned about the industry and what goes into a safe flight, the more identifiable bad actors became. By 2009/2010 Stratos Jets began to grow into a very well-known charter brokerage. Our team became very active within the industry. We attend all of the NBAA Regional conventions, schedulers and dispatchers conferences, and make a point of connecting in person with our air carrier partners. As a pilot myself, I am constantly stopping in to visit with our vendors. I call it vendor development.
In 2009 or 2010, I took a board position with the Air Charter Association of North America (now the ACA), and was invited to speak at Wyvern’s Stand Out with Safety Conference as well as with the Air Charter Safety Foundation’s annual Safety Symposium. I worked with ARGUS (The world leader in Aviation Safety) to develop Stratos best practices and became an ARGUS Certified Broker.
Our longevity, breadth of relationships and level of industry leadership and involvement gives us a great deal of clarity into an operation. While most brokers in the industry tout that they have access to 20,000 or whatever private jets, I found our company taking pride in the fact that 90% of our business is driven to fewer than 70 of the most reputable air carriers in America.
Do the ups and downs of oil prices create ups and downs in charter demand? Or, are the increases relatively minimal given the needs of a small jet, and hence charter is still an affordable solution?
In recent years, oil prices have remained relatively stable and low. The US no longer being dependent upon foreign sources of energy have provided us with more predictable pricing. I wouldn’t say that costs for air charter are down, though. The demand for air charter is very strong and I believe the supply of aircraft lags behind that demand. One of the ways Stratos has helped our clients save money is through the development of a technology platform that gives us a unique insight into the positioning and availability of aircraft of our preferred air carriers. This allows us to minimize repositioning and present a range of aircraft. This technology also allows our Private Flight Advisors to help our clients select the aircraft with the appropriate performance characteristics for each flight.
What assurance do you provide as to the quality of the pilot? Is every pilot in your system? Do you request specific pilots, or rely on the overall quality of the vendor?
Operational background, aircraft performance and safety certifications are all indicators of a safe operation. However, nothing plays a bigger role in the safety of the passengers than the competency of the crew.
Stratos requires two highly trained and experienced crew members. We don’t just look at how many flight hours they’ve logged, but seek to ensure they have strong familiarity with the aircraft they are flying.
All of our bookings are contingent on the carrier being able to provide a Stratos qualified crew. As a proud ARGUS Certified Broker, Stratos has the resources to dive deep into the experience of every crew member assigned to a flight. Our Trip Coordination team uses the ARGUS CHEQ and TRIPCHEQ services to routinely audit the carrier as well as understand the crew experience. When crew members are assigned who don’t meet our minimum experience criteria, we petition the carrier to pair us with a crew that qualifies. If they can’t, we will explain the issue to our client and present them with replacement options. If they are SOAR members with Stratos, we will substitute the aircraft with a qualified crew at our expense.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I first started Stratos, My dad charged me to build a better jet charter company. As I thought about what that would look like, I observed that the industry lacked any real standard of ethics, client advocacy or professionalism. Particularly by charter brokers.
As I set out to create my company, to make my way in this industry, I asked God for clarity in how I could honor him with my life’s work. I prayed about the role I would take, the people I would interact with and the impact I could make. In only a matter of moments of seeking God’s guidance for my life and the company I was going to build, a vision for who we were to become was established. That vision is to provide an air charter service that educates our clients and to help them make an informed buying decision. We exist to serve our clients, to be their educational resource, to provide fair pricing and honest advice. Our goal is to build long-term client relationships through continually representing their best interest. Our vision shapes our values and our culture.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
I once read a quote that said, “If you want people to build a boat, you don’t tell them to gather wood and assign them tasks, you teach them to dream of the endless enormity of the sea.”
Over the 14 years of leading Stratos Jets and its team, I have learned the importance of vision casting. Early on, when I first started hiring, it was easy to pour out that vision, to craft the culture of our company. But in any business, people come and go. As your company grows, that founding vision begins to fade. The company you created doesn’t look like the company you once knew. You find yourself scratching your head wondering, what happened? Don’t these people know what we’re all about?
I truly believe that the best leaders are the ones who cast the clearest vision for their company. It takes clarity and repetition to make vision stick. At my company, we don’t just hand new hires a training manual with our company’s vision buried somewhere in the introductory paragraphs. We live it and breathe it. It is the lifeblood of our company and why we exist.
As I observe my team members, particularly our Private Flight Advisors and Trip Coordinators, it’s evident that they’ve bought in to our culture as they talk with clients about their private travel needs.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes — Colossians 3:23 — Whatever you do, work at it as if you’re working for the Lord. This means that we are living for something greater than ourselves. By seeking to honor God in all that we think, say and do, Stratos has built strong relationships with the most reputable air carriers in the world and have the blessing of strong repeat relationships with our clients.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Reflecting on my time serving in this industry, I would have to say that it was not the beginning of my journey that was the hardest. Rather, it came after we were well established. By 2012, Stratos was buying millions of dollars of wholesale charter per month. We had a large team of very successful agents. On paper, things were incredible. But, as I evaluated my team, I found that each agent was delivering a different customer experience. I felt that this put Stratos’s reputation at risk and I needed to establish processes that would standardize our customer experience.
That summer, I came up with what I called Stage 3 organizational structure. We began to departmentalize the customer journey. We invested in proprietary technology that would manage the flow of information from the initial web visit and consultation, to flight coordination and through the invoicing process. On the surface it sounds like a logical and easy step. However, changing the way sales people, who have been successful for a long period of time, interact with their clients, came with major adversity. As I implemented changes to “build a better jet Charter company,” I learned who on my team was truly invested in the long-term health of Stratos and who was only interested in themselves.
Over the next few years, I faced incredible adversity. I lost a number of sales agents, but never lost sight of my goal. As I shared with my dad my fears of failure and the road ahead, he told me “You’ve got what it takes”. I believed him and I believed in the vision of Stratos Jets. I also believed that as the industry matured, the client would demand more from their private jet company. I pressed on. I worked 100+hour weeks. Invested first and paid myself last.
Building a business is not easy. Re-building a business in a world of Venture Cap and Private Equity that serves the most powerful, influential and affluent demographic is almost impossible. In the time since rebuilding, there have been new models introduced, wild claims of companies being the next Uber for Private Jets. Despite these headwinds and the increased competition, Stratos soars higher than ever before. We have a team that lives and breathes our vision.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Today we have a healthy culture. Our Private Flight Advisors are extremely knowledgeable, Our Air Carrier relationships are extremely valuable and the buy-in from our customers is the strongest it has ever been. Our culture has been the recipe for our success. We simply do what is right for the client and the rest takes care of itself.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Leaders Eat Last
- You must have a Why that is bigger than things money can buy
- Remember small acts of faithfulness in little things, over long periods of time result in a successful life
- Care deeply about the people you lead and they will care deeply about the people they lead
- Courage comes from the support we feel from others. That support is a derivative of the investment you’ve made in them. When you display courage, those you lead will also display courage.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My dad. There are three moments in my career that I can point to where he set a new course for my life:
● You can build a better Jet Charter company
● You’re the CEO
● You’ve got what it takes
One of the most meaningful and wonderful things he has told me came recently when he told me “I am proud of you.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
That is very kind. I believe that movement already exists. Christians believe that everyone matters. That there is not a person alive that doesn’t have dignity, worth and an eternal purpose. Loving someone looks a lot like helping people to know their worth, find their purpose and become the best version of themselves. I would like only to perpetuate it further.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Stratos Jets on Facebook and @stratosjets on IG