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Virgin Charter Launches Vertical Search Engine

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Sir Riichard Branson launched a new vertical search engine, Virgin Charter, that promises to revolutionize high-end corporate travel and last minute luxury travel.

Scott Duffy, Virgin Charter CEO, said his search engine combines three of the best ideas on the Internet: local search user and seller reviews (eBay); Priceline's auction; and the "simplicity of Expedia."

They're partnering exclusively, though, with Travelocity Business as online business travel agency. Virgin Charter's targeting the $30 billion market for private air travel with an online auction marketplace.

To put the private charter "size of market" in perspective, $30 billion is roughly the total size of the search market. That's one reason why vertical search promises exponential growth in coming years.

Last year JPMorgan Chase predicted search would reach more than $30 billion this year. Search totaled just over $26 billion in 2007. The JP Morgan Chase forecast estimated search could reach $60 billion by 2011.

On the Virgin Charter "Travel 2.0" site, you can submit a trip request (standard vertical search engine data: preferred trip dates, locations, special requests) to charter air operators. The Virgin Charter system sends your request to a network of safety-certified charter carriers.

As with LendingTree and financial services vertical search engines, you compare custom quotes and offers. Charter operators openly compete to win your business, offering detailed quotes based on your request.

Searchers can select based on price, operator, plane type, flyer reviews, and (J.D. Power) quality ratings. On some flights, smoking may be permitted. Some operators may allow pets to travel. No word on whether snakes are allowed on any planes.

Virgin Charter also offers "Hot Deals" - empty legs - inventory that the charter industry traditionally allows to perish. That's great news for the hotel industry. Virgin Charter may create a new class of passenger: the last minute luxury traveler.

An empty leg is the outbound or return flight of a trip that's been partially booked.
Virgin Charter lets searchers bid on an empty leg flight. The charter operator would decide whether to accept the offer or counter. It's like Priceline with humans, a bazaar concept in which buyer and seller might haggle.

Virgin markets empty legs as "the greener way to go" since the plane must fly. Unless of course, it doesn't. Virgin cautions people that an empty leg flight may change or be cancelled since it's based on a trip for another passenger. If that customer changes his originating flight, you're out of luck. Empty legs should be used for last minute travel when your schedule's flexible.

The early adopters? More likely to be the low-end FHM Top 10 or Sci-Fi starlets like Victoria Pratt, Melissa George, Natasha Henstridge or Claudia Black.

Personal assistants to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and even the Real Housewives of New York City wouldn't dare risk empty leg syndrome.

Pics after the jump.

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