Air Charter used to be viable for only the richest corporations. But today, meeting organizers are finding that air charter can be a cost-effective alternative to scheduled commercial flights.

Here's what you need to know to get started:

* There are hundreds of aircraft types available for charter in the U.S., ranging in size from a Learjet that seats up to seven passengers to a widebody 747 that seats 470.

* There are two types of entities that charter: air charter companies and air charter brokers. An air charter company owns a set fleet of aircraft that it manages and flies. Air charter brokers act as agents for a much larger inventory of aircraft that they lease from various carriers.

* Charter fees are based on set hourly rates.

* Chartering is most cost effective when every seat is filled. You can save money by piggybacking with a charter flight that fits in with your itinerary.

* It is most cost effective to find an aircraft whose home base is close to your departure city

* or destination. (This avoids "ferry charges:" the cost of moving an empty aircraft.)

* Some aircraft are easier to charter than others. The 170-seat 727 is the most widely available plane (and consequently the most commonly chartered).

* Fuel stops or stopping to pick up a portion of your group en-route to a destination is expensive. Even if the aircraft fits your group size, a charter is not cost effective if the plane has to make a stop.

* If your corporation has policies that prohibit putting all of the group on the same flight, charter may still be cost effective if you use two planes instead of one. For example, a group of 350 executives can be split for charter travel on two 727s with 170 seats each instead of traveling on one DC-10 with 380 seats.

* Charter aircraft can be customized for your group. Meetings or entertainment can take place on board, for example, or meals can be upgraded and themed to the cuisine of your destination.

* The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspects and licenses charter carriers under the same safety guidelines as the major U.S. carriers.

* If there's a weather emergency or technical snafu, expect charter carriers to follow U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines--which means you will not receive a refund if the flight is delayed.

* For hard-to-reach destinations, consider gathering attendees at a gateway airport. For instance, a group of incentive winners flying to Nevis from various U.S. cities could meet at Miami or San Juan to catch their charter flight.

* Charters can be a good choice for last-minute meetings. They usually require just a 24-hour window for groups of 20 people or more, but a month's lead time is recommended.

To see if air charter is viable for your meeting or incentive program, go to a one-stop-shop online pricing and reservation system. AirCharterNet analyzes your itinerary, broadcasts that information to selected customers (keeping your company name anonymous), and submits price quotes. You can also call AirCharterNet at (800)293-1976.