Taxis in the Sky

How tiny jets, Soviet-trained math prodigies, American “ant farmers,” and dot-com refugees are revolutionizing air travel
OPENING-DAY GLAMOUR A passenger leaves an Eclipse on a Boca Raton runway on the first day of DayJet's on-demand air-taxi service

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Slideshow: "A Day on the DayJet"

Photographs by James Fallows

True, a cover story I wrote for this magazine seven years ago, contending that the era of tiny, convenient, and relatively affordable jet airplanes was at hand, won an Article of the Year award from an aviation lobbying group. But it would be fair to describe the broader reaction as: Oh, sure! (“Freedom of the Skies,” June 2001, was excerpted from my book Free Flight.) New and more fuel-efficient jet engines; new, quieter, and more comfortable small airplanes; new and more-automated ways of routing aircraft around bad weather and away from congested areas—these and other innovations, I wrote, might make a new kind of air travel more practical for more people. This wouldn’t mean personal aviation in the Jetsons sense—a plane in every garage, people zooming around at will. But it might provide business travelers with something that until then only the truly rich had enjoyed: a fast and personalized alternative to the ever less delightful experience of travel on commercial airlines.

Most readers thought that personal airplanes, like personal yachts, would always be the playthings of the very rich. The familiar (and aptly named) Airbus or Boeing aircraft would have to do, as would impenetrable modern fare structures and the grind of big-airport congestion. It obviously didn’t help that three months later, the use of passenger airplanes as terrorist tools put aviation in general under new limits and scrutiny. Allow new routes and possibilities for air travel? Ha! Everything air-related was destined to be more controlled.

And as if this change in circumstance weren’t enough: a year after my article and book appeared, the company that had made the boldest promises about its ability to deliver a small, cheap jet—Eclipse Aviation, of Albuquerque, the very company I had featured in my story—revealed the humiliating news that the radically light and efficient new engine around which it had designed the airplane was just not going to work. Eclipse put plans for its vaunted new EA500 jet on hold until it could figure out a replacement engine.

Because of problems like these—and more—the aviation establishment has also been highly skeptical that light-jet air taxis could ever pay their way. The prominent analyst Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, in suburban Washington, has argued that the potential market is so small, and the costs and risks so large, that the air-taxi concept is mainly hype and wishful thinking.

Certainly, the vision might turn out to be a mirage. Given the rocky history of most air-travel companies, that may be the most likely result. Still: early this year, on a visit home from China, I stepped inside one of those very same EA500 airplanes and took a 40-minute flight at more than 350 miles per hour. The plane took off from Boca Raton, Florida, which has a small airport but no commercial airline flights. It landed about 160 miles north in Florida at Lakeland, a sizable inland city with a large runway-and-terminal complex but no commercial flights. If I’d been driving, the trip would have taken about four hours. If I’d booked this seat on the plane (it was a free demo flight), I would have spent about $275—a tiny fraction of normal business-jet costs, and about $50 less than a US Airways shuttle between Washington and New York, which covers about the same distance.

Two pilots sat in the front of the airplane, whose interior is the size of an unusually roomy SUV’s. After the plane had climbed above 10,000 feet, one of them turned around and offered to chat and answer questions. I sat in the second row, in one of two leather bucket seats with as much legroom as domestic airlines offer in first class and plenty of room for working on a laptop or with an open briefcase. In the other seat was Bruce Holmes, a retired NASA official who had spent much of his career developing plans and promoting support for a “Small Aircraft Transportation System,” which he imagined as a modern aerial complement to the interstate highways. There was space for one more passenger, in a seat behind us that had less legroom but as much as normal airline economy class. The plane is designed for shortish business trips rather than long hauls with a lot of cargo, but it allows up to 40 pounds of baggage per passenger.

The flight was operated by the DayJet company, the most successful and fastest-growing of several companies that are racing to put Holmes’s vision into practice. Others include SATSAir and ImagineAir, which operate in the Southeast using propeller-driven Cirrus SR-22 airplanes, with four seats and a parachute that can bring the whole airplane down safely in an emergency. Linear Air, another new air-taxi company, serves cities in the Northeast with Cessna turboprops and Eclipse jets. At the beginning of last year, DayJet, which is based in Boca Raton, had 70 employees but no airplanes or paying customers. Last September, it carried its first paying customer on its first “on demand” flight (from Boca Raton to Tallahassee), meaning the customer—and not an airline schedule—specified when he wanted to leave and arrive. By the time I visited, this February, it was operating 28 Eclipse airplanes, serving 45 cities in Florida and the Southeast, and employing 270 people. By the end of this year, DayJet expects to be flying 100 airplanes, serving 100 destinations, and employing 800 people. Of the 350 customers who had used its service within the first three months, 40 percent had booked a repeat flight.

“We’re not looking for people with straight aviation experience,” the company’s CFO, John Staten, told me when discussing its hiring plans. “We’re looking for people who have been through the experience of hypergrowth.” Like the company’s founder and CEO, Ed Iacobucci, Staten and most of its other executives are veterans not of the aviation business but of software or Internet tech-world start-ups that went from concepts to multibillion-dollar businesses within a few years. “It’s one thing to hear about that process, but until you’ve lived it, it’s hard to understand how challenging it can be simply to manage the growth,” Staten said.

How could a brand-new company in the chronically troubled aviation business have come so quickly to the point where its main challenge is growing too fast? And this through a period when security concerns of all sorts have risen, fuel prices have soared, environmental doubts about aviation have intensified, and airports and airways have become more congested by the day—and the economy of the company’s home area, in southern Florida, has been through a real-estate crash?

The answer involves an odd assemblage of talents and disciplines that includes American computer scientists who call their specialty “ant farming”; Russian mathe­matical prodigies who made their way from Minsk and Moscow to Florida, via Jerusalem; Internet-business pioneers; and, yes, pilots and maintenance experts and dispatchers, including many refugees or retirees from the troubled airlines. Plus Bruce Holmes himself, who joined the company a year ago, after NASA radically cut back its airplane-related activities to shift its resources to space exploration.

DayJet’s success to date has also depended on the confluence of several technologies that all matured at once. Indeed, the most startling aspect of its story is the insistence from top to bottom that at heart, it is not an aviation company at all. “You could think of us as really a software company,” Jim Herriott, one of the ant farmers, told me. What he meant was that the Internet has become an unimaginably refined and powerful tool for routing packets of data from place to place. “We are about developing an Internet for stuff”—the stuff in this case being passengers in seats.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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