Taxis in the Sky

How tiny jets, Soviet-trained math prodigies, American “ant farmers,” and dot-com refugees are revolutionizing air travel
DayJet
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.

Iacobucci
CEO ED IOCOBUCCI shows off some of the formulas DayJet's "ant farmers" have devised to keep planes and people moving.

Ed Iacobucci, now in his early 50s, grew up outside Atlanta and studied computer science at Georgia Tech. He rose quickly within IBM and by the late 1980s was directing a joint Microsoft-IBM project to develop a new computer operating system called OS/2. It was technically elegant, but tensions between the two companies broke up the project and doomed the product. IBM soldiered on with its own, unpopular version of OS/2 for another decade (Microsoft applied its part of the work to Windows 95 and Windows NT), but Iacobucci quit in 1988 to start a new company, Citrix, that would work on similar software. Over the next decade, Citrix enjoyed its own hypergrowth, with Iacobucci as chairman. Several executives now at DayJet, and the Russian mathematicians, worked with him there. As he prospered, Iacobucci bought a Learjet for business travel. Then, in the tech collapse of 2000, Citrix’s share price fell by 50 percent in a week. Iacobucci stepped down as chairman.

During the good times, his wife, Nancy, had started an air-charter business called Wingedfoot. It was a “traditional” charter business—that is, multimillion-dollar aircraft hired for very high fees by corporations or tycoons. By that time, Iacobucci was following the same aviation-world chatter I was, about the coming of small jets. The difference between a writer and an entrepreneur is this: the only thing I could figure out to do was write a book about it; by January 2002, Iacobucci and his wife had raised several million dollars from friends, family, and tech-industry investors to start work on a new air-taxi company. (They raised some $16 million from investors, in two rounds, from 2001 through 2006; then another $50 million in early 2007; then $140 million in debt financing, to buy airplanes, about a year ago.) They code-named the company Jetson Systems, which they wisely changed to DayJet when they announced their plans in 2003.

Here are some of the essential reasons that the new business was not as outlandish as the original name might have made it seem.

First, the airplanes. Eclipse, founded by another software-industry veteran who had worked with Iacobucci named Vern Raburn, promised to deliver fast, small jets for about $1 million apiece—versus five to 10 times that much for Gulfstreams, Falcons, Learjets, etc.—and to build them with advanced, Toyota-style lean-manufacturing techniques that would make them dramatically more reliable than current versions. Their efficient engines would also make them cheaper to operate, bringing the overall cost per mile of jet travel to a small fraction of the private-jet level. The price of an Eclipse has risen to about $1.5 million, but it is still much cheaper than alternative jets.

Next, the airports. Although unnoticed by most travelers, the United States is studded with airports, at least 3,500 of which have runways large enough to allow small, Eclipse-style jets to take off and land. The real value of these airports is that most of them stand nearly empty and could handle many more airplanes carrying people to and from the suburbs, office developments, factories, or recreation sites nearby. Most were built during an aviation boom that ended 50 years ago, and have barely been modernized since then. Bruce Holmes’s efforts at NASA included exploring ways to make them all usable, even in bad weather—especially with safer, modern GPS-based landing systems.

And finally, the airlines. Despite the temporary dip in air travel after 9/11, compared with 2000, airlines now serve fewer cities, with less-frequent flights and often with smaller airplanes—but carry more people overall. And although a larger share of flights go through overcrowded hubs such as O’Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Atlanta, those airports rarely add new runways. This has the same effect as trying to force more cars onto a given road: all of them slow down. Once in the sky, jets are as fast as ever, but cascading delays mean that the overall door-to-door speed of U.S. airline travel has been slowing down.

Iacobucci and his colleagues were sufficiently convinced of these advantages to keep raising money and laying plans, even as the air-travel industry reeled after 9/11. By early 2002, a team of 30—many of them from Citrix or other Internet companies—was working in Boca Raton. On Thanksgiving weekend of 2002, their own shock came: Vern Raburn announced that the Eclipse airplane would have to be redesigned because its ultralight new jet engine, adapted from the military’s cruise-missile program, was not passing performance tests.

Eventually this crisis passed, when Pratt & Whitney Canada agreed to create a new engine for Eclipse that was only slightly heavier than the original design. But the delay lasted more than two years. (Eclipse has survived other crises, the gravest of which was a cash-flow emergency that threatened to put the company into bankruptcy late last year. A European consortium called ETIRC put more than $100 million into the company, in exchange for an agreement to open an Eclipse jet factory in Russia.) Eclipse still faces serious financial challenges, but aviation analysts I spoke with said that even if the company went bust, the airplane itself is attractive and proven enough that some other company would likely buy the rights to make and sell the plane.

But the engine problem changed everything for DayJet. By that time, it had agreed to buy as many as 300 Eclipse jets, and it expected to put them into service and start its business in 2004. “Suddenly we had a 27-month ‘insertion’ in the schedule,” John Staten told me. The company couldn’t make its first dollar until it got its first plane, and meanwhile it had a staff to pay. Members of the DayJet team fanned out to inspect small jets then being developed—by Honda, Cessna, Embraer, and others—and decided that it made the most sense to stick with Eclipse and wait. In retrospect, the two-plus years of forced gestation may have been a godsend to the company.

Here we come to the members of the DayJet team I was most surprised to find at its headquarters, and the ones who, according to Ed Iacobucci, are the real secrets to its success. These are the ant farmers and the Russians.

Jim Herriott and Bruce Sawhill, computer scientists in their 40s, are the ant farmers. They have worked together for 10 years—the first five at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and the past five at DayJet. When we met, they had a comedy-team manner, with Herriott playing the straight man, carefully explaining the principles, and Sawhill the mad scientist, exclaiming about the elegance of the underlying math. Their job has been to determine exactly how many people might pay to use an air taxi, and where they would want to go. Their answers have come through ant farming, which could less colorfully be called inductive reasoning.

For instance, to predict how many Floridians would pay to fly from Pensacola to Naples, they start not by gathering gross-travel or population figures but by trying to simulate the decisions that hundreds of thousands of individual travelers will make. Their computer models resemble a much more complex version of an “artificial life” computerized game like SimCity or SimLife—or, to explain the nickname they gave themselves, programs that simulate the paths a colony of ants will take across a floor as they discover and retrieve pieces of food. This process is also known as “agent-based modeling.” The ants, or agents, in DayJet’s model are the 500,000 people per day in the seven southeastern states who take business trips of 100 miles or more. Some 80 percent of these trips are now made by car. Commercial airlines account for most of the rest, with trains, buses, charter flights, etc. making up the remainder. (In the Northeast, commercial airlines represent less of the total, and trains more.)

Herriott and Sawhill have developed a model to simulate the individual decisions that go into every one of these business trips. The model starts with the likelihood that a person in any one city, let’s say Mobile, will want to go to another, say Savannah, on any given weekday (for now, DayJet is a weekday-only service). These predictions are based on average income in each city, business relations, and other factors, and are constantly tuned to reflect real data. “It’s like the pull between two planetary bodies,” Herriott said. “Almost a Newtonian law!” (He was joking.)

The DayJet model factors in all relevant variables that could affect the traveler’s decision—something that is hard enough for a real person in real time. It contains up-to-date listings of all flights offered by all commercial airlines serving the region, and the prices for short-term bookings and seven- or 14-day advance-purchase fares. It has average highway-speed and congestion data for the routes people would drive between any two cities, and real-world travel time from different parts of a city to the nearest airport. It includes lodging and restaurant costs, if a driving trip means an overnight stay, and rental-car and gas rates.

Also, crucially, it tries to place some value on people’s time. Time value obviously varies: being three hours late for a wedding is different from being three hours late for a meeting on a Thursday afternoon. Because its target customers are business travelers earning from $75,000 to several hundred thousand dollars a year, income levels at which the time savings are worth the cost, the model uses salary to approximate the business value of time. (People making even more, it assumes, might use “normal” corporate jets.)

With this information and more plugged in, the ant farmers run the model—over and over and over. While we watched on a big-screen map projection from Herriott’s computer, the whole possible range of trips taken by one typical day’s 500,000 business travelers whizzed by in a few minutes: Miami-Atlanta, Key West–Jacksonville, Savannah-Biloxi. The point was not to predict exactly which trips travelers would take on any particular day but instead to see which patterns of travel emerged and where there might be a market for air taxis. In theory, DayJet could offer service from any airport to any other airport within the plane’s 650-mile nonstop range. But to minimize the number of empty “deadhead” legs its planes might have to fly back from remote locations and to maximize the number of paying flights each plane could make per day, the company planned to start in a concentrated area and then expand as it became sure there was more demand.

For every simulated trip, the computer was comparing all the alternatives—take the whole trip by car, take a train if there was one, drive to the nearest major airport and take Delta or JetBlue—and predicting whether a traveler would choose any of them over a possible flight with DayJet. A counter continuously tallied how many trips would be made using each option. For people taking one of the “trunk routes,” like Atlanta to Miami, the airlines were the obvious choice. But enough people heading from one small place to another created a market DayJet could tap.

“We’re not really going up against the airlines,” Herriott said. “Where there’s good air service, we want to stay out of the way. Our sweet spot is the trip of 300 or 400 miles where the air travel is so complicated or inconvenient that you finally throw up your hands and say, ‘I’ll just drive!’ We can beat driving, especially with time and lodging costs.”

During the years of waiting for Eclipse, the ant farmers ran and refined their models and DayJet refined its idea of where it would start offering service. The analytic process underscored, for instance, the importance of including Tallahassee in the list of cities it would fly to and from. Like all state capitals, Tallahassee generates lots of business travel—and like many others (Sacramento, Springfield, Albany, Salem), it is in an out-of-the-way location with bad and expensive airline connections.

DayJet noticed that a shift in airline policy was helping it. As airlines “upgraded” the equipment they used for small cities—sleek-looking 50-seat regional jets in place of clunky 13-seat turboprops—many of them had to downgrade their service. This shift was bad news for small cities in many ways. For instance, Lakeland, where I went on my DayJet flight, had with federal and state funding built a new $6.8 million terminal in 2002. The investment was based on the assumption that a feeder airline would add Lakeland to its schedule—probably Comair, a Delta subsidiary, which had served Lakeland with small planes in the 1980s. In fact, no airlines came, and the expensive terminal stood empty—until the first Dayjet flight arrived last October. Cities that could keep small turboprops full might generate too little traffic for larger regional jets, but plenty to sustain an air-taxi business.

Herriott and Sawhill emphasized that the market for business travel had a “long tail” pattern, much like book sales on Amazon. A few main trunk routes, say New York–Miami, and the familiar handful of major airports account for most commercial airline traffic, just as a few Harry Potter–style blockbusters outsell anything else. But most business trips are from one obscure destination to another, just as books most people have never heard of together account for most Amazon sales.

By the time DayJet got its first airplanes from Eclipse last year, it had an idea of where it would find its initial market. By March, it was serving 60 cities in the Southeast. Trips had to start, end, or pass through one of 10 “DayPort” cities, as in the familiar airline “hub and spoke” model. The difference is that the company is expanding the number of these “hubs” every month, building toward a network that won’t cover every possible city pair but will cover a lot. By the end of this year, DayJet expects to cover 100 cities in six states, 30 or so of them hubs. Its map of planned expansion, pushing steadily northward from Florida, reminded me of Cold War–era posters about the potential spread of Communist influence.

While the ant farmers tried to determine where the company should start its service, the mathematicians from Russia were devising the software on which the company would run. In the end, they came up with plans that, in their view, made DayJet conceptually closer to Google or eBay than to existing airline companies. Before I explain what I heard from Alex Khmelnitsky, a note: most of the time I spend reporting, I spend listening to people describe what they do. It’s the payoff of the job—and through years of transcribing notes, I’ve learned that the typical minute or two or 10 of conversation boils down to a sentence or so of usable thought.

Not so with Alex! He and his colleague Eugene Taits worked for Iacobucci at Citrix and joined DayJet in its early days; another Russian veteran of Citrix, Oleg Kuzedub, joined DayJet recently. During the hour I spent with Alex and Oleg (Taits was out of town), Oleg said only a few words. But Alex more than made up—and I have never listened so hard trying to comprehend.

To spare readers, not to mention myself, undue exertion, I’ll simply say that in the view of everyone I spoke with at the company, the Russian-designed mathematical backbone of the company was its crucial advantage over any competitors, and would mean the difference between the company’s making a profit and not.

The part of the system customers notice is DayJet’s unusual way of setting prices. When you want to travel, you go to its Web site, dayjet.com. You can register, at no charge, and receive price quotes for sample trips. If you’d actually like to travel, you and your company must be approved as DayJet “members,” which largely involves submitting your name to the Transportation Security Administration for security vetting. The concept here is similar to the “trusted traveler” program the TSA is introducing for commercial air travel, and to El Al’s famed security. The emphasis is on knowing who is traveling rather than on scrutinizing people each time they board a plane. Once approved by the TSA, passengers won’t have to be searched before each flight. Like passengers on most of today’s charter jets or small private planes, they will simply walk into a terminal, identify themselves with a driver’s license or similar document, and go out to the airplane. Even if the TSA insisted on formal screening for each DayJet passenger, in practice that would mean only a small delay, because no more than three passengers will board each DayJet plane. Avoiding long security lines is one of many steps toward in-and-out speed of the kind previously enjoyed only by corporate moguls on private jets. Six minutes after Bruce Holmes and I got out of the car at the Boca Raton airport, we were getting on the plane.

On the Web site, you say where you’d like to go—to Naples, from Tallahassee—and when. Then comes the crucial part: specifying how flexible you are about your travel plans. If the flight itself takes just under two hours versus seven hours of driving (the site tells you how long the flight will take), and you have exactly two hours in which you’d like to travel, you say: “Can’t leave till 2 p.m., must arrive at 4 p.m.” After only a few seconds, the system gives you a quote, in this case DayJet’s highest rate: $1,296. But if you are free to travel any time that day as long as you get there by dinnertime, you enter: “Could leave as early as 11 a.m. but must arrive by 6 p.m.” In that case, the system comes back with a quote about one-quarter as high: $346. Airline fares for this route on Orbitz or Travelocity are usually higher, and the trip always takes longer, because there are no nonstops.

If you accept, the trip is booked—and the night before your trip, you get an e-mail specifying your exact departure time, meaning you won’t have to devote your entire “travel window” to traveling. If the e-mail says to get to the airport by 3 p.m., the plane will be there waiting for you. All you do at the airport is show your ID at a counter and walk onto the plane. If you have specified a wide-enough travel window to get a lower price, there may be at most one intermediate stop to drop off or pick up another passenger. Combining trips this way, in a familiar SuperShuttle model, is the key to DayJet’s per-seat, on-demand service, which keeps prices well below what they would be for chartering an entire plane.

In the few seconds it takes DayJet to price your trip, a system called RTR (for “real-time routing”) is figuring out how your request will affect the placement of planes, pilots, and passengers for all other flights that day, and exactly how much the company must charge to make a profit on your flight. The mechanics of making all of this work are what have made the Russians famous within the company—along with a vast computing system called ASTRO, which runs round the clock, constantly looking for more efficient­ ways to combine planes, pilots, and the time windows requested by passengers.

Between 6 and 7 p.m. each evening, the computers “gelatinize” the assignments for the next day—make them firm enough to tell passengers exactly when to show up at the airports, but still pliable enough that pilots and planes might be reassigned if last-minute requests come in. From the passenger’s point of view, everything is truly set by this point. (Passengers can change or cancel their flights until 6 p.m. the previous night, for a $100 fee. Between 6 p.m. and two hours before flight time, the cancellation fee is 50 percent of the fare. Within two hours of flight time, passengers who cancel must forfeit the full fare.) But until an hour or two before each flight, the company may not be sure which airplane, with which team of pilots from which other destination, will be making the trip. These last-minute assignments are left to ASTRO, which keeps track of the unbelievably intricate technical, legal, and human variables required to meet the promised schedule. (For instance: not simply which pilots are due for rest time but also which pilots weigh how much, so that two fat ones won’t lead to an overloaded flight.)

I told Brad Noe, the vice president for software development, that the only place I had seen something similar was in a logistics center tracking the flow of electronic products from factories in China, through U.S. air couriers, to delivery in the United States. “This is a logistics company,” he replied, “that happens to be moving people.”

What is the resulting experience like, if you care mainly about getting somewhere rather than marveling at the software? I am an enthusiast, as just possibly might be clear. But objectively, this is a comfortable and convenient way to travel.

You go to the airport, which, because it’s small, is less congested than ones you’re used to. You walk to the DayJet counter, which resembles a rental-car booth. There’s probably no line, because probably no one else is going at just this time. As you step up to the counter, a trapdoor-like device measures your actual weight while the attendant asks to weigh your bags. (On small airplanes this is important, for instance in determining where to place the bags.) A minute or two later, you walk out to the plane, and a minute or two after you’re seated, it taxis and takes off.

Decades ago, while working for Jimmy Carter, I was struck by one underpublicized detail about Air Force One: practically as soon as the president sat down, the plane started to move. It’s not quite as fast with these small jets, but eliminating the waste time of the airline experience—the hour or two you must be at the airport before the plane actually starts taxiing, the 10 to 15 minutes or more between taxi and takeoff—makes a big difference in overall travel speed. It’s the same at the other end. Two minutes after the wheels touched the tarmac on my DayJet flight to Lakeland, I was standing in the terminal.

The plane feels roomy rather than cramped inside, certainly compared with a jammed airliner. The cabin is quiet enough that you can talk in a normal voice—though by the end of my return trip, I noticed enough of a whine to want to bring a noise-canceling headset the next time I travel. (To be fair, I also wear these on airliners.) It was bumpy going through a layer of clouds on descent, but those clouds would have been bumpy in any airplane. And the view was great.

So what could be wrong with this model? The main obstacles to the company’s success, and to the whole industry’s growth, are several. I’ll start with something that surprisingly is not a problem: aerial congestion. America’s aviation system is like a big, wide freeway, with most cars jammed up at a few exits. The only crowded parts of today’s system—the runways and approach paths to the big hub airports—are precisely the places air taxis plan never to go. The DayJet planes fly at altitudes basically unused by other aircraft, 15,000 to 25,000 feet. (Very small planes fly lower than that; airliners and corporate jets fly higher.) “What’s the biggest airport we’ll ever go into?” Traver Gruen-Kennedy, the company’s vice president for strategic operations, said to me. “A place like Savannah or Knoxville. Where the airlines are is where we don’t want to be.”

The worst news for passengers who live in areas plagued by congestion is what it means for air-taxi expansion plans. As DayJet continues adding a few more cities each month, it is considering whether to keep expanding from its existing network—or to start up in another part of the country, perhaps California or the Midwest. “I can tell you the one part of the country we’re not crazy about,” John Staten said. “That’s the Northeast”—where everything is already congested, and where railroads provide an option that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

The environment? A more serious concern, since a plane carrying one to three passengers obviously uses more fuel per person than one carrying 150, if all seats are full. Bruce Holmes’s response is that most of DayJet’s customers would otherwise have driven, probably alone and in a large car—and the new jets are designed to beat or match such trips in fuel consumption and overall carbon output per passenger mile. That’s not saying much, of course, and the company is part of an alliance to develop much more efficient engines, alternative fuel sources, and other technologies known as “NextGen” to make flights more efficient and less polluting. (Noise has not been a complaint so far, since DayJet’s engines are substantially quieter than those on airlines or most business jets.) DayJet’s business models assume that oil will never be cheap again; its projections for costs and prices are based on oil that costs between $90 and $120 per barrel.

And there are the other perils that can affect any start-up, especially in a field with the life-and-death risks of aviation. Maybe the Eclipse airplanes will prove to have some flaw. (In part for this reason, DayJet has always intended to add other kinds of jets to its fleet as they come on the market. The next promising one is from Honda.) Maybe there will be a crash or a terrorist threat. Maybe as the company triples its workforce within a year, it will have trouble maintaining its can-do culture. Maybe something else will go wrong.

But that DayJet has come so far is startling. Or at least to me. Having interviewed Bruce Holmes more than a decade ago about his vision of an air-taxi jet fleet, I asked him as we got off the plane what had surprised him.

“You know … nothing!” he said, after a pause, seeming surprised to have come to that conclusion. “It’s just what we foresaw.”

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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