Taxis in the Sky

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

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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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