Taxis in the Sky

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

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.”

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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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