A hero of my book Free Flight was a civil servant named Bruce Holmes. He was a career pilot – he’d paid his way through graduate school at the University of Kansas by flying
cropdusters for a commuter airline, towing banners, hauling caskets for funeral homes, etc – and a career civil servant, for NASA. For at least two decades he has prided himself on being an “entrepreneurial bureaucrat.” In effect this meant that he put existing big companies in touch with little startups, and both of them with government regulators, in hopes of fostering the growth of a new small-airplane industry. I often think of him as a counterpart to Tim Berners-Lee* – the man who, by creating standards for the World Wide Web, helped countless other people to become filthy rich.
Here is Bruce Holmes, in a more-bureaucratic-than -entrepreneurial-looking NASA portrait:
Holmes has now left NASA (which itself seems to be leaving the aviation business, as opposed to space – more on that another day) and joined one of the companies whose very existence is due in part to his efforts. I imply no defense-contractor revolving-door-style impropriety whatsoever. Holmes has been selfless in helping a wide variety of American entrepreneurs, and he has now found a firm whose emphasis matches his own main interest.
Holmes has for years preached the gospel that air travel required an internet-style "systems revolution." With its hub-and-spoke emphasis, it was becoming cumbersome and brittle -- like a telephone system in the days when all calls had to go through central switchboards. It needed the kind of decentralized flexibility that the internet brought to communication. (Links to some of his standard presentations can be found here.)
Holmes has now gone to work for DayJet, one of the most interesting new "free flight" companies. Its CEO is Ed Iacobucci, an IBM veteran who founded the networking company Citrix. The idea of the company is that scheduling point-to-point, on-demand flights will be the crucial factor in making the entire industry viable. To be more than a pure luxury product, air taxis must keep their prices low; to survive with low prices, they have to hold down costs too. Toward that end, DayJet says it is offering sophisticated mathematical and routing formulas to make sure that enough planes and enough pilots are in the right places to respond to short-notice requests for trips. It's a version of the model that FedEx, DHL, and UPS apply -- but with a lot more unknowns.
Whether this will actually work, no one knows. But it is nice to see a bona fide public servant have a further chance to apply his skills.
(*I like making references to Tim Berners-Lee because he is one of few widely known alumni of the college I attended at Oxford: Queen's College. Another is, umm, "Mr. Bean," Rowan Atkinson. Long ago there was the grim Jeremy Bentham, so I guess he and Mr. Bean net out to a "normal" level of sobriety.)