Six years ago, I was on the book-tour circuit discussing my book Free Flight, which had just come out. It was about several parallel innovations in the aviation biz -- more efficient engines, cheaper and better ways of building planes, safer ways to navigate and control the planes -- that might together make "air taxis" part of the solution to the misery of hub-and-spoke airline travel.
A standard interview question was: OK, when is any of this going to happen? And my standard answer was: I don't know, maybe the next five to ten years?
Last week -- right on my schedule! -- it happened. The DayJet company of Florida, mentioned here earlier when NASA pioneer Bruce Holmes went to work for them, carried its first paying customer of its first on-demand, priced-per-seat* trip.
In one way, the air-taxi era arrived even sooner than that. For a few years now, companies like SATSair have been offering a much cheaper form of previous air-charter services, using spiffy new propeller planes, mainly the 4-seat Cirrus SR22.
But DayJet's news is significant because it involves air taxis of a form most customers would feel comfortable with: namely small twin-engine jets (Eclipse 500 VLJs, whose evolution, like the Cirrus's, I described in the book).
This first trip was from Boca Raton, Florida, to Tallahassee, and its details show when and how the air-taxi model might work.
Here are the options a traveler has with and without air taxis:
Driving from Boca Raton to Tallahassee is 450+ miles and should take about six and a half hours.
Train: If there is an easy way to make the trip, in fact if there's any way, it's not evident from the Amtrak site.
By commercial airlines, there are no scheduled flights (that I have found) from Boca Raton to Tallahassee, or to anywhere else. That's no surprise. Of the 5000 or so airports in the United States, about 100 account for nearly all scheduled airline service, and something like 800 have any scheduled flights at all. Using the other 4000+ airports is much of the point of the air-taxi model.
The nearest "real" airports to Boca Raton with flights to Tallahassee are Fort Lauderdale, half an hour's drive to the south, or Miami, another half hour or more southward. There are three nonstops a day from Miami: at 8:35am , 12:20pm, and 4pm, and they take about an hour and a half. The situation from Fort Lauderdale is about the same: flights at 7am, 10:40am, and 5pm. Allowing for traffic, parking, the check-in process, security, and unexpected delays, you can work out when you'd need to leave Boca Raton to make those flights.
The one-way fare on a Delta regional, without advance-purchase discount, is listed today as $447 from either place.
(Update: I've just found that West Palm Beach, north of Boca Raton, also has three nonstops a day to Tallahassee, for $317.)
Air taxi: Here is the real schedule of the inaugural DayJet trip, as relayed in a celebratory email from the company:
AT 0748 WE CLOSED THE DOOR IN BCT [local Boca Raton airport] AND STARTED ENGINES
AT 0752 WE WERE WHEELS UP
AT 0908 WE WERE WHEELS DOWN
AT 0914 WE OPENED THE DOOR IN TLH [Tallahassee airport] FOR OUR FIRST REVENUE MEMBER
So, 1 hour and 24 minutes after the passenger got into the airplane in Boca Raton, he or she was getting off at the destination. That's less than the scheduled actual flight time for the airlines, which doesn't count the hours of hassle at each end.
How much did it cost? I don't know. The company didn't say. But with a benchmark of the $447 commercial fare (or even $317), and placing any value at all on a traveler's time and convenience, I assume it was competitive.
Of course this is exactly the sort of medium-length point-to-point travel for which air taxis are optimized. It's too long to drive for a day trip; it's inconvenient and expensive via the airlines; it occurs in an area where there a lot of small airports that have no commercial service.
This model is never going to compete with NY-LA long haul traffic or DFW-Atlanta trunk routes. Nor with the cheapest advance-purchase discounts. Rather it's designed to be similar to today's biz jets for executives, in that you can go from the airport closest to you, directly to the airport closest to where you want to end up, at short notice and at a time you choose. The difference is that it should be cheap enough to be competitive with full-fare commercial flights.
This flight doesn't resolve all the issues about air taxis, or the airlines, or anything else. (On some of these issues: a long audio interview by Jon Udell, with DayJet's founder Ed Iacobucci, here.) But it is a step worth noting.
* The "priced per seat" concept distinguishes DayJet from NetJets, AirShares, or similar existing operations. Under those other models, you pay for use of the airplane, no matter how many people intend to travel. DayJet sets its prices per passenger carried.
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