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Waiting for an air taxi

Cirrus Design
The Cirrus Vision SJ50 personal jet, unveiled this week, will be used as an air taxi.

While the big commercial airlines (and their customers) may be struggling, a totally different approach to passenger air travel is gaining altitude: Personal jets have been among the stars of the world's largest experimental air show this week - and they're giving a boost to air taxi services across the country.

Personal jets aren't necessarily personal possessions: The term refers to a class of high-tech airplanes priced in the $1 million to $2 million range, typically carrying six or fewer passengers. Such jets are increasingly popping up in the fleets of air taxi services.

If taking a commercial airline flight is like taking the bus, and chartering an airplane is like chartering a limo, then taking an air taxi should be the equivalent of taking a cab: You arrange for the taxi to pick you up at a small airport near you, and the taxi flies you (and perhaps other riders) directly to your destination.

The idea is to eliminate the hassle and circuitous routing of the major airlines' hub-and-spoke system, at a cost significantly lower than a charter - and maybe even lower than a first-class flight covering the same distance.

When the system works, it's a marvel - as James Fallows explains in his article about DayJet's success in The Atlantic. And as more efficient, less expensive small jets make their way to market, the system is likely to become more prevalent.

"The market gets bigger as you go down, so of course you want as big a market as possible," Michael McConnell, vice president of marketing and sales for New Mexico-based Eclipse Aviation, told me today.

DayJet uses a fleet of Eclipse 500 planes - but Eclipse isn't the only player in this game. Other personal-jet builders include Diamond Aircraft and Piper Aircraft, as described in this article from AirVenture Today. Just this week, Cirrus Design unveiled its single-engine Cirrus Vision SJ50 personal jet here at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis., with SATSair as a launch customer.

SATSair, a company based in South Carolina that already uses a different breed of Cirrus planes, provides air taxi services throughout the Southeast. The company's president and chief executive officer, Stephan Hanvey, told me business has been growing so fast that "we're worried about having enough capacity to handle it."

He said air taxis aren't just for business executives anymore. The booking patterns are starting to indicate that customers are also making reservations for personal travel - for example, to visit Grandma for Thanksgiving.

"The customers have created new ways to use us, because there is an enormous pent-up demand for personal travel," Hanvey said. "We put the 'personal' back in travel. You control your own travel."

You can even use an online reservation system to arrange a flight. OpenTaxi Systems provides a nationwide system, and Door2Door Air works with SATSair and other services in the Southeast.

Door2Door's founder, Richard Kane, said reliable reservations are key to the long-term success of air taxis. "You're going to want a Travelocity or Orbitz experience," said Kane, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of Florida-based Coastal Technologies Group.

But it takes the right business model, and the right circumstances, to make the reservation system work. Let's say I wanted to fly from Oshkosh to Monticello, Iowa, to visit my dad for a couple of days after the air show. The only quote I could find through OpenTaxi was from Chicago-based North American Jet, with a hefty price tag of $13,731.93. Talk about sticker shock!

The cost would come down dramatically if air taxis really worked like taxis: Hanvey said his company had adopted a system that basically sets the meter running when the engine is started on a SATSair jet, at an average cost of $540 an hour. DayJet uses a complex pricing algorithm that factors in where you want to go, when you want to go and how flexible you are about your schedule.

Volume makes a big difference as well.

"The enemy of charter is non-revenue-producing flights," Hanvey explained. "As more and more people use us, more and more are closer to the pickup point - and we reduce our non-revenue hours."

Then there's the competitiveness factor. If the cost of personal jets continues to decline, and if the market continues to grow, air taxi fleets may become almost as ubiquitous as the cabbies in Manhattan.

"Could you operate the taxis in New York City if you had only 50?" Hanvey asked. "We're way back in that early part of it."

Kane suggested that the federal government could support the future of air travel by giving some of the tens of millions of dollars in subsidies from the Essential Air Service program to air taxis rather than commuter airlines. The current allocation "just doesn't make any sense," he said.

Of course, this is the side of the story you'd expect to hear in Oshkosh. Should air taxis get a subsidy to service smaller communities? Are they part of the cure for the airline industry's bad case of congestion? Would you feel safe riding on an air taxi? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below. Meanwhile, I'll gas up my rental car for the weekend drive to Iowa.

Bits and pieces

Before I go, here are a few extra snippets from the AirVenture show:

  • The Rocket Racing League sent up its Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer for an encore performance today, and this one was more aerobatic that Tuesday's debut. Pilot Rick Searfoss took the rocket plane through a vertical roll, an Immelmann turn and other swoopy maneuvers. Another flight is planned on Saturday.
  • I've mostly been talking about the AirVenture as if it were a technology trade fair, but it also has strong elements of an air show (love those F-22 Raptors!) and a county fair (love that Wisconsin fish fry!). Among the entertainment highlights were performances by the rock band Foreigner and actor Gary Sinise's Lt. Dan Band, plus movies introduced by Harrison Ford ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") and John Travolta ("Broken Arrow.")
  • It's too early to tally up how many people are coming to this year's eight-day show, but organizers said the pace seemed to be at least on a par with last year's attendance of 560,000.