Maybe It's Not About the Airplane

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A few years ago I paid a visit to Linear Air, a small start-up just outside Boston that hoped to make a go of it as an air-taxi operator. CEO Bill Herp figured there had to be a better solution for business flyers than the way the airlines did it. The idea was to fly Eclipse jets, as soon as they could, but meanwhile they got Linear Air up and running using Caravans, as a sort of test phase.

Well, it's no surprise, the Caravans have done just great. They're reliable, comfortable, and for getting the kids, nanny, golf clubs and family dog to Nantucket for the weekend, they certainly beat out the Eclipse jet.

The fact is that NASA's Small Aircraft Transportation System concept -- using under-utilized local airports, avoiding the hub-airport congestion, and offering concierge-style service -- is hard not to like. Modern software makes it more manageable and more profitable than the old air-taxi model, from decades back, when the random passenger called around looking to hire a small airplane off the flight line.

But maybe the VLJ is not the critical asset to make this work. Take a modern turboprop like a Caravan or a TBM or Pilatus, and park it next to the last-century light twins that used to form the bulk of the air-taxi fleet, and there's no comparison. The leap from these modern turboprops to the new VLJs is a much smaller one -- in overall performance, point-to-point, some of them are virtually even. To most passengers, the difference is probably insignificant. Operating costs are more complex to compare, but Linear Air seems to thrive with its Caravan fleet, while DayJet is struggling to get by with the theoretically-economical E500s.

A week or so ago, SATSAir, another small operator out of South Carolina, reported that it's making a go of it with Cirrus SR22s. SATSAir launched 16,000 flights last year, a 60 percent surge over the year before. The company has flown more than six million passenger miles since November 2004, all of them behind a prop. The service itself is what makes it work, not the powerplant.

No question, though, there is a preference out there among the masses for jets. When I visited Linear Air, I asked if they really needed the Eclipse jets, or why not just add more Caravans. Oh yes, they said, passengers call and ask when the jets be available, and they don't want to fly on a prop plane. But then, that was before they realized they'd have to leave their baggage on the ramp. No problem for a business flyer going to a meeting, with a Blackberry and a briefcase. But for those pile-'em-in golfing weekends, the VLJs might have to make room for a lot of other options in the next-gen air-taxi world.

Comments (8)

Mary: The proof being in the pudding, not the heads of their business leaders, check Flightaware to see the utilization level of the Caravans vs. the Eclipse.

Posted by: Donald Mitchell | May 8, 2008 7:36 AM    Report this comment

As a pilot for SATSair for the last year and a half, I can tell you that the concept really works. The customers love the point-to-point service, and most that I see a repeat customer; many of them know me by name now. The main problem that I see is that the SR-22 is weight limited, but the fact that it is a prop is not a problem.

Posted by: Tyrone Lewis | May 8, 2008 9:47 AM    Report this comment

In 2005 I was part of a team that intended to establish a DayJet-type company. I found a university research team that had built what they thought to be a complete computer model of such an operation. It appeared to be highly profitable.

But I have a long history of flying in GA, corporate jets, USAF and major air carrier and what I saw in their model was highly flawed assumptions for the things they included. But the worst part was the massive list of costs and factors that they had not included.

The guy running the program was kind enough to add fields for me and to "fix" the generous assumptions. After that the bottom line showed that there was no way it would be profitable. He then just blew me off as being a pessimist.

History has shown, however, that pessimism is usually justified when looking at the profitability of aviation business ventures. The problems at DayJet are telling me that I was not a pessimist, but a realist. Unfortunately, the "glory" of aviation clouds the good judgement of people investing in it. It would be SO MUCH FUN to make money in a venture like DayJets, but I don't think it will ever fly.

Posted by: Ron Wagner | May 8, 2008 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Yes, Ron's point is that it is easy to stand on the proven ground, look back and comment. I don't know what model will work, if any, in the Air Taxi world, but the current system is not working and not filling needs while an amazingly expensive form of travel (private jets) is expanding. That looks like an opportunity to me. We will never know what can work unless some people try new things with various models which the pundits all say have never worked and never will. United helped put Southwest in the air, because they thought it was a bad segment of the business and although they needed the "feeders" they didn't want to do the business. Conventional wisdom changes.

Posted by: Rand Siegfried | May 8, 2008 12:02 PM    Report this comment

Perhaps a mix of small jets and turboprops is what is needed. If one operation offered both, they could match the customer with the aircraft. As a past operator of charter aircraft and a small commuter(prop) , I know it is difficult to match the variety of customers that come through the door. Careful study of your local market is important(not just what the Chamber of Commerce feeds you. Start with one or more of each type and expand with demand.

Posted by: William Gleaves | May 8, 2008 1:10 PM    Report this comment

From the beginning of Eclipse's announcement I have doubted the validity of their forecasts, as well as DayJet's. However, I have secretly hoped to be proven wrong. As Mr. Wagner stated, it would be cool if it worked like DayJet said it would. But, alas, it does not. I think Linear Air, PlaneSense, and AvantAir have done very well with turboprop equipment. Ware a Pilatus dealer and have two on our charter certificate and one we manage. The planes are universally liked by pilots, mechanics, and owners alike. We are finding that more and more customers are asking for the Pilatus over the old mainstay, the venerable King Air 200. Over time I think we will see more and more turboprop solutions in the charter and fractional markets. The fuel efficiency of turboprops over jets is undeniable. $100+/barrel oil is here to stay. Regional airlines are going back to turboprops for fuel efficiency. When we first started selling and chartering Pilatus aircraft we had many customers question the two-engine vs. one-engine proposition. However, the Pilatus safety record speaks for itself and once passengers see the economics, comfort, and payload of the PC-12 vs. the King Air 200 they are won over more times than not.

Regardless of which way the VLJ and turborop fractionals go, I think some derivative will be here to stay. The airlines are in such poor shape and offer such awful service there are bound to be people coming in droves for a solution.

Be safe out there.

Posted by: William Simmons | May 8, 2008 3:01 PM    Report this comment

The Caravan or Pilatus are the way to operate. As a former operator of a small commuter(Navajo Chieftain),the service, reliability, and cost are in that order. Number of engines does not matter after the first flight. Try to stay out of security hassels. Contact businesses directly-do not depend on the Chamber of Commerce only. Use travel agents plus on-line bookings. Pay the travel agents quickly- the major airlines take up to 90 days. Good luck

Posted by: William Gleaves | July 26, 2010 5:07 PM    Report this comment

Many people say they are not afraid of any thing but a lonely walk through woods can be a scary experience for every one. The fact that woods are so lonely and stories of evil spirits at work really get us scared even thought woods are safe. Used Caravans

Posted by: ashwini shukla | August 19, 2010 4:45 AM    Report this comment

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