AVweb AVFlash - FRIDAY FEATURES
Volume 20, Number 17c

October 29, 2013

Linear Air: Cirrus For Hire

With its advanced systems, modern ergonomics and luxurious—yet sporty—cabin design, it may be easy to sell pilots on the Cirrus SR22s capabilities. But it might also be an easy aircraft to sell to paying passengers. You might assume that commercial travelers accustomed to larger jet aircraft might view the Cirrus as another one of those “little airplanes with one engine”. Apparently, that’s not the case, or at least that’s not what Boston-based Linear Air is discovering. They’re marketing a fleet of professionally-flown SR22s as part of a new approach to rebuilding and growing their existing air taxi operation, which currently utilizes a small fleet of Eclipse VLJs. 

Surviving the Odds

Linear Air was established in 2004, in response to an enthusiastic reception of the air taxi concept. A sizable part of the business model was molded around the advent of VLJ aircraft, in particular, the Eclipse 500 jet. While Linear Air waited for delivery of their delayed Eclipse aircraft, they began operating a fleet of Cessna Caravan turboprops. At the same time, they developed their own air taxi software platform and expanded their FAA Part 135 certification.

Unfortunately, when the Eclipse fleet was finally delivered in 2008, the aircraft was heavier and more costly to operate than anticipated. Worse, just as the business model was being put to the test, the economy collapsed. Linear Air has since sold off roughly half of their Eclipse jet fleet— a fleet that once consisted of seven aircraft. Now, the Cirrus SR22 aircraft (and also the remaining Eclipse jets) is front and center in their new approach to a rebounding air taxi demand.   

We have to wonder if a small, single-engine Cirrus has enough appeal to sustain a long-term and successful air taxi business. Only time will tell but Linear Air’s COO Peter Schmidt told AVweb that so far the aircraft has been well received. Some of that has to do with the way Linear Air markets the aircraft and the way that Cirrus designed it.

“When we market the Cirrus, we market it along with the Eclipse jet as part of our air taxi vision. This gives the Cirrus it’s proper due as an advanced, state-of-the-art aircraft. Unlike the pilot population, the general public doesn’t necessarily know the Cirrus for its advanced avionics, composite design or even for its parachute. But the general public does know that jets are advanced, so by marketing the Cirrus on par with the Eclipse jet, we set the perception of the SR22s capability and value as a worthy air taxi aircraft,” said Schmidt.

Still, unsure of how passengers might react to a small single, the company experimented by carefully observing the response of their existing Eclipse charter passengers when introducing them to the Cirrus—a response that was extremely favorable and enthusiastic. According to Schmidt, nearly a dozen of Linear Air's existing clients will gladly choose either the SR22 or the Eclipse, depending on their mission needs. Schmidt says that passengers consistently give the Cirrus high scores for comfort and overall mission satisfaction.

Selling The Cool Factor

In many ways, Linear Air markets the SR22 for air taxi much like Cirrus markets the aircraft to new owners—as a high-end sports sedan of the skies. That’s easy to do because of its spacious, leather interior and sporty performance. It also has a certain amount of ramp appeal, particularly with the design of its cabin doors that, according to Schmidt, customers compare to the likes of a Lamborghini.

“We’re reaching out to people that are classic early adopters. These are business people that want to try something new and are eager to experience a cool, new thing. To these people, we can be unapologetic about how cool the airplane is. That’s what sells people on the Cirrus,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt firmly believes that there is a lot of subtle human psychology that gets people excited about getting in an air taxi aircraft like the CIrrus. As a result, he's using this psychology as a proprietary edge over the competition in a way that stimulates adoption, or at least an initial trial and subsequent repurchase.

This is obvious by Schmidt's marketing approach because the Linear Air web site shows more photos of the SR22s interior than the exterior. Schmidt believes that potential flying passengers aren’t reacting as potential pilots would. As a result, the concept is to sell the idea of riding inside of the advanced aircraft—not flying it.

With air conditioning, certified flight into known icing, a parachute and ultra-modern interior and avionics design, Schmidt believes that the SR22 G3 and now the new SR22 G5 is arguably the first general aviation aircraft that can be effectively marketed to a first-class commercial business traveler.

“I can offer that business traveler a better experience than flying the airlines in every respect. That’s what Cirrus CEO Dale Klapmeier and the rest of the team at Cirrus has done in advancing the aircraft to a higher level,” said Schmidt.

Partnering High Standards

Careful about not dropping huge amounts of money for aircraft that might end up sitting around, Linear Air doesn’t own all of the Cirrus air taxi aircraft but instead, works with partnering Cirrus operators, including Hopscotch Air (Linear also partners with Eclipse operators).

Hopscotch has a straight-forward approach to what they call a “personal air limo service” that, according to Hopscotch, is not only a better alternative than the airlines, it’s a better alternative than chartering—with fares that are 40 percent less than traditional charter flights. According to Hopscotch, 50 percent of new customers have never flown in a private airplane.

Linear Air split the company into two parts. The part of the business that operates the Eclipse jet is its own stand-alone jet operations company, while the new air taxi business operates not only with the Eclipse operation, but with select Cirrus operators like Hopscotch that have an existing Part 135 ceriticate. 

The company promotes the Linear Air branded air taxi service through travel-related web sites, including Kayak.com, and Hipmunk.com using a proprietary software platform to connect with air taxi supply and demand. There's also direct access to booking via LinearAir.com/routes. Schmidt said that Linear Air views partnering companies like Hopscotch Air as premier operators because of its demanding standards and rigorous selection process for its pilots. 

Linear Air is also quite particular about the inventory of aircraft that partnering operators use. There are around 75 FIKI-approved (flight into know icing) Cirrus' around the country that are on Part 135 certificates. Linear Air currently uses 12 of them and hopes to use all of them in the next 6 months, depending on demand. Since dispatch rates drop dramatically without FIKI certification, Linear Air encourages potential partners to trade in non-FIKI Cirrus models for ones that are equipped for flight into known ice. Schmidt stressed that his company will not partner with any operator that he perceives to be a corner-cutter. This starts by ensuring that the operator is fully compliant with and maintains their Part 135 certification to high standards..

Chicken And Egg

While Linear Air isn’t exactly a start-up operation, other per-seat, on-demand air taxi concepts—including Florida-based DayJet—have failed. DayJet, which planned to eventually take delivery of nearly 1400 Eclipse jets, only acquired nearly 30 of the aircraft before suspending its operations in 2008. Schmidt views this as a problem with getting an air taxi operation off the ground.

“There’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem. The chicken is that in order to offer attractive one-way pricing, you need to have a critical, mass demand for service between cities that aren’t well-served by the airlines. That enables the air taxi business to keep load factors high and pricing as low as possible. The egg is that until air taxi becomes a known quantity in the public eye, there’s no demand,” he admitted.

Seemingly, DayJet started with the egg and took the “If we build it, they will come approach” to air taxi. Despite cutting its fleet, DayJet attempted to expand their service to more Florida destinations, including Jacksonville, Sarasota, Orlando and Clearwater, designating these destinations as so-called DayPorts. The expectations were that the demand for the service would build itself, based upon concept alone. 

Both Linear Air and Hopscotch might be in a better position than the defunct DayJet because both are involved in other sustaining ventures. Linear Air began operating the Cirrus on October 1, 2013 with service between White Plains/Westchester, New York, and Boston. Round-trip tickets are priced around $800.

The company web site advertises flights from New York's White Plains to Boston Logan and Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts, with pricing that's comparable with seven-day advance purchase airline pricing. There's also a teaser for a new service that's being launched on November 14, 2013.

Linear Air recognizes the reality that just because they put a for-hire jet (or now, a Cirrus) in a small town, people won't necesssarily hire it for traveling several towns away. Further, the company realizes that people travel when they need to.

"We are in this for the long haul and stand by our vision and focus of delivering the benefits of traveling via general aviation aircraft, while keeping it dramatically less expensive than traditional jet charter services. While we realize that a lot of other similar visions have failed, we're learning from those examples and taking an incremental, careful approach to our existing business, while continuing to understand what makes people open their wallets for this kind of service. To that end, we think we're getting close," said Schmidt.

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Is Flying a Right or a Privilege?

Brainteaser 188's Question 11 was a bonus survey poll that asked if flying was a right or a privilege. Reader responses played out this way: More than half said that flying was a privilege, while less than half felt it was a right. A third-party minority rambled on about unrelated topics, including one reader who tried to sell us an Ercoupe, and one who refused to participate in online surveys, because the NSA was monitoring the results. That reader is right: It's all a plot.

Shades of Gray

Opinions ran strong in both camps, and the line between right or privilege blurred into 50 or so shades of gray by the time the results were analyzed. This reader's statement typifies that sentiment: "The freedom to move about by the populace (whether by air, land or sea) is a right." Seemed like one for the right-to-fly column, until the reader added, "Since we share the airspace with one another, our individual exercise of that right is a privilege. In other words: GA [general aviation flying] is a right, obtaining your ticket (pilot certificate) is a privilege." Man, I wish I'd sat next to this dude in debate class. In fact, I wish I'd taken debate class ... or paid attention to any classes in high school.

One reader went all classical with this response: "Voltaire said (in French) that, 'With great power comes great responsibility' in 1882." (Because the philosopher Voltaire, a.k.a., François-Marie Arouet, died in 1778, the reader's quote takes on special enlightenment.) "In the August 1962 issue of Amazing Comics, creator of Spider-Man, Stan Lee, said the same thing in English, thus popularizing the phrase."

Intrigued by the reader's obfuscation, and pleased I could use the word obfuscation, I read on: "Having a 'right' to fly implies great power and thus great responsibility. The 'privilege' to fly implies that you have taken upon oneself and earned the responsibility to do so in accordance to the rules and regulations governing aviation." Wow, this guy -- no doubt writing from his fortress of solitude -- was good, so I continued reading, even though I wasn't sure where it was leading: "Thus, flying is both a right and a privilege." Both! And he used the word "thus," again, fortified by a dollop of responsibility to make some of us feel guilty. I loved it and was ready to declare my allegiance to the right-and-privilege grand bargain, when the reader squandered credibility with a string of puns: "But, I'm putting Descartes before the horse. One has to first Kafka up a lot of money before earning a pilot's license. It's enough to send you into a real tailSpinoza."

Drop your Kierkegaard for one second, and you get sucker-punched by someone who -- like me -- made it thorough college on Cliffs Notes.

"Operating in the U.S. airspace is definitely a privilege that must be earned!" another reader exclaimed, using one of the many exclamations points found in the survey results. "Demonstration of competence through knowledge and practical tests is how that's done. Re-demonstration through flight reviews or other checkrides is also required. Despite all this, we still get a certain percentage of blithering idiots who go out and bend lots of aluminum ... We should absolutely have the right to go earn the privilege to go fly. That statue that sits on a little island in New York harbor?" (Ooo, wait! Being from New Jersey I should know this ...) "It's the statue of Liberty ..." (Yes, that's the one.) "... not the statue of Equality. We have the liberty to earn the privilege!" (The Statue of Equality is located in Santa Cruz harbor, Calif.)

The Right-to-Flyers

Here, now, in no particular order, is a sampling of comments by those who view flying as an inherent right:

"It's a right! Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- it qualifies under all three!" To the barricades! Liberté, égalité, avionité!

"I understand how the Interstate Commerce clause gives the federal government the power to regulate commercial aviation ... " (Good, because I don't. Please elaborate.) "But I don't see how it covers recreational aviation. Still, the Bill of Rights says that anything not covered specifically in the Constitution remains with the 'people and the states,' so if there wasn't federal preemption, we would have to deal with the nightmare of each state having its own laws. Just thinking about questions like this makes me glad I'm an engineer and not a lawyer." Ahhh ... what say we tally that as a right-to-fly vote?

"A well-regulated FAA, being necessary to the security of your pilot certificate, the right of the aviators to keep and fly aircraft, shall not be infringed, except in case of federal panic?" You mean, its business-as-normal mode?

"I keep getting told by the CAP that it's a privilege, but I believe, overall, that it is as much a right as it is to breath!"

And Now, The Privileged Ones

"Piloting, like driving a car, barbering, practicing medicine and other activities, requires a degree of demonstrated proficiency and knowledge, if for no other reason than to protect the public from 'cowboys' and idiots. Piloting should be a privilege." And beware of cowboys and, worse, cowboy barbers.

"Flying is a privilege, but the regulation of it should not be left in the hands of a bureaucratic government agency, which has demonstrated its inability to function rationally and in a timely manner." No mention of what that agency might be. So many qualify, but I'm guessing FAA?

"If it was a right, we would spend less time improving ourselves as pilots. In not wanting to lose our privilege to fly, we keep self-improving."

And, in closing, one reader summed up the right v. privilege debate by stating, "Brainteaser 188 question #3 sucks!" 


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Video: Redbird's Game Theory Flight Training Idea

Game theory is gaining favor as a means of training in all sorts of disciplines, and now Redbird wants to try it with aviation.  At the company's third annual Migration training conference in San Marcos, Texas on Tuesday, Redbird's Jeff Van West explained the new program.  It's currently in the experimental and testing phase but could be ready for a more complete rollout in three years or so.

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Are the Millennials GA's Salvation?

Have you ever noticed how a word you haven’t heard for awhile all at once starts buzzing into your ears like that mosquito that snuck through the screen door? At Redbird’s third annual Migration training conference this week, the word was Millennial. We all know it as the term used to describe the generation born roughly around 1980 and now the oldest are reaching their high-achieving 30s. It’s quite natural to look at this generation as the salvation of general aviation because nothing quite focuses the mind like having no choice. Millennials, you’re it. Step into the batter’s box.

Futurist and educator Don Marinelli did an admirably humorous job of explaining to the largely flight training-oriented crowd what it is they need to understand to sell aviation to these younger prospects. Heavy on theoretical underpinnings, when Marinelli said “technology is a procedural medium that facilitates participation” when what he really meant is gadgets, like shiny objects, draw people in, I got just a flicker of a psycho-speak warning light. But I take the point. Millennials are drawn into personal agency by technology to a greater degree than was the previous generation. But only by degree, in my opinion. Who the hell do you think is buying all those tablets and aviation apps?

Among many others, Marinelli ascribed to the Millennials several attributes that I found potentially at odds with becoming pilots. One, Millennials don’t read.  Two, they’re very green (as in eco conscious) and, three, they’re financially savvy, both globally and personally. The reading part relates to aspirational reading. It’s not that they’re functionally illiterate, but that Millennials tilt toward information uptake not centered on the printed word, whether on paper or in pixels. They don’t buy magazines. They’re not big readers of books. They engage across a range of information sources, which they integrate into a whole. They are therefore thought to be ripe for the innovative, tech-based and sim-centric pilot training that Redbird is developing. I think this is right. But I also think all of us will like the tech-based and sim-centric pilot training that Redbird is developing.

The green part is a problem. Millennials own fewer cars than Boomers do, use them less and drive very economical cars when they do. So let’s not get our pants snagged trying to argue that a personal airplane is green, unless it’s painted that color. Even Redbird’s super economical Redhawk is averaging 25 mpg. Some SUVs do better. Green starts north of 40 mpg. Or on a city bus.

The financial savvy can cut both ways. Those of us woozy with the passion of flight are willing to partake of it no matter what it costs and many of us devote a substantial portion of our income to do this. Our cost/value relationship is driven by our notion that flying is just the best thing we can ever be doing, otherwise how could we justify paying for a $1200 starter drive? Will Millennials, when introduced to a $150-an-hour airplane, feel the same? More important, as the 21st century unfolds to uncertain global economies, will they have jobs with sufficient income to support such a habit?

When I go to these conferences, there’s often an unchallenged assumption that just because we love airplanes and flying, everyone else exposed to it will, too. But this has never been true and it may be even less true of Gen Y. On the other hand, it will definitely be true of some of them, just as it was with the World War II generation, the Boomers and Gen Xers. That’s why I think general aviation, at least in the U.S., will always exist. It’s retrenching, yes, and will continue to do so. At the Migration dinner, Jack Pelton mentioned that just since 1992, the pilot population has declined by 100,000. The demographic forces that caused that are not permanent; they’ll swing someday. It’s just that no one knows when. Or how.

Some of the conference focused on re-imagining flight training and Redbird has this well in hand with an innovative new training idea that Jeff Van West explains in this video and the Redhawk diesel training aircraft we’ve already reported on. I like where the training proposal is going because one aspect of it rests on the supposition that you can really teach yourself most of what you need to know to earn a pilot’s certificate. You don't need a discrete ground school or a hovering instructor for everything or even much. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that. This new modular, interactive and reactive training drives right down the center of that lane.

I'm not too worried about training these new pilots. Although the economics are challenging, the training is figure-outable. And so might the marketing be. My question is what are these people going to do with their pilot certificates? Will they have the wherewithal to use airplanes for serious travel, or will they be dedicated sport flyers? Well, probably both, just as is true now. Marinelli noted that Millennials are highly attuned to experiential adventures—extreme sports—and flying may fit right in. If they’re financially savvy, maybe the concept of shared ownership will resonate more than it has with current generations of pilots. Or maybe electric airplanes will come of age—they have to eventually—and meet the Millennial generation’s design brief for ecologically sound sporting activities.

There are lots of maybes. As I’ve said before, GA is shrinking, not dying because the urge to fly will always be there in some form. The industry will turn that corner eventually. It’s just gonna be a little messy before that happens.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

The View from Xi'an

Sure it’s a little smoggy in this bustling central Chinese city, and the high-rise apartment blocks shooting into the sky often blot out an infrequent sunshine fighting to burn through the mist. Construction is rampant, and locals quip the new Chinese national bird is “the crane.”

You could say my feelings were also a little smoggy when I boarded our 13-hour non-stop Air China flight from JFK to Beijing, China’s gateway. I came to this vast country not knowing what to expect, and quite comfortable in my assumptions. That is: China’s relatively sudden thrust forward in general aviation is long on hope and short on reality. I came believing China’s effort at putting on an air show and aviation conference would never rival Oshkosh or NBAA.

My prejudices were naďve and incorrect. The energy at the third annual Chinese International General Aviation Convention was palpable. And I came away believing that China has all the essentials to build and fly world-class airplanes, to train pilots for its business, commercial and even civilian sectors, and to create from scratch an entire industry to support its aeronautical ambitions. They quite actively discuss a Chinese Moon shot, certainly within the Chinese space program’s reach, and building an aviation infrastructure will be just as challenging—but just as do-able.

Still, the things we take for granted in the States don’t exist here, or are in limited supply: City-convenient airports, fuel tankering and delivery, air-route structures and nav-aids, most importantly a free and unfettered air traffic control system. Our ability to decide on any given morning to file a flight plan, enter IMC and fly in congested airspace, receive vectors and radar advisories, then safely let down precisely on an ILS are things that don’t happen routinely in this country.  But success is often written in identifying the unmet need: so American aviation leaders take note…As the City of Wichita and Cessna Aircraft Company have learned, there is opportunity where industries start small, and have a long view.

The Chinese have a driving national will, hoardes of yuan to invest, and smart leadership. China’s acquisition of leading brands and technologies like Cirrus, Mooney and Continental Motors attest to a knack for buying well those things they can’t make. There is substantial industry-government cooperation in the development of Chinese aviation, largely because in many instances the industry IS the government.

But that’s not enough. There has to be a national will to accomplish large national goals in any society. Judging from the huge crowds at the Peucheng air show—who evinced an Oshkosh-esque enthusiasm-- China’s population at all levels is simply fascinated by airplanes.

As Cessna’s Shijiazhuang-based general manager David Howard told me: “They have such tremendous enthusiasm. That’s where you start.” Their excitement suggests a significant national drive to make aviation happen in China. In America we had a century of building to establish our aerospace system. First NDBs, then VORs, now a ubiquitous GPS system. And we have heroes—the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss, Chuck Yeager, Burt Rutan—larger-than-life personalities who took us all forward. China’s sheer mass of money and talent, and the aviation sector’s vibrant energy evident in abundance in Xi’An, will in my judgment be enough to carry Chinese aviation forward.

The question is when. How long will it take?  It took the Chinese thousands of years to build The Great Wall, stretching 1500 miles east to west. Thirty-feet high and festooned with massive watch towers, each brick weighs 24 pounds and they are stacked 30 feet high. The builders of the Great Wall simply had a different concept of time than you and me…

Time, to them, was irrelevant. That’s why questions of “when” as it pertains to Chinese aviation don’t really matter. They are already solving the “if,” and the “why.” And they are well on the way to resolving the “how.” For now, these are simply details. The big picture is written on the faces of all those aviation enthusiasts in Peucheng. It’s in the smile of the little Chinese kids when they look up in the sky and see an airplane…

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Video: AVweb's Tim Cole Reflects on China

AVweb's Tim Cole recently completed a trip to China and the China General Aviation Congress at Xi'an.  Here are some closing observations.

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