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Fly-On-Demand: Great Expectations

By Elliot Borin, Air TaxiFlights.com Staff Writer - © 2009, Reproduction without permission strictly prohibited. All company and product names in this document are the property of their respective copyright and/or trademark holders.

  • Expect to spend many more productive hours at your desk.
  • Expect to arrive for business fresher and less fatigued.
  • Expect far fewer fitful nights in hotel beds.
  • Expect a big increase in quality time with your family.
  • Expect a significant reduction in emptying your pockets and whipping off your shoes at airports.
  • Expect it all to cost far less than you may think.

Expectations. The stuff of dreams. Blueprints from the FAA and NASA for a revolutionary new air-transport system drawn by some of the best minds in government, airframe design, and executive-travel marketing. The promise of tomorrow's generation of Very Light Jets (VLJ's or microjets) and fly-on-demand air-taxi services.  

It will, of course, be several years before we begin to find out how fully the expectations generated by the pending arrival of fly-on-demand will be realized, but it is already possible to, pardon the pun, "blue sky" a scenario comparing a typical 2005 and a typical 2007 business trip between, for example, two of America's many white-collar technology hubs.

For the departure and termination point of this hypothetical itinerary we'll use an office deep in the heart of silicon suburbia, Sunnyvale, California. Our destination will be a conference room in Provo, Utah, and our meeting will be scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. MST and run for two-three hours. The distance to be covered is roughly 516 nautical miles and the nearest commercial airports are in San Francisco and Salt Lake City.  (Note: San Jose International, which is closer to Sunnyvale than SFO, does have scheduled-carrier service to Salt Lake City, but making a same-day turnaround on the route would be impossible unless your sole purpose in going was to have a quick drink or two at the Salt Lake City Airport.)

"Maximum operating ceilings of 38,000 to 41,000 feet allow fully pressurized, over-the-weather operation."
Since United requires you to fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles or Denver to get to and from Salt Lake City and American routes you by Chicago or Dallas, we'll travel on a major national airline, which provides non-stop service between those two destinations.  In order to reach our Provo conference by 3 p.m. local time we'll have to depart SFO on major airline flight 3999 at 9:33 a.m.  Being realists with an electronic ticket and nothing to carry but a briefcase, we'll ignore the strident imprecations to arrive at the airport two hours early and show up just one hour before flight time.  This being rush hour, we will - just to be on the safe side - board the limo in Sunnyvale at 7 a.m. 

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we'll take a 55-minute cab ride to our meeting, try to stay alert for 150 minutes and hop back in the cab for the return to SLC, where we'll hang around a bit before getting on major airline flight 3990 at 8:20 MST.  Perhaps the best news of the day is that 3990 doesn't land at LAX until 9:09 PST, far enough past rush hour to keep the driving time down the peninsula to Sunnyvale just under an hour - thus getting us home at 10 pm local time.

Total approximate cost for business-class airfare and ground transportation in time and money: 15 hours (inc. time in meeting); $1210 not including driver tips, food or beverages (chances are we'll get more than a little hungry and thirsty by the 10th or 15th hour.)

Using a microjet-based fly-on-demand carrier the trip might go something like this. 

Leave office at 11:30 a.m., arrive at Palo Alto Airport at 11:50 PST. Land at Provo Municipal Airport at 2:30 MST. Arrive at meeting by 2:50. Walk out of conference room at 5:30 MST, arrive home no later than 7:30 p.m.

Based on current projections of $1 per mile air-taxi fares and $100 an hour standby charges, the total cost in dollars and hours would be $1362 (not including driver tips, food or beverages) and eight hours (inc. time in meeting.)  Before closing the ledger on this trip, however, let's do a bit more essential math. Once again, we'll need to make some hypothetical assumptions.

Assume our executive makes $120,000 annually and works 50 hours a week 50 weeks a year. In other words, he is earning $48 every hour, $720 every 15 hours and $384 every eight hours. 

Thus the total cost - to his employer - of sending him to Provo by commercial carrier is not $1210, it is $1930. And the total cost of sending him via air taxi is not $1362, but $1746.

Bear in mind that the above is really a best-case scenario for the airline industry for at least five reasons.

1. There is non-stop service between San Francisco and Salt Lake City, something not all that common these days.

2. There is a late-evening flight from SLC to SFO, something else not available between many city pairs.

3. This is a relatively long air-taxi flight.  On shorter hauls, where the immediate take offs and landings available at, say, Brown Field south of San Diego, cancel out the in-flight speed advantage of scheduled carriers stuck in runway queues at San Diego International, the time equation shifts even more strongly toward fly-on-demand.

4. Provo and Sunnyvale are ground-transportation-close to major gateway airports.  Fly-on-demand becomes a much more attractive financial and productivity alternative when one or both of the end points are off-the-grid locations requiring airline passengers to transfer from major to regional or commuter airlines at an enroute hub. 

5. From an airline standpoint, our mythical meeting couldn't have been held at a better time if the major airline schedule makers had set it up themselves.  Had it been an early morning meeting, we would have had to leave SFO the night before, adding about $200 for room and board to the cost and 12 hours to the trip time.

Cost and efficiency are one thing. Comfort and safety are another. 

Based on the prototypes now flying, comfort should be a microjet hallmark.  With cabin widths of close to five feet and bulkhead-to-bulkhead lengths up to 16 feet, interior designers can easily give their four-to-six passengers more legroom and seats significantly wider than the 17.5- 20.75-inch first-class chairs standard on major carriers.  Maximum operating ceilings of 38,000 to 41,000 feet allow fully pressurized, over-the-weather operation, and the noise generated by two turbojets with 900 to 1600 pounds of thrust should be substantial lower in volume than that produced by any current commercial or business jet.

And, with the exception of Eclipse (subject to change at this writing), all the major entrants in the VLJ airframe race are promising to include fully enclosed lavatories in their final designs.  One comfort point in favor of commercial jetliners:  Passengers on microjets will have to stoop while making their way to the lav, the typical VLJ cabin will be under five feet high.

"Though it is impossible to quantify such things, it is theoretically possible that the new microjets will be - if not precisely "safer" - at least a bit more technologically evolved than the majority of the aircraft in America's commercial airliner fleet."
You can also expect to make no compromises in safety by opting to travel on a microjet.  Though most of the airframe manufacturers expect their craft to be certified for one or two-pilot operation for private use, there are no plans to operate commercial air taxi flights with less than two.  Likewise, while at least one company has announced a single-engine VLJ for the general aviation market, all microjets being designed and tested for commercial use have two engines and can be safely flown on either one in the event of a failure.  Though it is impossible to quantify such things, it is theoretically possible that the new microjets will be - if not precisely "safer" - at least a bit more technologically evolved than the majority of the aircraft in America's commercial airliner fleet.

For one thing, the microjets will be the first generation of commercial aircraft to have been designed from the ground up around the latest technology in avionics and the state-of-the-art air traffic control systems now on the drawing boards.  The Eclipse Aviation 500 microjet, for example, will be the first aircraft of any kind to feature an FAA-certified PhostrEx fire-suppression system offering significantly better performance than the Halon-based systems in use on today's passenger airliner fleet.  Other high-tech operating-system innovations being incorporated into VLJs include digital engine controls, auto-throttles, advanced integrated electronic controllers, and computerized displays that give pilots a highly accurate, real-time depiction of the terrain they are flying over.   

And finally, there's one last expectation: Expect scheduled airlines, rightly concerned about losing a substantial proportion of their already dwindling corps of premium-fare paying passengers, to fight tooth and nail to retain their business- and first-class customers. 

Nobody is talking much about it, but don't be surprised if the inauguration of fly-on-demand air taxi service triggers major discount promotions and frequent-flier program upgrades by its air mass-transit competitors.

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