Saturday, January 13, 2007

200 mph and 450 destinations across the USA - that's a private jet air taxi!

Air taxi is the latest in a long line of concepts meant to bridge the gap between driving and flying on packed airliners. They include traditional charter service as well as "fractional" private jet programs that allow owners to share in the use of a plane.

Two air taxi firms - SATSair and ImagineAir - have begun flying in Atlanta using four-seat, single-engine Cirrus aircraft. Both hope to appeal to travelers seeking to avoid long airport lines or even longer drives. They book passengers by phone or Web and cater to business fliers taking short-notice trips.

The firms say their little propeller planes are building a market that they hope to someday fill with a new generation of "very light jets." But those planes, meant to cover longer distances, are just coming to market.

For now, SATSair and ImagineAir say they can operate profitably with their four-seat planes that cover 600 miles or less per flight.

Started in 2005

SATSair began flying in 2005 and put planes at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in 2006. Based in Greenville, S.C., SATSair flies 26 Cirrus airplanes and has orders for 90 more. The company intends to operate small jets someday, but the Cirrus is likely to remain its workhorse.

"There was a real question in our minds whether people would be willing to fly in propeller planes," said Phil Quist, SATSair's marketing vice president. "The answer is clearly yes. When they get in the plane, it feels like a new car. And the market for people who have to go relatively short distances is a lot bigger than the market for longer trips."

Quist says air taxis save time for business travelers who would ordinarily drive. To a lesser extent, he said they compete with airlines and air charter firms.

Cirrus SR-22s, which are becoming the ubiquitous '57 Chevys of the air taxi world, carry a retail price of about $400,000 each. Their Minnesota-based manufacturer is a stockholder in private SATSair but also sells to competing firms. All Cirrus planes are equipped with a ballistic parachute that, in some emergencies, can bring the entire aircraft safely to the ground.

They also have leather seats and satellite radios for passenger comfort and entertainment.

SATSair charges between $400 and $595 an hour for its air taxis regardless of how many of the plane's three available seats customers occupy. The lower rate applies to customers who buy blocks of flight time. Just like a street taxi, the meter goes on when the engine starts running.

Customers typically book trips one day in advance, Quist said, on a first-come, first-served basis. About 85 percent of SATSair's flights are business trips, but leisure travel is growing.

"Our weekends are getting nearly as busy as weekdays," Quist said.

ImagineAir, based at Briscoe Field in Gwinnett County, plans to start air taxi service in March and is offering scenic flights in the meantime. Two of its five Cirrus planes have been delivered, and the company has ordered three twin-engine Eclipse 500 jets scheduled to begin arriving in early 2008.

ImagineAir plans to charge a fixed rate of $3 a mile and operate a fleet of 50 planes or more.

"There's no reason passengers should pay more if the plane has to go around bad weather or gets stuck in a holding pattern," said Haroon Qureshi, ImagineAir's marketing vice president. "Customers should know exactly how much their trip is going to cost on the front end."

ImagineAir has 10 employees and expects to grow as it adds aircraft.

"If someone has to go from Alpharetta to Nashville, we can get them there and get them home much quicker than the airlines. They don't have to drive to Hartsfield, they don't have to wait in security lines. Even though our planes aren't as fast as airliners, the total trip time is less."

Jimmy Durham, owner of three South Carolina businesses, said he recently flew SATSair to Atlanta, Charlotte and Myrtle Beach in the same day.

"I had important business meetings in all three places, and I was able to get to all of them," he said. "There's no way the airlines could have got me there, and there's no way I could have driven."

200 mph flights

The air taxis typically fly about 200 miles an hour.

Air taxis cost significantly more than driving, but proponents say they can save money by eliminating some hotel stays and other travel expenses.

For pilots of air taxi flights, the job offers a chance to get paid for flying advanced, single-pilot planes at a variety of airports.

Bolves, the SATSair pilot, said she joined the firm because it offers higher pay and a different kind of customer interaction than the regional airline where she flew a 19-seat, twin-engine plane.

"I enjoy the give and take with [air taxi] customers," she said. "I can give them personal attention instead of just making announcements. There's no locked door between us."

Air taxi pilots typically work five days on, two days off, and earn about $30,000 a year.

Dan Williams, 61, a SATSair pilot, said the vast majority of his trips are within the Southeast - but not all.

"I've been to Texas, Kansas City and Washington, D.C., lately," he said. "But I've had a lot more trips to places like Hilton Head and Southern Pines. They're some of our most frequent destinations."

450 destinations

SATSair officials say company planes flew to 450 different U.S. airports last year. Its planes can use runways as short as 2,500 feet, and that allows them to fly to uncongested fields close to passenger destinations.

"We can go to places like Jasper and Gainesville, Ga.," Quist said. "We bring people to small communities that are trying to attract new business."

SATSair estimates the potential U.S. air taxi market at $4.4 billion a year. A study by Transportation Systems Analysis and Solution predicts 5,000 tiny jets will ply U.S. airspace in 2010 - most of them air taxis. The study says the U.S. small jet market is likely to top out at 8,000, but no one knows for certain.

SATSair says its planes typically fly about 100 hours a month, and the company expects to earn its first annual profit this year. But officials declined to release financial information.

"We've validated the marketplace, and we've been through a steep learning curve," Quist said. "We've made significant infrastructure investments. Once we achieve profitability, we expect to stay there."

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