Hailing a Stratospheric Cab

Up to now, the process of flying from one point in the United States to another has involved a rather limited number of options (unless you own all or a percentage of a private aircraft): Either use the commercial airlines or charter a private aircraft and crew.

If we're talking New York to Denver (major city pairs, in other words), your major limitation is merely schedule, fare and seat availability.

But when you're trying to fly efficiently to Bugtussle, Texas, or Truckee, Calif., using the airline system, it can become an odyssey of trains, planes, and rented automobiles and sometimes cost an entire day.

That's where chartering a private aircraft makes a lot of sense in terms of flying directly where you need to go on your own schedule. The downside is that chartering can get pricey, especially when you only want to go one way and you have to pay for the aircraft and crew to return to their base. Charter rates for turbine-powered aircraft such as the Beech King Air, for instance, can run between $800 and $1,200 per flight-hour, with each hour spanning approximately 250 miles, while a small jet can run thousands per hour, with each hour spanning approximately 500 miles.

Of course, dividing charter rates by six or eight passengers can make the cost quite reasonable, and sometimes even equal the cost of a convoluted airline ticket and rental car combination. But when it's just one or two people needing to get to some smaller community, traditional chartering has usually been judged too expensive to be a viable business or personal alternative -- and for shorter legs of only a few hundred miles, driving (though far more dangerous statistically) often ends up the best option.

There is, in other words, a gap in our transportation system, and that gap is made all the more irksome by the fact that unlike any other nation, the United States has thousands of airports large and small that make it possible to land very close to almost anywhere you need to go.

Where there's a gap, there's an opportunity, especially since the commercial airlines are not going to fill it. While there are more and more direct and non-stop flights connecting major cities, the irritating hub-and-spoke system that dumps tens of thousands of passengers into major terminals such as Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta for the purpose of scrambling them around to connecting flights is unfortunately too efficient for the strapped airline industry to abandon. Worse, there's too little money to be made serving most smaller communities to attract even the feeder airlines, and while feeder-regional service is fairly extensive and stable around the country, Zippy Express probably won't be inaugurating service to a backwoods community near you anytime soon.

So, back to Bugtussle, and the difficulty getting there -- and the business opportunity that has been calling like the sirens of old to a cadre of entrepreneurs. What if, the thought goes, you could call in a private aircraft just like you call a cab? What if you didn't have to pay for the backhaul, but simply paid per person to fly straight to your destination on your schedule? What would it take to build a system leaning heavily on computerized scheduling efficiency that could make money?

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