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?

This was the core question that up to now had been slamming into a major limitation: The cost of buying and operating small private jets with the speed to make such a system work was far too high. Starting at $3 million and up per aircraft and costing thousands per hour to operate (including a crew that usually consists of two pilots), the math just didn't work. Without a much less expensive flying machine requiring just one pilot, the cost of using such an air taxi system could never be driven low enough to spark a revolution. You could build it, in other words, but unless the price was right, they wouldn't come.

Enter an entirely new class of aircraft called the VLJ, for Very Light Jet with maximum gross weight under 10,000 pounds (a Boeing 737 weighs over 100,000 empty) and a price tag as low as $1 million new, VLJs now approaching production will be able to carry four or five passengers at speeds between 375 and 400 knots, just below the faster business jet categories.

None of these jets would be possible, though, without the development of an entirely new family of small jet engines from both existing and new engine manufacturers. Relatively diminutive and fuel efficient, these new little engines can pack a wallop of thrust and yet weigh only a few hundred pounds. Compared with giant engines for the current family of jumbo jets, these new VLJ engines seem puny -- 900 pounds of thrust, for instance, for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F, compared to 127,000 pounds of thrust for the new GE-90-115B engine powering newer models of the Boeing 777.

Now that small jet engines are in production and make VLJs a reality, several companies are already gearing up to fill that direct-flight transportation gap by planning to use hundreds of VLJs in an evolving business plan. Dayjet and Pogo -- the latter led by former People Express founder Don Burr in conjunction with former American Airlines chairman Bob Crandall -- plan to start service in the Northeasten United States within the next two years.

There are limitations to the taxi analogy, of course. At this writing, no one foresees an ability to hail an air taxi by bellowing from the nearest street corner.