Flying Like a CEO

Something happened last week in Albuquerque, N.M., that may soon affect every business traveler. It was a relatively modest event involving a relatively small jet that may well herald a major revolution in air travel.

The Eclipse 500, the very first of a new category of airplane called Very Light Jets (jets under 10,000 pounds gross weight, with only six seats), won provisional certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Translation: this FAA approval could eventually free the beleaguered, non-Gulfstream-owning road warrior from the gulag of commercial air travel!

OK, that may be a bit overstated, but what the dawn of the VLJ (very light jet) is scheduled to usher in is the beginning of nationwide aerial jet taxi services provided by several companies whose aircraft will be able to swoop in on-demand to a local airport, pick you up, and fly you directly to another local airport of your choosing. By "local airports," by the way, I mean those easy-to-use small fields where you can actually find parking and board your flight within minutes of arriving. (There are thousands around the country.) In other words, an economical and routine way of avoiding major hub airports such as New York's JFK, Chicago's O'Hare, and Atlanta's Hartsfield (as in: "I don't know where I'm going to go when I die, but I do know I'll connect through Atlanta!")

Think about it. No changing planes in enormous terminals.

No two hour-before-departure arrivals at the airport.

And no lost or delayed bags.

The cost of this service? Well, that's the best part: It is expected to be about around the price of a fully refundable coach airline ticket (roughly $1.70 per seat per mile) — a fraction of what it costs to charter a private jet.

What makes VLJs possible are a new generation of very small but ultra-powerful turbofan jet engines (the Eclipse 500's engines, for instance, weigh around 250 pounds but produce 900 pounds of thrust), and the advanced use of lightweight, non-metallic carbon-fiber materials. The new Eclipse is pressurized, able to fly at more than 365 knots, and features a state-of-the-art computerized cockpit with the same all-weather capabilities a Boeing has. It will be able to fly over a thousand miles without refueling, and carry up to five passengers and a pilot with safety levels expected to equal those of the major airlines.

If you happen to be the CEO of a company sufficiently successful to own or lease a business aircraft, you already understand the immense benefits a private jet holds over commercial travel, none more pronounced than time saved. The difference between VLJs and corporate jets, however, is money, and only money — a VLJ can do the same point-to-point job as a Gulfstream, but at one-sixth the expense!

Frankly, airline travel, especially on shorter business trips to smaller communities, is a stressful, inefficient, bloody agony. That's what VLJs can help avoid. As I've detailed before in this column, the only way to truly survive a regular exposure to this system is to realize that you must jump over the commercial airline and TSA hurdles to ride, or be penalized by missed flights, extra nights without a paid hotel, lost bags, and massive increases in stress.

But even if airline travel wasn't so stressful, short airline trips are still startlingly wasteful in terms of the time it takes to just get there and back. Imagine trying to explain the basics of today's short-trip travel choices to the average math class (insert the sounds of chalk on a blackboard at will).

"Okay class, assume we're going to Hagerstown, Md., from New York City, on a business trip. Hagerstown is 250 road miles away, 190 air miles. If you're in a jet that flies 550 miles per hour, how long will the trip take?"

"Ah, twenty-three minutes?"

"No. Three hours and 10 minutes from start to finish. First you fly to Pittsburgh after waiting a half hour on the taxiway, and then you can fly on to Hagerstown. Total time from first departure at La Guardia to your arrival in Hagerstown, three hours 10 minutes. But total time from your door in New York to your hotel in Delaware? Five hours, 40 minutes"

"What? But Teach! That doesn't make sense!"

"Tell me about it! But you need at least 45 minutes get to the airport, and you need to be there at least an hour and a half before flight time. The flight time is three hours and 10 minutes, expect 30 minutes to get your bags and get a cab into downtown Hagerstown, and it adds up to 5:40. If you drove it in a car at a 60 mile per hour average, you'd take only four hours and 40 minutes for the same trip."

The problem is much the same across America: While non-stop airline service across the country between major cities is plentiful (if hopelessly crowded), flying to or from smaller communities has become a longer, tougher, and far more challenging choice, usually involving at least one stop and change of planes. There are thousands of municipal airports in the U.S. with runways long enough for VLJs (3,415 to be exact), and only 443 of them now have commercial airline service. Imagine the convenience of being able to use all of those 3,415 airports, and essentially flying to within 30 miles of nearly 94 percent of the places a business traveler wants to go.

In the Hagerstown example, for instance, allow 45 minutes to reach the airport from downtown New York, and perhaps 20 minutes to board your specially-arranged VLJ taxi flight. The point-to-point flight to Hagerstown over approximately 190 miles will take roughly 50 minutes, allowing for slower approach and departure speeds, and since there's no chance of lost bags, getting a car or cab to downtown will take about 10 minutes. Here's the eye-watering comparison:

Head To Head: Air Travel
  VLJ Service Commercial Airline
Downtown NYC to Airport   45 minutes   45 minutes
Flight Boarding Time   20 minutes   1 hour and 30 minutes
Time in Transit - Departure to Destination   50 minutes   3 hours and 10 minutes
Destination Airport to Downtown   10 minutes   30 minutes
Total Time Door-to-Door   2 hours and 5 minutes   5 hours and 55 minutes
Cost   $850   $863 (fully refundable as of 7/1/2006)

Add to the cost of driving, however, at least one, if not two, hotel nights, which (at $125 each) equals $466. That's still a bit more than half of the cost of flying, but the wear and tear and dangers of being on the highway also need to be factored in, along with additional food for additional time away. The singular outstanding advantage of driving is that, with the exception of massive traffic snarls, you're in control.

Also, I should point out that the minimal $863 price is a fully refundable coach ticket. Advance purchase non-refundable tickets for that same New York-to-Hagerstown roundtrip can be had for around $310, but as most of us in the market for business transportation understand, the airlines work tirelessly to prevent the business traveler from using the low-cost tickets and trips which pop up within a week seldom get such low fares.

As is obvious from the comparisons, when VLJ taxis enter the market and the service matures to the level of nationwide reliability (think Fedex), the only real competition for the in terms of cost will be the automobile. In terms of time, they will trump all other methods with the exception of the CEO's Learjet.