Aerial taxis preparing for takeoff

Beginning next year, the service would cater to commuters who want to avoid the delays and stopovers that can plague conventional flights. Photo: DayJet for day-trippers

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
A plan to shuttle commuters from city to city aboard five- and six-seater aerial taxis could be off the ground by next year.

Starting in mid-2006, DayJet (formerly Jetson Systems) plans to transport people between regional airports in the United States whenever passengers want. Need to get from Palo Alto in Northern California to Bakersfield in the southern part of the state and back the same day? For a moderate premium, DayJet, which calls itself a "per-seat, on-demand" air service, will do it.

The idea is to cater to business travelers who don't want to drive, but who also want to avoid the delays and stopovers that can plague jaunts between secondary cities on conventional airlines.


What's new:
Start-up DayJet is ready to launch a low-cost aerial taxi service for travel between midsize cities.

Bottom line:
Charter air travel isn't cheap, and it can be a hassle, factors that create an opening for new on-demand airlines. New technology helps the upstarts, but how much lift can they really get?

More stories on aviation technology

"This is a transportation system that adapts to your needs," said Ed Iacobucci, founder of software maker Citrix Systems and the man behind DayJet. "It is not about serving New York to Atlanta. It is more about serving the secondary and tertiary markets with a point-to-point network."

On-demand airlines have emerged as one of the buzzwords and potential opportunities in the field of aviation. Last month, at the Flight School conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., People Express founder Donald Burr discussed Pogo Jet, which will provide similar services, while Corporate Clipper will aggregate and book seats on these new types of airlines. (Flight School is owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com).

Currently, charter services provide on-demand flying services, but the expense--about $4 to $10 a mile--has put those services out of reach of most consumers and business travelers. The price, Iacobucci said, "tends to be $1 a mile for these regional flights" on conventional carriers.

DayJet (and, to a similar degree, its competitors) hope to exploit two technological achievements--lightweight components and scheduling software--to bring down the cost of these type of flights to around 75 cents to $3 a mile, somewhat close to the cost of tickets on conventional airlines today.

These new airlines will likely have to overcome consumer skepticism, said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research. Will people be scared to fly in small planes? Will they miss conveniences, such as bathrooms? Will corporate travel offices spring for the transportation?

Eclipse 500

Still, "if the price is right, it might take people off the road," Harteveldt said. "It could even compete against people like JetBlue and American Eagle."

The first technological breakthrough is a new type of light airplane that's comparatively inexpensive to manufacture and fly. The Eclipse 500, from Eclipse Aviation, for instance, can hit a maximum speed of 375 knots, carry five or six people (including pilots) and fly for about 300 to 600 miles.

The plane will sell for $1.3 million, less than conventional small planes, and weigh less, which cuts down on fuel costs. The advantages in weight and cost come in part from the use of semiconductors to replace many mechanical controls. The two Pratt & Whitney engines that power it measure only about 14 inches long and weigh less than most engines of their type. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is an investor in Eclipse.

"We live and die by grams," Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn said.

DayJet has an order with Eclipse for 239 airplanes, with an option to buy 70 more. The planes will be delivered

over a three-year period. The Federal Aviation Administration later this year may determine whether the Eclipse 500 and planes like it can be used for commercial flights. The second milestone lies in software for managing the flights. DayJet has hired Russian mathematicians from Citrix Systems to develop a reservation and scheduling system.

Under this system, passengers will submit to DayJet their proposed itinerary, including a desired time of departure and arrival. The system then tells the potential customer in about five seconds whether the flight will be possible and what it will cost.

The price is determined by the passenger's flexibility. If someone is willing to get to the airport a few hours early and put up with a stop along the way, they pay less. If not, they pay a higher price.

Time, of course, is DayJet's ally. The more of the five or six seats on each small plane it can fill, the more money it makes. Traveler flexibility will allow the company to increase the odds of filling the additional two-to-three available passenger seats on a flight. The software essentially tries to predict if the company will be able to fill those seats.

Even if it doesn't sell the other seats, DayJet won't raise the price or force the passenger to buy the unsold ticket. In current charter planes, passengers have to book the entire plane. In that case, the airline calls passengers and tells them they can get to the airport just before their flight.

But DayJet only needs to fill about 1.3 seats on each flight to break even, Iacobucci said.

Iacobucci wouldn't say where service would begin. He did say that within a 600- to 800-square-mile region, DayJet hopes to be able to fly into around 150 airports. Thirty to 50 of these airports will house DayJet facilities--ticket offices, ground crews, pilots. (The plan is to let the planes return home every night. Getting stuck overnight "is the No. 1 lament" of pilots, he said.)

The idea for the airline came after Iacobucci retired from Citrix in the late 1990s. He and his wife bought a Lear jet.

"I got totally addicted, (but) not to the elitist aspects. I'm not into gold faucets," Iacobucci said. "But it gives you back time."