Air Taxis: More Than a Flight of Fancy

By Otis Port


From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel

By James Fallows

PublicAffairs -- 254pp -- $25

Since the airlines created today's hub-and-spoke systems in the 1980s, fares have plummeted--but so has the effective speed of air travel, especially for trips that begin or end at spoke airports. Indeed, for journeys of 500 miles or less, door-to-door travel by car is almost as fast as flying, according to a NASA study. Every business traveler knows why. Traffic at hub airports is now so heavy that if storms or mechanical problems delay just one flight, the effects ripple across the system, multiplying the delays and missed connections. And things will get worse: The Federal Aviation Administration expects air traffic to double by 2010.

Still, there's hope for the decade after that. It's laid out in detail in Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel by Atlantic Monthly correspondent and former U.S. News & World Report editor James Fallows. The solution lies in a new generation of small, high-tech planes designed to fly into thousands of local airports, thus bypassing the snarls at the 31 hubs and 700 spokes now served by scheduled airlines. These planes, the first of which is already flying, would put an air-taxi service at your beck and call. They would buzz from the airport near your home--and 98% of Americans live within a 30-minute drive of a small airport--straight to a local airport close to your final destination. This approach would slash travel time, often by 50% or more. Fallows cites a NASA estimate that local airports can handle a lot more traffic than they do today. The 5,400 best-equipped ones now accommodate 37 million takeoffs and landings annually, but they could handle 500 million. Any opposition from local residents should be muted, NASA believes, by the fact that the new planes will be much quieter.

Fallows argues his case with authority. Not only is he a licensed pilot and a gifted writer but he also owns one of the new-generation planes--an SR20 from Cirrus Design Corp. in Duluth, Minn. That's probably why he devotes much of Free Flight to the struggles of Alan and Dale Klapmeier, the two brothers who founded Cirrus and built the first FAA-certified plane that has its own parachute: Should the plane's piston engine conk out, the 'chute can float the $175,000 craft gently to the ground. New features like this are central to Fallows' thesis: Take away fear of crashing in a small plane, and air travel can become even more pleasant than it was before deregulation in 1978.

The Klapmeier saga resonates with human interest, but NASA's aeronautical engineers--especially Bruce Holmes--are the real heroes of the book. Holmes promoted the idea of a nationwide air-taxi service and persuaded NASA to foster the technical developments required to make small planes attractive for trips of up to 1,500 miles. Foremost among these is the mini-jet engine from Williams International in Walled Lake, Mich. About the size of a bongo drum, it's a scaled-up version of the engines Williams developed for the U.S. Air Force's cruise missiles. Two of these engines will power the Eclipse 500 from Eclipse Aviation Corp. in Albuquerque, which should take to the air next July.

A major breakthrough in small planes, this five-passenger jet will zip along at 400 mph, cruise above the weather at 41,000 feet like a jumbo, coddle passengers in seats even more luxurious than those in first-class cabins--and cost only about $850,000, or one-third as much as a small corporate jet. Jet engines are crucial: They're faster than piston engines and far safer. As Fallows points out, airlines' accident rate plunged by 90% after they switched from props to jets.

To improve safety further, NASA helped cook up electronic systems that will let planes such as the Eclipse 500 land on runways obscured by fog or rain, even at airports without radar or control towers. Eventually, NASA envisions an age of "free flight," when air traffic will no longer need ground controllers. Instead, smart planes will communicate among themselves and with weather computers on the ground, then plot a course to avoid traffic and storms.

Critics of air taxis charge that high prices will relegate it to a perk for senior execs. Eclipse admits to Fallows that hailing an air taxi will probably cost almost as much as a business-class ticket. But split the cost between just two people and avoid the overnight stay that hub-and-spoke routing often necessitates, and the tab may be less than flying coach. Eclipse figures air taxis could grab 20% of the business market during the 2010s--and generate sales of perhaps 35,000 planes.

If you've never heard of Eclipse, that's by design. It was founded in 1997 by Vern Raeburn, a Microsoft Corp. multimillionaire, and Sam Williams, chairman of Williams International. Knowing it would take years to create a new jet from scratch, Raeburn didn't want to tip his hand and spark competition from an existing business-jet builder. So he raised the first $60 million from private individuals, including Microsoft founders Paul Allen and William H. Gates III.

I learned about Eclipse from an investor who saw BusinessWeek's story on Britain's Ltd., founded in 1998 with the same goals as Eclipse. I had planned to write a follow-up story, but Free Flight has the whole lowdown. It will make you impatient for the day when an air-taxi service sets up shop near your home.

Senior Writer Port has twice persuaded his nervous wife that they should charter private planes during vacation trips.

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