An End-Flight Around Charters

With tiny three-seater jets, sharp math, and powerful computers, DayJet aims to make on-demand air travel to small cities affordable

If you wanted to travel the 300 miles from Boca Raton to Gainesville, Fla., you could get in your car and drive for about five hours, traffic permitting. Or you could pop down to Fort Lauderdale, pay $500 or more for a round-trip ticket to Gainesville, and embark on a flight that would take at least four hours, with changes in Tampa, Atlanta, or Charlotte, N.C. Alternatively, you could pay more—the exact amount depends on how flexible you are about timing—and fly nonstop on DayJet in less than an hour.

DayJet, which began service in October, exploits advances in aviation, computer technology, and some sophisticated mathematics to offer a new kind of air service. It flies tiny three-passenger Eclipse 500 jets, part of a novel breed of light, ultra-fuel-efficient planes.

The real secret behind DayJet is computational wizardry that lets it provide on-demand service for considerably less than charters. The company currently offers service to what it calls "DayPort" cities—specifically Boca, Naples, Lakeland, Gainesville, Tallahassee, and Pensacola in Florida and Savannah, Ga. It will also fly passengers between these DayPorts and 28 other small airports in Florida and neighboring states, as long as the flight originates or terminates in a DayPort.

Narrower Window, Higher Price

Customers pay a $250 annual membership fee�—something Chief Executive Ed Iacobucci insists on mainly to discourage casual customers who are just checking out the service. The fee gives customers access to the scheduling Web site.

A traveler selects a route, a date, and a time window for the trip, and the system computes a price. The narrower the time window, the higher the price. For example, requesting a flight from Boca to Gainesville between 6 a.m. and noon got me a one-way fare of $353. Narrowing the time to 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. raised the price to $566, and 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. took it to $1,032.

Making this work requires real-time compilation of a schedule that meets all the passenger requests and is optimized for efficient use of crew and aircraft. And the data must be recomputed whenever a passenger request comes in or weather or an equipment problem forces a schedule change.

Mathematically, this task is closely related to the notorious problem of finding the best multi-city route for a traveling salesman. As in the math problem, it's impossible to compute the single most efficient schedule. But DayJet scientists have developed techniques to find a —good enough— solution that gets them within a couple of percentage points of perfection in a real-time computation.

A big challenge is that the complexity of the problem explodes as the number of cities and aircraft grows. To plan for an eventual network of dozens of cities and hundreds of aircraft, DayJet feeds the information it has gathered about customer behavior and aircraft performance, plus actual weather conditions, into a model that simulates a system of up to 500 planes serving 100 cities.

More Like a Van

You won't confuse a DayJet flight with a luxury executive charter. The interior of the Eclipse is cramped and spartan, more minivan than Gulfstream (GD). But the seats are comfortable enough, and you have the all-around visibility you can only get in a small plane where the flight deck is part of the cabin. The interior is remarkably quiet, even when the engines are running at full power. And you don't have to take off your shoes or empty your pockets for security. You do, however, have to step on a scale; load and balance are critical in a plane that weighs about as much as a Lexus ES350.

Miami lobbyist Ronald Book is a DayJet frequent flyer. He felt cramped by Delta's limited nonstop service from Miami to Tallahassee. "If you want to maximize your day, those schedules don't work real well," he says. And paying $1,400 to $2,800 for a round-trip is a bargain compared with $6,000 or so for a charter.

DayJet is never going to fly the New York-Chicago run or any other route that has cheap, frequent flights. But I predict this service will delight businesspeople who travel between smaller, underserved cities.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.