Cessna Flights for the Masses

Blackbird’s app connects fliers with cheap seats on small planes.
Courtesy Blackbird

It’s relatively inexpensive and easy, if not always comfortable, to fly to most big U.S. cities. But try to fly from, say, Burlington, Vt., to Portland, Maine: The best option might take you through New York, cost $800, and burn the better part of a day. The regional carriers that used to serve routes like these have been shuttered in the era of a few mega-airlines focused on their national hubs, so the only option for most travelers is a five-hour drive.

A startup in San Francisco is trying to redraw the map by tapping into a system that’s largely invisible to everyday travelers: the country’s 3,000 general aviation airports and 10,000 charter aircraft. This fleet of Federal Aviation Administration-regulated Cessna, Beechcraft, and Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. planes sits parked most of the day, waiting for last-minute charters from companies or wealthy individuals. “I thought it would be an amazing thing to bring this type of air travel to everybody,” says Rudd Davis, whose year-old startup, Blackbird Air Inc., is trying to connect more planes with passengers through its Uber-style on-demand app, at much lower prices than the $5,000 a traditional charter might cost.

Davis thought of the idea while working toward his pilot’s license at an airstrip in Palo Alto, having sold a data analysis company to Groupon Inc. in 2014. Unlike private-flight booking services like Surf Air and Wheels Up, Blackbird doesn’t require regular membership dues and doesn’t have any aircraft of its own. Davis is relying on charter carriers to fly the routes. That’s a serious advantage for the business model, says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at researcher Teal Group Corp. “People who go into this business go horribly wrong by overspending on assets,” he says.

So far, Blackbird offers a handful of flights in California, including from Palo Alto to Lake Tahoe. Round-trip fares on that 45-minute flight got as low as $199 for flights booked in advance last winter, Davis says; the drive can take six hours, or eight in traffic. Blackbird’s app also includes a familiar-looking pool option that cuts prices for fliers willing to share a ride at an agreed-upon date and time.

“It’s not competing with United. It’s competing with very badly managed infrastructure,” says Françoise Brougher, a former senior executive at Square Inc., who invested in Blackbird after using the service to ferry her teenagers to Tahoe.

Many people, of course, worry about safety aboard small planes. Severe weather at times shut the Tahoe airport last winter, and Davis had to divert some flights to Reno, Nev., and send a car to get passengers the rest of the way, adding an hour to the journey. Cargo can also be limited, and Blackbird adds baggage fees of about $10 for every 10 pounds above 15 pounds, à la cut-rate airlines.

For a recent flight on a Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 from Palo Alto to Truckee Tahoe Airport, passengers included a couple who work at Google Inc., a medical device consultant, and an elderly woman who had family with her at both airports. Compared with the ingrained rituals of air travel, the informality was jarring. Passengers parked within steps of the plane and mingled in a waiting room a bit like a dentist’s office until a young, black-shirted greeter ushered them outside. “Hi, I’m Brian,” the pilot said, helping the passengers up a three-rung stairway into the cabin, which resembled a nicely appointed SUV.

Chris Brown, president of the aircraft’s operator, Centurion Flight Services Inc., says his fleet is in the air 30 percent more since teaming with Blackbird, and he’s looking to purchase two more Pilatus planes. Aaron Singer, a seaplane operator in Sausalito, Calif., says he’s begun shopping for another De Havilland Beaver because of high early demand for a 75-minute route to Lake Tahoe he’ll start flying in June.

Blackbird has raised about $2.5 million from investors and plans to expand beyond California later this year, Davis says. His head of technology, Jamie Loberman, is picking the most promising routes by overlaying maps of the U.S. with data that include traffic delays, vacation rentals, and commercial airfares. The result looks something like the U.S. airline map back in the early days of deregulation, when Air Vermont and Golden Gate Airlines were still among 300 regional carriers flying 1,200 routes. “There was demand for this back in the ’70s,” Davis says. “It’s not like that demand has gone away.”

The bottom line: Blackbird’s online marketplace offers seats on small planes for much less than typical charter prices.

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