- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

New taxi services that travel at more than 400 mph are preparing to start operating later this year.

Unlike in city cabs, passengers will ride about five miles up in the air — and pay as much as $3 per mile.

The first of thousands of relatively inexpensive microjets are due for approval by the Federal Aviation Administration in about one month, in what is shaping up to be a new wave of personalized commercial aviation.

The latest breed of jet “air taxis” will charge by the mile.

Eclipse Aviation, an Albuquerque, N.M., company that pioneered manufacturing of the low-cost jets, has a backlog of 2,500 orders for its Eclipse 500 models even before the first plane carries a commercial passenger.

The FAA predicts the number of these turbojets will grow at about 6 percent per year for at least the next 10 years. About 9,000 turbojets will be in use this year, compared with the 17,270 projected by the FAA for 2017.

Innovations in aircraft manufacturing, online scheduling and flight operations converged so air taxi services can offer customers prices that are “half to a quarter of a traditional charter service,” said Vern Raburn, chief executive of Eclipse Aviation. Fares will be roughly equivalent to business-class tickets, he said.

Major manufacturers like Cessna Aircraft and Honda Motor Co. also plan to produce these “very light aircraft,” which weigh about as much as a sport utility vehicle and would be used mostly on flights under 500 miles.

Eclipse Aviation is selling its three- to four-passenger jets for about $1.5 million, compared with $4.4 million for a Cessna CJ1 light jet that seats six passengers and $8.4 million for a Learjet 40XR that seats up to seven passengers.

Air-taxi services have been around for years, but until now used propeller planes that travel about 200 mph.

Tod Sedgwick, owner of D.C.-based Sedgwick Publishing Co., said he turned for the first time to Greenville, S.C.-based SATSair’s air-taxi service using propeller planes when he had no alternative for traveling between two meetings in one day.

Mr. Sedgwick had a business meeting in the morning in Washington and a high school reunion in the evening in Cleveland. A search of commercial airline itineraries showed no flights would allow him to arrive in Cleveland in time for the reunion.

The air taxi landed at a small regional airport outside Cleveland.

“My reunion was three miles away,” Mr. Sedgwick said. SATSair hired a rental car for him that pulled up to the plane as he got out.

Sure, the cost was high compared with commercial flights, he said. But there are tradeoffs.

“You leave when you want to go. You’re not subject to somebody else’s time schedule.”

A drawback is that the flights tend to be slow, traveling at about one-third the speed of commercial airlines.

“I wouldn’t go to Florida on one of these things,” Mr. Sedgwick said. “If you do, you’d probably have to stop just to stretch. It’s a long flight.”

However, when air-taxi services start using jets, “That will change the whole business model,” he said.

SATSair pilots fly an average of about 250 flights per year out of the Washington area with their Cirrus SR22 single-engine propeller planes.

“People aren’t doing it to get a cheaper fare than the airlines,” said Gil Chenery, SATSair’s flight operations director. “It’s convenient. We can take people close to the place they want to go.”

Mr. Chenery described his company’s customers as “a lot of professionals, law firms, doctors, land developers, lumber companies.”

DayJet Corp., an air-taxi service based in Delray Beach, Fla., plans to begin flying with 309 very light jets when the FAA certifies the Eclipse 500. From a start at five regional airports in Florida, DayJet plans to expand throughout seven southeastern states, perhaps eventually adding the Washington area.

The company seeks customers who are primarily “midlevel managers that live in underserved markets,” said Vicky Harris, DayJet’s marketing director. “Demand in the underserved market is very unpredictable and sporadic. That’s why airlines are not flying into these smaller markets with great regularity. If we only have a couple of passengers a day, that’s OK.”

DayJet plans to charge passengers $1 to $3 for each mile they fly, which means a flight from Washington to New York City could cost $200 to $600.

Air-taxi customers would pay the lowest fares if they agree to allow DayJet to stop along the flight to pick up other passengers. The $3-per-mile fee would be charged to customers who demand a direct flight to their destination with little flexibility in scheduling.

Traditional charter services charge for each trip, including the return flight, regardless of whether any passengers are on board.

In any case, passengers needn’t worry about calculating the appropriate gratuity for a 500-mile ride in an air taxi: No tipping allowed.

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