It’s no exaggeration to say that a great many observers expected the VLJ air-taxi revolution to begin earlier and spread more slowly. They expected to see someone — exactly who was still unclear in the early and mid-years of this decade — offer service in at least one, or best-case scenario, two regions of the U.S. by maybe the first quarter of 2007. By Q1 2008 they expected that service availability and quality would have improved substantially in those one or two regions without yet having expanded much beyond their borders.
Boy were all those observers — among them ourselves — wrong. Hindered by a myriad of the predictable and seemingly unavoidable teething problems that accompany every aviation advance, service launches were repeatedly pushed back. But once service was launched by North American Jet in Chicago and Dayjet in Florida it didn’t develop slowly, it exploded.
DayJet’s recent inauguration of Eclipse 500 service to Naples, Florida and Savannah, Georgia increases the number of cities it serves to 45, up from only five a mere four months ago. North American Jet, meanwhile, offers Eclipse service between Chicago and approximately 25 Midwest and East Coast cities including such major metro areas as New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Omaha and Cleveland and Linear Air is flying Eclipse 500s throughout the Northeast from its base at Hanscom Field outside Boston.
A few moments studying a coverage map shows that less than nine months into the VLJ era over 30 — and perhaps as much as 40 percent — of all Americans have access to VLJ air taxi/charter service. By year’s end it’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that number will have climbed to as much as 80 percent, a market penetration it took another rapidly emerging technology, broadband internet, a decade to reach.
So the question is not whether commercial VLJ operation is a growth industry. That much has been established. The real question is why the industry is growing at such a rapid rate despite the still very limited availability of aircraft.
As with most speculative questions, there are many possible answers. Here’s our favorite: Business people with mission-critical travel requirements have long been fed up with many scheduled carriers SOP (Stupidly Offensive Policies) and have developed a deeply felt longing for alternatives ranging from high-speed rail corridors to video-conferencing and net meetings. When VLJ service became available as the first really viable alternative, this pent-up demand created an instant user base that simply demanded immediate service extensions that far exceeded the operators’ expectations. Being good businesspeople, the operators accelerated their rollouts to meet that demand.
Make no mistake, when we’re talking about airline SOP being a turnoff we’re not referring to security. Regardless of whether you think airport security is too lax, too strict or simply too inefficient, decisions on those policies no longer rest with the airlines and haven’t for over five years.
What the airlines are responsible for is flights that don’t take off on time because crews aren’t scheduled properly, flights that are scheduled for airline rather than passenger convenience, flights that sit at the gate with the aircraft door locked because the airline won’t hire enough ground crew to service all their arrivals promptly, flights that sit on taxi ways forever waiting to take off or circle endlessly waiting to land because airlines insist on flight schedules identical to their competitors at hub after hub after hub.
Speaking of hub, after hub, after hub, it’s more than a bit ironic that 2008, the Year of the Very Light Jet, is also the 30th anniversary of the federal airline deregulation that allowed U.S. carriers to scrap their passenger-friendly point-to-point operating model for the much maligned hub-and-spoke system — from whence, decades before 9/11, much of today’s business traveler’s dissatisfaction with airlines sprang.
Since our topic is air taxis and VLJs, not United, American, et al, we won’t debate hub and spoke vs. point to point here. However, there are three facts that deserve to be mentioned. 1. The airline industry said they had to adopt hub and spoke in order to operate profitably. 2. Since adopting hub and spoke, bankruptcy has become an art, science and way of life in the airline industry. 3. Southwest Airlines, arguably America’s most successful airline of the past 15 years, is a classic point-to-point operator.
As are VLJ air-taxi services. They pick passengers up where they are and take them directly to where they need to be. That’s what point-to-point service is. And though it is more a rediscovery and improvement of an old mousetrap than the invention of a new one, hub-free Point A to Point B service is one of the prime drivers in the rapid acceptance of VLJ air-taxi service.