Are the air taxi good times really over for good almost before they got started?
Are they over for the next ten years?
Almost certainly not.
The next five years?
How long then?
According to a surprisingly large number of industry insiders, the good times are not only not over, they’re about to get rolling in earnest.
“This country didn’t just have an economic meltdown; it has had an airline meltdown,” says Andrew Schmertz , who earlier this month put a substantial sum of money where his mouth is by launching Hopscotch Air to provide on-demand air taxi service between metropolitan New York and hundreds of mid-Atlantic and New England community airports.
“Airlines are reducing and, in some cases, canceling service along many routes … the (traveling public) is clamoring for a solution to the airline mess,” Schmertz said. “People still need to fly and time is still money.”
Linear Air CEO Bill Herp who, when interviewed by AirTaxiFlights.com last September believed there was “a big opportunity in efficiently and economically connecting people who live and work near major metro areas with their business interests in secondary and tertiary markets ” has seen nothing in the recent economic crisis to make him change his mind.
Herp is so sanguine about the VLJ/air taxi future that he recently announced formation of Eclipse Services and Support LLC, a co-op venture which hopes to buy certain key Eclipse assets including parts and manuals needed for maintenance and upgrades on current 500s.
More interesting, is the Herp group’s plan to walk away from the Eclipse bankruptcy sale with so-called intellectual property which could include blueprints, engineering documents, computer applications, patent rights and other items that could someday facilitate production of a new Eclipse.
Atlanta-based ImagineAir Co-founder and President Benjamin Hamilton is still another industry insider who sees no reason to revise his company’s mission statement to meet new economic realities.
Interviewed by ATF several months prior to last fall’s stock market crash, Hamilton said “our goal is to use everything the major airlines do wrong as the basis for what we do right. Among other things, that means we are tightly focused on ease of use and customer service. It means we want to offer a fast, easy, personalized and pleasurable flight experience for our customers by removing the hassle and time-intensive processes that plague the airline industry.”
Avoiding the airline industry “plague” like, pardon the pun, the plague has done wonders for ImagineAir’s bottomline … it closed 2008 with a 90 percent increase in sales and a 117 percent rise in flights.
Meanwhile over at Cirrus Design, where the economy has driven production of current piston-engined models down to about 20 percent of pre-crash levels, CEO Brent Wouters remains bullish about the Cirrus Vision single-engine VLJ and affirmed that the Vision is still on target to be certified in late 2011.
According to Wouters’ boss, Cirrus Chairman Alan Klapmeie, the Vision, formerly known as the CirrusJet, will be “easy to learn, intuitive to operate, fun to fly, forgiving and safe as state-of-the-art technology can make them.”
To which Wouter adds this: The Vision is “our future engine of growth.”
And Honda, despite cutting North American automobile production by almost 50 percent in January, celebrated the February opening of its $100 million dollar HondaJet R&D campus in Piedmont, North Carolina by announcing plans to expand the 190,000 square foot facility to 500,000 square feet, starting with construction of a 250,000 manufacturing plant this summer.
Even better, Honda Aircraft CEO & President Michimasa Fujino used the occasion to report that a.) an influx of new orders has forced the company to hike its initial annual production estimate by roughly 30 percent (to about 100 aircraft) and b.) Honda still expects to attain certification and begin deliveries in 2010.
So here’s the good news:
– Quality air-taxi operators who didn’t over-promise and un-deliver on service, who didn’t binge-order aircraft without any idea how they would eventually pay for them, who did devise and follow a market-savvy, sustainable business model are doing well.
– VLJ makers at both end of the price-sticker spectrum — Cirrus with its roughly $1 million Vision and Honda, which has taken over 100 HondaJet orders at just under $4 million per — are optimistic about the future.
And here’s the bad news:
– VLJ air-taxi service will probably not be coming to a community airport near you as soon as you had hoped.
– You will have to continue using scheduled airlines instead of air taxis for awhile and those flights are going to get continually more unpleasant and expensive as airlines deploy ever more tools for draining blood from their stonily suffering passengers. (In fairness to the airlines, rumors that the industry is planning to put parking meters on the washrooms and offer peeping-inclined passengers a $25 fee to watch closed-circuit telecasts from those being used by couples struggling to ravage the smoke detector — or each other — seem to be unfounded.)
Weighing the good news against the bad and comparing the results to the prospects facing other segments of the aviation industry, not to mention the auto, retail, hospitality and consumer electronics industries, one conclusion is inescapable … the air taxi/VLJ business isn’t really doing so bad after all.