Say? Wasn’t there supposed to be a time, right about now actually, when air taxi microjets would be flitting from cloud to cloud and community airport to community airport in numbers high enough to make the scheduled carriers blanch and the FAA cringe?
Wasn’t this supposed to be the era when dialing up an airplane to take you safely and sanely home to Stockton after you’ve had three or four too many at the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day blowout would be virtually as easy as calling a cab to take you cross town?
What happened to the air taxi industry? An industry which seemingly appeared from nowhere and has, apparently, returned to nothingness?
Actually, the air taxi industry didn’t really appear from nowhere. It’s been with us from the very first days of manned flight. Likewise, it has in no way, shape, or form been diminished over the past four or five years. It is still a growing, albeit slowly at least in the United States, vibrant and necessary part of the passenger aviation market.
The apparition that “appeared from nowhere” and has “apparently returned to nothingness” was something Dickens once used as the title of a book: Great Expectations.
The first air taxi service — though perhaps non-service is a better description — took to the skies on September 23, 1870 when the French military, almost totally encircled near Paris during the Franco Prussian war hired some “Gypsy” hot-air balloon air cabs to carry mail and military communications between one part of their besieged forces and another.
Given that there was no way to plot and maintain a flight plan for the wind-powered balloons, the service was quickly curtailed when it became evident that the cabdrivers and their cargo were landing within German lines as often as within French lines.
The first significant date in the air taxi history in the U.S. was January 1,1914 when a Florida businessman hired an air taxi to take him on a 23 min. flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa to visit a vendors factory.
Fast-forward a generation or so to the Spanish Civil War and you’ll find fixed wing and helicopter air taxis being effectively used as air ambulances for the first time. In this context, it should be noted that air ambulances then and now are a very pure expression of air taxi services as we’ve come to defined them. Air ambulances fly only on demand, frequently on very short notice, operate between destinations chosen by the customers and not the air service operators and are a valuable, widespread, and usually profitable part of America’s medical care infrastructure.
The terms “valuable, widespread, and usually profitable,” also apply to the hundreds of small and midsized air taxi services operating between metropolitan area feeder airports, seasonal vacation retreats, and community airports where pilots with proper certificates and a waiting airplane are always available to help people get from an inconvenient point A to an equally inconvenient point B. These unscheduled, fly-on-demand air taxis are also available to carry TV camera crews above flood floods and fires and deliver the occasional “must have” package of vaccine or insulin.
Wonderful. Fine and dandy. But where are those thousands of VLJ air taxis that are supposed to be clogging up our so-called antiquated air traffic control system by now? Where is that vibrant, new, cost-effective method for making three sales calls in the time usually taken to make one while still getting home to sleep at night? Where are those spur of the moment weekend getaways without the time and nerve-crunching stress of scheduled carrier travel?
In our view, those questions can be answered in one word: DayJet.
Had DayJet jet deliberately set out to bankrupt its investors, stiff vendors, and bamboozle the leaders of the communities in which it located its DayPorts (not to mention the leaders of several communities where it said it planned to locate DayPorts but never did), it could not have done a better job.
Yet, DayJet intended nothing of the sort. DayJet was committed to building a far flung, powerful, highly profitable network over which cheap, efficient, very light jet aircraft would take people where they needed to go, when they needed to get there without the expensive of chartering an entire aircraft. Flying DayJet, travelers would pay only for the seat they were occupying.
So what went wrong? Why was DayJet’s failure so devastating that it literally blasted development of what was supposed to be the 21st-century air taxi model out of the skies?
Lord knows, it wasn’t because of lack of funds. Ed Iacobucci and his team probably raised between $28 & $35 million by the time they launched and Lord did they spend them.
DayJet ordered up long-term research studies and ful system-drill simulations from some of the world’s most renowned technical universities. They ran mock drills of typical single day operation scenarios complete with a fully staffed control center for years — literally years — before actually going live.
So what happened? First, let’s boot the revisionist history being peddled by DayJet apologists. DayJet was not doomed, nor never even slightly hampered by Eclipse Aviation’s inability to deliver the ridiculous number of aircraft DayJet was perpetually signing order sheets for
The truth is, more days than not DayJet’s total passenger count for the entire system was five or less. It had plenty of aircraft to handle those underwhelming numbers. DayJet need a huge fleet of Eclipse 500 aircraft almost exactly as much as Eclipse needed huge orders for planes that it knew would never be built, never be delivered, never be paid for. The reason for these orders had nothing to do with expanding the system or filling existing passenger demand. It had everything to do with giving investors, the business press, and financial analysts the impression that business was booming.
So, again, what did go wrong? Who was the real villain in the DayJet debacle? Believe it or not, the demon was neither a person nor a thing. It was a concept, a state of mind, a psychiatric term.
Ed Iacobucci didn’t really want, could never have been satisfied with, merely building a new air carrier operating under a new rather unique business model. He would never have settled for just grabbing the somewhat stodgy air taxi industry by its lapels and shaking it into the next decade. What he really wanted was to level and rebuild the whole industry in his (and DayJet’s) own image. His obsession was not about reinventing the wheel. He also wanted to redefine the way in which it rolled from place to place and the means by which people would access it.
That’s the $25 psychoanalysis version of DayJet at the gates of hell. There’s also the issue of financial accountability, or almost total lack thereof. Running years of simulations and rehearsals to get everything working glitch free before operating day one, is a noble aspiration. There is, however, a question whether launching a relatively small air taxi service covering five airports in Florida needed the level of countdown normally reserved for things like the Normandy invasion, the Apollo moon shot, or even the opening of a McDonald’s franchise in the heart of Kabul.
The cost of running a ghost DayJet for years prior to the arrival of the first operational Eclipse 500 wasn’t cheap and was certainly high enough to raise red flags in front of any accountant whose eyes weren’t completely excluded by stars shining in them.
Another out-of-control spending item was the marketing campaign.
One element of the DayJet launch strategy that can’t be faulted (but of course wer’e lying about that) was its epic, global PR effort. DayJet spent so lavishly to proselytize aviation groups, spin fantasies for city governments and airport authorities and send out reams of press releases, progress reports, and bold predictions all over the world, that the name DayJet quickly became known from Tampa to Timbuktu.
There’s no way to validate this statement, of course, but it’s entirely possible that there are children in the African Rainforest and other places have never seen an airplane but know the word DayJet.
The problem with all this, was that the marketing blitz was aimed almost entirely at the general public, most of whom would never have the slightest need for DayJet’s services.When DayJet did get around to marketing to people for whom the time and money advantages of air taxi made sense, they made the mistake of marketing directly to potential passengers.
The truth was, what all their pre-launch surveys and studies should’ve told them was that, DayJet, unlike other less aggressive air taxi operations, could not survive on a passenger base made up largely of individual business and professional travelers who make their own travel decisions and pay their own bills.
DayJet’s main customer base, if it was to have any hope of prospering, had to come corporate controllers and travel planners convinced that sending their managers to shows, events, meetings, inspections, etc., would save both dollars and increase productivity relative to using scheduled carriers.
In other words, DayJet should’ve hired a group of hungry, successful, corporate salespeople to walk into the offices of large companies with frequent travel requirements — say a law office with 120 attorneys who are always needing to go off to depositions and hearings — and sit down and romance — yes, romance — the dreaded bean counters.
Yes, the dreaded been counters, the people who in any corporate setting are least likely to be influenced by press releases, airport parties, or “launch events.” What DayJet should have invested in was giant spreadsheets with cost-time comparisons, computer-generated best case/wrost case cost-benefit ratio charts, studies showing and how many motel days, nights and per diem charges would be avoided by shifting some business to DayJet.
The bean counters never got these things and DayJet never got the bean counters’ business. The next riddle to unravel is why this saga so totally messed up the rest of the merging carriers.
We’ll tackle that issue next time.