Sunday, August 19, 2007

Today's Globe Column: Private Air Travel for the Rest of Us?

This morning's Boston Globe column covers Linear Air, a company that hopes to make private air travel more accessible to a wide range of travelers. And they're flying the brand-new Eclipse 500, a plane certified by the FAA only last year.

In the companion video report, Bill Herp talks about the strategy behind Linear, some of the projected costs for passengers, and the Eclipse 500 jet. You'll also get to see the exterior and interior of the plane, and some shots of the Eclipse taxiing around Hanscom and then taking off.

Two Massachusetts-related details I didn't touch on in the column: the interior of the Eclipse was designed by the Boston office of the design firm IDEO, and its flat-panel displays come from Bedford-based Avidyne (though Eclipse later this year will be abandoning the Avidyne displays).

Aside from Linear, there's one other "air taxi" company that will start flying the Eclipse this fall: DayJet. DayJet is extremely well-funded compared with Linear, having raised about $68 million in equity compared to Linear’s $6 million. But the company’s model is different; customers will pay a $250 annual fee, and have the option of purchasing individual seats on routes within Florida; Linear customers will need to book the entire plane. DayJet's initial focus will be the southeastern U.S.

I asked Philip Greenspun, one of my favorite local aviation bloggers, what he thinks of the Eclipse and Linear Air's chances, and while his response arrived too late for the column (he's currently traveling in Africa), here's a snippet of what he said:

    Our training helicopters at East Coast Aero Club share a hangar with the Linear Air guys, so I see them operate every day and I'm cautiously optimistic about the company. They have a staff of great pilots who enjoy their work and, I'm sure, communicate their joy in flying to the customers. Linear Air shouldn't have any trouble hiring more pilots, though, sadly there aren't too many 110 lb. women who want to be professional pilots and that is what they're going to need to operate the Eclipse.

    Going by the numbers, the Eclipse sounds useless as an air taxi. I'm 6' tall and have sat in the front seats and they are quite
    comfortable. Unfortunately for the passengers, the rear of the aircraft is pretty cramped. If you remove two seats, you've now got a reasonably spacious cabin for two passengers. With two beefy pilots in the front seats and two beefy business guys in the back seats, the real-world range might be limited to about 700 miles. You aren't going to escape to the Bahamas in the depths of a Boston winter in a Linear Air Eclipse, at least not non-stop.

    The real air taxi market should be friendlier to Linear Air and the Eclipse than the fantasy market. We dream of escaping to a tiny island in the Bahamas with our six best friends, but most business travel from the Boston area ends up somewhere else within the Northeast and the typical passenger load on a business jet is only 1.3 people. There isn't a lot of romance in a trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania with the assistant vice president of sales, but the Eclipse will make the trip quietly, comfortably, and quickly.

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