Monday, October 13, 2008

Hitting Turbulence at Linear Air

I've been wondering for a while what's up with Linear Air, the pioneering air taxi service operating out of Hanscom Field in Bedford.

... First there was the crazy spike in oil prices.

... Then the FAA temporarily grounded the zippy new Eclipse 500 jets that make up part of their fleet, pending an inspection of the throttle.

... Then there were questions about whether the FAA's certification process for the new Eclipse "very light jet" was conducted properly.

... Then, last month, one of the biggest air taxi operators flying the Eclipse, Florida-based Dayjet, stopped flying "as a result of the company’s inability to arrange critical financing in the midst of the current global financial crisis."

All tough breaks for a start-up.

I spoke with Linear CEO Bill Herp last week. He told me that "fuel prices are not as much of a problem. They're coming back down." The throttle inspection was completed in a couple of hours, he said.

Herp said that the demand for flights in July and August was much greater than the company could satisfy.

Part of the problem is that the Eclipse jets have proved tough to maintain. "There has been a lack of support for the aircraft from [the manufacturer], and problems with spare parts supply," Herp said. That hasn't been helped by a restructuring at Eclipse Aviation that, according to Herp, has consumed its maintenance staffers. On a typical day, Linear has only one or two of the four Eclipse jets in its fleet available for flights. (The rest of Linear's fleet consists of three Cessna Caravans, which are single-engine turboprop aircraft.)

Linear recently laid off about one-third of its staff, Herp said, or about 15 employees.

He still believes that the air taxi model can work, and is currently trying to raise $1 million to $1.5 million in financing to keep the company running and give it "12 months of breathing room."

I wrote about Linear and the Eclipse in the Globe last August; also shot some video of the first Eclipse the company acquired for its fleet.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Videos from Last Month's Business Innovation Factory Event

Lots of New England innovators spoke at the Business Innovation Factory gathering last month in Rhode Island... among them:

    - Clay Christensen from HBS
    - Dave Balter from BzzAgent
    - Bill Herp from Linear Air
    - Robin Chase from GoLoco
    - Denise Nemchev from Stanley Bostich (yes, the stapler-maker)

Videos are here. I had a laugh hearing Clay Christensen describe himself as the Jewish mother of the business world -- always worried, even when things are going well for a company.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dan Bricklin visits Eclipse

Dan Bricklin, Boston area software guru, once worked with Vern Raburn, the founder of Eclipse Aviation, at Slate Corp. - a pioneer of pen-based computing that never took off. Dan has a great post, with video and photos, about his recent visit to Eclipse in Albuquerque. It's a great companion to my Sunday column about Linear Air, which has a bunch of Eclipses on order.

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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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Friday, August 10, 2007

BBQ for Entrepreneurs

There was an informal gathering of about 35 entrepreneurs last night at Bill Warner's Collaboration Space in Cambridge, which I helped organize.

There were founders from just about every corner of the tech world, from air taxi start-ups like Linear Air to gaming companies like Conduit Labs to printer companies like AirPrint. (Perhaps enterprise software was under-represented.) There was no panel discussion, no speeches -- just some informal introductions, schmoozing, food from Blue Ribbon Barbecue in Arlington, and beer from Pabst Blue Ribbon in Milwaukeee. Bill had an LCD projector that people could hook up to to show demos. I was especially impressed with what Actuality Systems and Veveo were showing... I'd seen LocaModa's demo before, but it was fun having a game up on the screen that people could sent text messages to to play.

Some people talked a bit about the differences between the tech scenes Boston and California (I didn't bring it up - I swear). But mostly, it was just a really interesting group of people talking about what they're up to. Amazingly, when asked for a show of hands, about 90 percent were working on some sort of consumer-oriented technology or site.

In the photo at right is Yonald Chery, new father, who brought some supplemental barbecue, turning the event into a kind of barbecue taste-off. Yonald's Memphis-style dry rub brisket is pretty incredible; he has won the catering contract for my next party.

Update: Here are Halley Suitt's Flickr photos from the event.

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Friday, August 3, 2007

Linear Air Gets Its First Eclipse Jet

Man-about-town Philip Greenspun reports on the first Eclipse 500 "very light jet" delivered to Linear Air, a Bedford-based on-demand airline start-up. So far, Linear has been flying Cessna Caravan prop planes.

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