TCS Daily


Jet You

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 4, 2006 12:00 AM

I flew the not-so-friendly skies last week, with flight delays taking such a toll on my trip that I literally could have gotten to Washington, D.C. from Knoxville faster by driving than I did by flying on a nonstop flight that should have taken a bit over an hour. That got me griping, of course. But it also got me thinking.

In fact, it reminded me of this article by James Fallows from 2001. He describes the problem well:

"Through most of the twentieth century commercial air travel was an important part of the movement toward giving people more freedom, flexibility, and control over how they used their time. By the early 1940s airplanes had made it possible to cross the country in one long day of travel, rather than in several days by train. In the 1960s touring families and students could get to Europe on overnight charter flights, rather than having to spend five days on a ship. Businesses could receive timely shipments from distant suppliers and coordinate work among offices in different states or countries.

"But starting in the 1990s commercial airlines added more rigidity than flexibility to the system, in order to keep airplanes full while competing on price. More and more of the traffic was routed through a small number of hub airports, although the United States has well over 13,000 "landing facilities," many thousands of which would be suitable for all but the largest planes. Today more than 80 percent of all airline traffic takes off from or lands at one of the fifty busiest airports, and most of it at the twenty-four major hubs. As Dallas-Fort Worth, Dulles, Denver, and O'Hare become saturated with travelers and airplanes, one canceled flight means passengers sitting in the hallways and filling the standby lists for subsequent flights. Weather delays in one part of the country have ripple effects thousands of miles away."

He quotes former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin from 1998, eerily prefiguring my experience:

"You are flying through the air at three hundred to five hundred miles per hour during the part of your trip that is in the commercial airplane. But your average speed from when you left your home to when you arrive at your destination is only fifty or sixty miles per hour."

Well, it's not all that eerie, as pretty much everyone who flies regularly has had the same experience, probably more than once. But Fallows looked toward a future in which the hub-and-spoke system used by airlines today will be replaced by what might be called a "mesh network" of small planes dispatched according to demand. It's an almost Internet-like approach to air travel, with planes instead of packets.

I like the idea, and the very next day -- after my eventual arrival in Washington -- I ran across an article in USA Today reporting that Honda is getting into the small-jet game, with a small (6-7 passenger) cheap ($3 million) fast (480 mph) plane that's meant to serve not only as a business jet but as part of the sort of air-taxi approach to travel that Fallows outlined in his article. And it's not just Honda, as other companies like Adam Aircraft and Eclipse Aviation are targeting the Very Light Jet market, too. All are real companies with real airplanes, not just aero-vaporware. So something along the lines that Fallows described is starting to look very possible.

But this got me thinking: What would a world of "mesh network" air travel look like, and could it evolve in the face of current -- often anti-competitive -- airline industry practices and government regulations, or not?

In a way, we can see something like this growing already. So-called "Fractional Ownership," as exemplified by outfits like NetJets, is letting people who can't afford to own a business jet themselves get many of the advantages by owning part of one. Plunk some money down, and when you call, a jet will come and take you where you want to go. As The Times notes:

"NetJets operates a fractional ownership business model, under which customers acquire a stake and flying time in a business jet. NetJets shares start at $406,250 for a one-sixteenth interest and 50 hours of flying in a light Hawker 400XP."

That's a lot cheaper than owning a jet outright, but it's way, way out of the reach of nearly everyone who flies commercial. Other companies like FlightOptions are similarly expensive, as are prepaid charter oufits like Sentient Jets. For an "air taxi" model to work, seats would have to sell at no more than some small multiple of coach -- otherwise it's just NetJets-lite, which is a business model that may make money, but that won't make much of a dent in big airlines' business.

Is that possible? If these Very Light Jets make it, they'll be in a position to take advantage of not only new aviation technology, but a kind of just-in-time reservations approach. I can at least imagine a system in which you book a flight via the Web, and head over to your local small airport to be picked up, sharing the plane with a handful of other people the way you might share a cab with strangers.

I'm not sure if this will be feasible or not, but if something like this looked like a threat I imagine the big air carriers -- with lots of existing investment in their current fleets of big planes, paid-for gates at existing hub airports, and so on, would put up a fight, and probably try to get their competition regulated or legislated out of business. That might be hard, though: For every congressional district with a big hub in it, there will be many without such a hub who'd like better air service. Plus, nobody values flexible flying arrangements more than members of Congress, who are always commuting to and from their districts. This may be one of the rare circumstances where the politics favor innovators over existing industries.

Let's hope, anyway, as I like the idea of corporate-style jet travel for the masses. Like, well, me.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a TCS Daily contributing editor.

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33 Comments

Security
Hopefully and micro-airline like this might be able to waive some current security requirements and cater to smokers. (I would no fly a smokers airline, BTW).

Why attack or hijack a 6 passenger airplane flying between Odessa and Cedar City?

jetting around
Surely it's just a matter of if you can afford it, right? Rich guys already have private jets. And politicians keep jetting around because they don't have to pay for it themselves. If anybody wants to do it too, all they have to do it get richer, or become part of the predatory government.

Government Control
This is a real question. How much government regulation and control is involved with restricting airlines?

I know that when SW airlines started, they were only allowed to fly in TX. And they still have political battles to expand their service.

Why do major airline companies control Chicago or Dallas? Do the airlines own the airports or do government organazations?

Certainly the government controls the air traffic with notable lapses and failures, as in the recent KY accident.

It would be really interesting to see a truly deregulated airline industry.

High Speed Rail
What about high speed rail for distances under, say, 500 miles. The technology seems successful in Europe and Japan.

The biggest problem will be the cost of the flight crew, not the cost of the plane.
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there's a incestuous relationship between the major airline at a hub and the local govt
It's never official, but the airline that controls the majority of the gates, also has a say in who else gets to use the airport. Usually by making sure the local politicians are well lubricated with campaign contributions, and the politicians relatives are well lubricated with lucrative jobs.

another problem is the density of aircraft in the air space around an airport.
Many major airports are already reaching the point where they are handling all of the takeoffs and landings that they can. More runways can help some, but then you have to worry about planes not colliding in the air around the airport.

LAX to LAS high speed rail

A high speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas has been in the planning stages for decades. Too many special interests who do NOT want it keep it from happening.

Major Hubs
If airlines insist upon major hubs create them away from major destinations.

A major hub was planned around Edwards AFB to releive LAX.

Small private planes cost as much as NYC taxis
Taxi medallions in NYC cost somewhere between 400-500 thousand dollars. A system of vertiports and short haul flights intra and inter city could certainly be set up on the economic model that allows NYC taxicabs to be run profitably. The major problem is that our antiquated air traffic control (ATC) system simply cannot handle that much traffic and thus any dream of mass business style flight is out the window for many years. Our bureaucrats simply won't allow the engineers to put technical solutions into the field.

No reason for these planes to fly out of major airports
Especially if the VTOL model is used, local takeoff and landing zones should be practical all across the country.

Population density kills US rail
The EU and Japan have population densities 9-10x more dense than the US. This is why you only get really good rail inside the megalopolises like the NE corridor service that Amtrak provides. The local population density is near EU levels so you can afford to have EU style trains there. Elsewhere, the economics is much less compelling.

semi-controlled flight is the solution
The FAA has semi-controlled flight where you punch in your destination and the plane will mostly fly itself. Deploying the technology is another major foul up of our much mishandled ATC upgrade roadmap.

Why go to point to point at a major hub?
Especially with the advent of VTOL, there's really no reason to go to a major hub for the sort of point to point travel that's being discussed. Multiply your landing spots and you get rid of the congestion issue.

Unless you are planning on making 5 or six connecting flights, major airports are necessary.
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so you can make a connecting flight.
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What connecting flight
A lot of this article discusses the idea of picking you up at point A and dropping you at point B. Direct filghts, at least through the lower 48. A kind of cheaper and modified air taxi service. Even with a need for connecting flights, you can probably aviod major hubs by connecting to another small plane. The point is to reduce this congestion, improve air service and reach destinations that aren't readily available now.

Mark-Did you read the article?
The whole point of the article is that new technologies can eliminate the need for connecting flights to get to smaller airports.

Can't be done. Unless you are going to turn every airport into a super hub.
Even with on-demand flight scheduling, you still have 10's to 100's of thosands of people going to hundreds to thousands of different airports. The number of takeoffs and landings, are going to be huge.

Now you are back to my original point.
That this proposed system would increase the number of takeoffs and landings at major airports by an order of magnitude or more.

Right now you have a system where one big plane takes you from one regional airport to another regional airport. Then a smaller plane takes you to one of the satellite airports in the area of that regional airport.

To do this plan, the big plane has to be replaced by at least one plane that goes directly to each of the former satellite airports. One flight is being replaced by dozens of flights.

All of the major airports are going to have to have huge increases in the number of runways in order to support such a plan. And it's still not certain that there is enough air above the airports to route all of those planes through without them crashing into each other.

Automated routing is in the pipeline
You're assuming that takeoffs and landings are going to be as costly as they are today. With a properly set up ATC system, they should be as cheap/difficult as getting in and out of your driveway.

Silly, point to point means zero connecting flights
The major use case of point to point is that you go from where you are to your final destination on one flight. If I want to get to Kansas City, I fly there, *point to point* without going through a hub. Now aggregating people into a hub might still make sense for international flights but there's no reason to do it for short haul domestic.

No, I'm assuming that takeoffs and landings will take as much time as they do today.
Takeoffs and landings are determined almost completely by the landing speed of the aircraft in question.

If you have an order of magnitude more takeoffs and landings, then you are going to need an order of magnitude more runways. OK, not all runways are completely filled all of the time. But at most airports, they are filled at the peak times, and they are mostly filled for the majority of the day. The only way to get more use out of the existing runways will be to convince more people to fly at midnight.

Replacing big planes with little planes means that there are going to be many, many more takeoffs and landings per day.

Additionally, the cost of a takeoff or landing has almost nothing to do with the cost of the ATC system. It has to do with the amount of money needed to run the airport. They take the total cost, subtract what they earn from gate rentals and concessions, then divide the remainder by the number of takeoffs/landings each day. It's not likely that they will be getting more money from concessions and gate rentals, and if the number of takeoffs/landings cannot go up, then the price of each takeoff/landing will have to be the same.

point to point means that the number of takeoffs/landings at each airport goes up tremendously.
At least an order of magnitude.

So?
Smaller planes need less runway and can be spaced closer together.

If a GPS navigation based system were implemented spacings could also be tightened.

And, only the very smallest cities only have one airport. Smaller planes can use smaller runways.

Tours to the Grand Canyon fly out of North Las Vegas airport.

STOL and VTOL aircraft could land on even smaller runways, or on buildings like the helicopters in Brazil (Rio, is it?)

There is a lot of empty sky that can be used if technology and intelligence were applied.

Whoops, sorry, can't expect intelligence from a government agency.

Regional carriers already have it right
When I began reading your article, I imagined you making the point that the hub and spoke system is outmoded by regional carriers like Southwest who are already more efficiently analyzing final destinations and going straight there.

Newer technology and smaller jets lower the economical threshold of direct flights to more airports. Larger airlines hampered by bureaucracy and prior investment in huge planes will never be first movers. That leaves a huge gaping hole for competitors to climb through short of your imagined 'jet on demand' scenario which has a much smaller audience.

Look for smaller carriers to make the 'big jets are better' hub-spoke model virtually obsolete in the shorter run. And watch Delta and US Air go away. I believe it already would have happened if government regulation regarding gates, etc. would get out of the way. 9/11 already proved we don't need the FAA.

That's where large audience Instapundit-like sites can again come into play. The snowball picking up speed called Porkbusters scenario can be used to garner grassroots support for less regulation by large bureaucracies like Commerce, FAA, etc. Let the market work!

runways
With the exception of the biggest aircraft, which have turbulence problems, the timing of aircraft has to do with how much time it takes the previous craft to clear the runway. Assuming the smaller craft are landing at the same speed as the bigger craft they are replacing, it will take them about the same amount of time to stop as the bigger craft would have. (Stopping is a function of the power to weight ratio, which will stay pretty close to what it is today for the bigger craft.) The amount of time to taxi off of the runway will remain the same.

Today's smaller craft don't take as long to stop, because they land so much slower. The problem here is that since they land so much slower the amount of time they spend on approach is a lot longer, so the time they save on the ground is more than compensated for by the time spent in the air.

Liability Insurance
Don't forget about lie ability insurance.

These days, lawsuits have driven the small airplane manufactureres overseas.

Huh?
A couple of things are important to point out here:

1. Eclipse recieved final type certificaiton for their VLJ this week, and the first of its customers took delivery of their planes already. This is not an 'in the future' occurrence. It has begun. Honda is, relatively, late to the game.

2. Your comments refer to airports that are class C or class B (the biggest and largest airports which are controlled). The point of VLJs is that they can (and will) fly out of mostly uncontrolled small airports. The ones that typically have a hundred or less operations a day and which primarily service the general aviation community. Yes, that VLJ can, will and was designed to take off and land on the same runway as the Cessna 172.

3. From your comments, it is pretty clear that you are not a pilot, and have little or no knowledge of airspace regulation or control. Major airports are surrounded by controlled airspace, and you DON'T enter it until you are under the control of the Air Traffic Controllers. Their job, in part, is to provide aircraft separation and sequencing. It is unusual to have a collision in controlled airspace. Again, VLJs will operate primarily at Class C and uncontrolled airports, so this isn't really an issue.

I didn't explain myself fully
I pointed out that individuals currently fly from one hub to another, then branch out from the hub to individual local airports.

The logical rejoinder to that position would be that the people could fly to the local airports directly from the first hub, thus there would be no increase in flights.

This would be true in a world with two hubs. In the US, there are dozens of hubs, not counting flights to and from other countries. At present, most flights to and from local airports are from nearby hubs. Very few flights to such airports come from far away hubs.

Under the plan proposed, every hub would add flights to local all local airports. This is where the huge increase in total flights comes from.

Additionally, local airports at present, handle only a small number of flights per day. Those from nearby hubs. Under this plan, the local airports would undergo a huge increase in traffic. To handle this increase they would have to increase the number of runways and the size of thier air traffic control equipment and staff.

Another problem with small, high speed jets.
The landing and takeoff distance required by a plane is determined by it's landing speed. This in turn is closely related to a plane's top speed. That is, a wing configuration that is good for high speed flight, is not good for low speed flight, and vise-versa.

The article mentions a class of new jets that are both small, and fly as fast as the big jets. The landing speed for these jets will be as fast as the big jets as well.

The shorter runways on most small/local airports will not be able to handle these new jets without improvements.

Not only will these airports need more runways, but they will need longer runways.

Good luck getting those improvements past the local planning boards.

These guys are in the process of trying to close many small airports as it is.

Small airports
The idea of the small jets, and older prop planes like mine using small airports is a great idea, except small airports should be placed on the endangered list. Went into RDU, (Raleigh-Durham) an American Airlines hub. About the only small satellite airport is Horace Williams 30 miles away in Chapel Hill, and UNC is trying mightily to close it down. Chicago midnight bulldozes airports illegally. Other communitys fight their airports. It is tough out there. And as for Glenn's comment on the Airlines stiffling the competition, he should look int the airline's lobbying for user fees to fund the FAA. Check out how that has worked in Europe. Check how it will cripple General Aviation. Me, I own an airplane and fly on a salary equal to the Frost's (I know, differeewnt thread!) All I am saying is we are not all rollin' in the dough.

Bellanca260

This wouldn't "add flights". In fact, it would eliminate them entirely!
The idea of the "mesh network" Reynolds proposes is that you completely eschew the idea of "flights". Instead, you just go to the airport, where there are planes sitting there waiting. You hire a plane just the same as you'd hire a taxi, and then the plane flies directly from where you are to where you're going.

You're still thinking in terms of a hub-and-spoke system, where there are regular and unchangeable routes from one point to another. This would no longer be the case.

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