Cultural attitudes yield distinct air-taxi models

 - February 26, 2008, 6:40 AM

As more very light jets are delivered, a clearer picture emerges of how VLJ air-taxi firms throughout the world will operate these new small jets. While U.S.-based DayJet and Earthjet are using an on-demand, per-seat model, the majority of
VLJ air taxis will offer whole aircraft on demand, Etirc Aviation managing director Dr. Matthijs de Haan told attendees at the International Air Taxi Convention held in Hollywood, Fla., in late January.

This will be amplified in Europe, said London Executive Aviation CEO Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, since European customers generally prefer not to share the cabin of a small aircraft with strangers. De Haan echoed that sentiment, saying that the majority of VLJ air-taxi operators will offer whole aircraft on demand, while only “some will be per-seat business airlines and few will be on-demand, per-seat operators.”

Arie-Willem Van Doome, COO of Netherlands-based air-taxi firm Bikkair, which started operations last month with a Cessna Citation Mustang, told attendees that VLJ air-taxi operators are “not selling airplanes; we’re providing a service,” regardless of the underlying business model. “The airplane isn’t everything,” he noted. “Very light jets are only evolutionary, not revolutionary, though they are the trigger and enabler” for this new air-taxi breed.

Earthjet CEO Dean Rotchin attempted to define the difference between a traditional air-taxi/charter firm and the “new” air-taxi operators. “‘New’ air taxis are defined by affordability,” he said. “Wealthy people can afford air charter. That’s not the target market for new air-taxi operators.”

Rotchin believes the best way to reduce the price for small-jet air taxis is to charge by the seat and increase the annual operating hours of the aircraft. “Airlines charge about $450 per seat per hour on 3,000 to 4,000 annual operating hours per aircraft per year,” he noted. “Charter firms charge much more and put far fewer hours on an aircraft per year.” Rotchin said Earthjet can be profitable by charging $325 per seat per hour and estimates per-aircraft usage at 1,500 hours per year.

De Haan said Etirc’s plan is to offer “cost-effective, no frills transportation” by having a large fleet of smaller aircraft–in this case Eclipse 500s–and strict regional boundaries. This blueprint is the same as Boca Raton, Fla.-based DayJet’s, even though Etirc will offer whole aircraft and DayJet charges by the seat.

VLJ air-taxi executives said one of the biggest hurdles for the nascent industry is introducing a new mode of transportation to the 90 percent of the population who have never flown in a private aircraft.