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  • Manolo Centeno

Small Aircraft Transportation Model

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Think twice if you believe UBER came up with the idea of the small aircraft transportation model first!

Any given Sunday in Arlington, Texas, the small airfield south of the city resembles a private jet convention. Passengers in showy Gulfstreams or smaller private jets and props fly in early for the Dallas Cowboys game, hop-off their aircraft, walk a few yards to their limo or premium rideshare, and leisurely travel the 5.8 miles up Collins Street directly to AT&T Stadium. No muss, no fuss, no hassle of DFW Airport 20 miles away.

When the game’s over, the scenario reverses, with happy (or the way the Cowboys played last season, sad) fans rolling back down Collins to the municipal airport. There’s no need to clear security. There’s no 20-gate jaunt to their flight. They walk up the stairs, close the doors and fly to the airport closest to their destination homes or offices – also likely to be a smaller regional / general aviation airport.

This kind of convenience is the norm for owners and passengers of private jets all the time – not just on special occasions, but every day. And with some imagination, it’s a scenario the rest of us could enjoy as well – sooner rather than later. Here’s why:

The United States has about 3,000 airports with runway lengths of 3,000 feet or more and low traffic volumes. Most are small municipal and regional airports, sparsely used but not unnoticed. Since the 2000s, new technologies such as the government’s satellite-driven Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) have been implemented to improve operations of these airports by, for example, configuring lower minimum and safer approaches to these airports.

When I was attending grad school in the 2000s, NASA envisioned a system using these small and underutilized airports to make travel less congested and more efficient between U.S. cities. NASA named this the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), and predicted the development of smaller airports, using lightly traveled airspace, with increasingly sophisticated aviation technology, could dramatically reduce travel times.

Moreover, the convenience would attract customers who, at the time, were choosing not to fly because of the inconvenience of the hub-and-spoke major airline infrastructure. By the way, those customers still exist today.

At the time, the model focused on the way it would work for the airports and operators, but not too much thought was given to the marketing and consumer side of it: how to profitably make this network available to general consumers at a reasonable price.

A few tried (e.g. Dayjet out Florida), but may have been too early on the adoption curve.

At that time, concepts of the shared economy were not fully understood or embraced. People never thought, for example, that they would ever take a ride in a personal car driven by an unvetted stranger (Uber). Moreover, the concept of an “app” was a curiosity when the only personal mobile device available at the time was a PDA.

That led to a scenario where the providers targeted high-end passengers who either had their own airplanes, had access to fractional ownership programs or could afford to charter a flight.

Today, of course, consumers are very familiar and comfortable with the concept of a shared economy. Also aviation safety and technology have improved, customers are more likely to be comfortable flying in smaller aircraft, especially to save time and gain convenience.

The critical issue remaining is how to connect the customers to the product. A first approach would be to use the established distribution channels, using a model not unlike hailing an Uber or Lyft.

Some in the aviation industry have been expecting charter companies to start selling through online travel agencies (OTA’s) and global distribution systems (GDS’s) as a way to increase their market exposure to new segments. I recently reviewed an aviation video and learned that Linear Air (a charter company based in Massachusetts) uses both Sabre and KAYAK to do precisely this.

Out of curiosity, I priced one leg, and there they were! You might consider this is expensive, but if you value your time and bring three people (a little more than $1,100 per pax roundtrip) with you, then the value proposition starts changing. Kayak was showing this flight – round trip from Palm Beach International to Gainesville -- as the quickest one.

What else can happen from here? Many things! For example:

  • You can expect some charter exchanges connecting to the GDS network and gain better distribution.

  • Operators delegate their commercial distribution to specialized IT platforms. Stellar is already working on this for part 135 charter operators.

  • Cargo operators and companies like Amazon are figuring out the best algorithms to reduce the deadhead time for UAS . This will reduce the unit cost by increased utilization. These algorithms can be also used to route passenger airplanes efficiently as well.

Just imagine driving a few miles to the municipal airport near you (there are thousands of them in the U.S.), climbing on a private jet without taking off your shoes and surrendering your laptop at Security, and flying comfortably and directly to the airport closest to your destination – not the hub airport 50 miles away. I am convinced that this is doable and that the way we travel by air will change -- sooner rather than later. Perhaps the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) will finally materialize!

Manolo is an FAA Commercial rated pilot, flight instructor and global thought leader with 16 years of experience in the following fields within the technology and airline industries: business development, IT implementation, business processes realignment, operations planning & analysis, financial analysis, and revenue management. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.

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