As someone who has had just about enough of fighting my way through logjammed airports of late, the prospect of sauntering over three US states on an air taxi the other day was pretty exciting. I flew from Washington to Greenville, South Carolina with SATSair, one of a clutch of air taxi start-ups which are exploiting what they see as a burgeoning demand for low-cost, no-frills business aviation, exploiting the game-changing economics of very light jets such as the new Eclipse 500 or latest-generation piston singles like the Cirrus SR22.
I was in Greenville to interview the SATSair folk about a feature on the emerging air taxis market which appears in the 10-16 October issue of Flight International.
The air taxi concept could not be simpler. SATSair arranged my complimentary flight, but had I bought my ticket the experience would have been much the same. My taxi (the road-using version) dropped me at the Signature Fixed Base Operation at Washington Dulles 20 minutes before the flight and Roger, the pilot, was waiting for me in the lounge, identifiable by his blue SATSair polo shirt. We walked out to the SR22 and, having chosen to sit beside the pilot rather than in the two-person bench seat behind, and after a quick pre-flight safety briefing, we were taxiing out to queue behind the airliners and regional jets.
The point of air taxis such as SATSair is that they usually avoid big airports. The SR22 can cope with pretty much any runway down to 750m, so they specialise in opening up thousands of under-used local airfields around the country to business travellers. But they will use big airports if required. “It’s the worst part of the trip,” says Roger. “If you’re not familiar with an airport like Dulles, you really have to keep your wits about you because of the way the taxiways are labelled.”
We take off and pretty quickly we’re up to our cruising altitude of 7,000ft. It’s a relaxed trip over the forests, lakes and hills of southern Virginia and North Carolina. The SR22 is an extremely comfortable aircraft. I ask Roger if the overwing access to the SR22 is a problem for some of his passengers. Occasionally, women passengers will have to remove high-heels. Do his passengers tend to sit in the front or the back? A bit of both, he says. Some love keeping track of the flight on the SR22′s impressive Avidyne cockpit display and chatting to the pilot or listening to the in-flight comms. Others prefer to sit in the back, put on earphones – which come with their own i-Pod - and blank out the ATC chatter or work. I switch between gazing at the verdant scene below, catching up with my mail on my Blackberry…most of the flight I can get a signal…and talking shop with Roger. A native of New Jersey, who moved as a teenager to Greenville, he and I exchange stories of growing up in our respective countries’ bible belts (I hail from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland) and the problems of getting a beer on a Sunday. That’s not to decry Greenville, one of the most pleasant US cities I have visited, with a beautifully-restored downtown and a thriving economy.
The two-hour trip to Greenville’s small downtown GA airport, where SATSair’s maintenance operation is based, is about the maximum Roger will typically fly in the SR22. It’s also about my limit between comfort stops, having just gulped down a gallon size cup of coffee at Signature before leaving and forgotten to make a last dash to the gents. It’s a serious point. Lack of a lav on flights of an hour or more is no laugh, according to VLJ jet manufacturers such as Adam Aircraft, whose A700 comes with a little room at the back, and its most prominent customer, air taxi operator Magnum Jet.
It’s something Magnum chief executive Jim Burns believes will turn many prospective customers against operators of the Eclipse 500, the most popular VLJ in the new air taxi sector, and smaller aircraft such as the SR22. It’s already a big talking point around the industry.
Has Roger ever had to make an unscheduled stop? Not yet, he says, but it wouldn’t be a problem. SATSair charges like any taxi. The meter starts running when the engine starts. At around $595 an hour to rent the aircraft, a 20 minute diversion to pay an emergency visit gives a whole new meaning to “spending a penny”.