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Fly Like You're Rich With Social Flights (And Private Planes) (fastcompany.com)
181 points by valish on May 17, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

I've got a better idea in the same space.

I've always wanted somebody to take the idea of "leave when full" minibuses in the 3rd world and apply it to popular airline routes.

How cool would it be if there was an operator running flights from Los Angeles to San Fransisco using small commuter jets with no fixed schedule and plenty of planes. You'd just turn up, buy a ticket, make your way to the gate, and get on the plane. When it filled up it would taxi away and another one would fill its place.

Average wait time: less than 15 minutes. No more showing up at the airport 2 hours early.

Naturally, you'd have to charge a premium, but if you pick your routes correctly and target people with more money than time, you would clean up.

The only downside is that you couldn't do it from actual commercial airports like LAX and SFO because you'd never get a slot to take off. You'd need to use smaller airports such as Boeing Field in Seattle. It still seems pretty doable though.

There were "air shuttle" or "air bus" services, using small jets, on super high volume routes: SIN-KUL, DCA-JFK, Great Britain to Ireland. You'd buy a ticket, which was a right to fly on any flight, and then walk up to board and get on the next flight; they were frequent enough (every 30 minutes?) that it wasn't really an issue.

This only really works on very high volume routes, and the problem is your aircraft basically need to be dedicated to that route; a lot of the short flights otherwise (SFO-LAX for instance) are continuations of longer flights, which allow a carrier to for instance do a BKK-NRT-SFO-LAX flight and offer nonstop BKK-NRT (if they have 5th freedom), NRT-SFO, SFO-LAX, and direct BKK-LAX, BKK-SFO, BKK-LAX, NRT-LAX, using one aircraft (and probably 2 crews).

I think security screening is what killed the "air bus" market.

I routinely have my flights into SFO delayed hours in advance due to weather and traffic considerations. The ATC system doesn't seem like it's set up handle such an arrangement without major changes being made to the way flights are programmed. Just a guess.

You are more or less correct about the ATC system. You have to file IFR flight plans ahead of time because it takes time for the system to process your flight plan, grant you a clearance, and assign a release time. As the ATC system becomes increasingly saturated, this process takes longer and longer. The system has to plot out every flight and schedule departure times so that you don't get too many airplanes in the same general area at any given time. Even more importantly, they have to make sure that the airports don't get inundated with too many planes at once becuase they only have so many ruways and only one plane can use a runway at a time.

Commercial airports deal with that last problem by selling time slots for passenger flights, which are generally auctioned off at long intervals (e.g. anually), which is not compatible with a "leave when full" business model.

Most of the weekday traffic is business travelers, who have meetings scheduled and need to be guaranteed on the ground at a certain time. That would certainly work for a lot of leisure travel though.

Part of the reason why it's considered a sign of a civilized country if their trains run on time.

Actually, I think it would work a lot better for business travelers, since it optimizes for minimum wait time at the expense of, well, expense.

If you take a commercial flight today, you are guaranteed to be at the airport for 1-2 hours, and chances are you'll pad that out a bit if you're headed to an important meeting. If you billed your time at $300/hr, wouldn't you pay a little extra to know your car-to-air time would be less than half an hour?

And, assuming you still show up at the airport a bit early just in case, wouldn't you rather spend that extra time sipping a Starbucks downstairs from your client's office rather than waiting at the gate?

I'm not sure why you think your idea would shave off any time from the car-to-air sequence. If anything it would add time-

You still have to get a boarding pass, go through security, walk down the terminal to the gate. The only difference is, normally you can plan ahead and waste no time since you know when your plane will be taking off. With your new system, once you get to the gate the plane might be full so you have to wait another hour (and maybe even go to a new gate).

If you use the general aviation terminal there is no security or boarding passes. You just have to know the tail number of your airplane as a kind of password.

Yeah and I thought we were talking about commercial flights. I get it now

Even still I might rather get on the scheduled 6am flight and know (~90%) that I'll be in the city in time for the meeting than get an extra hour of sleep and potentially be late because there happened to be a rush that morning.

When you don't have guaranteed arrival times, like car commute, you end up leaving the house early anyway just "to beat rush hour" since you never know how long it's actually going to take. Versus guaranteed arrival times, like a commuter train, where you don't have to worry about that.

The key word there is "guaranteed". I'd much rather know that I'm going to spend 1-2 hours at the airport, than have no idea.

On a leave-when-full plane, you may be there for any length of time from 20 minutes (if you are one of the last to arrive), to maybe 2 hours (if you are one of the first to arrive), to maybe 4 hours (if you arrive just as the last one leaves, and there isn't another one arriving for a while).

Personally I'd rather know the exact time I'm going to be taking off, so I can turn up at the perfect time (when I fly, at least out of England where I know the airports well enough, I turn up, drop off baggage, drink a coffee while smoking a cigarette, go through security, and I sit down in my seat a couple of minutes before the plane moves away from the gate). As opposed to your system, where I turn up, get on the plane, then... wait for an unknown time until it fills up.

Even if that unknown amount of time averaged 7 minutes?

Find my any flight path that is active enough to fill a commercial plane every 7 minutes and I'll concede that it's an amazing idea.

Actually, it'd be every 15 minutes to average a 7 minute wait.

And to find routes, simply look at Southwest's schedule between major airports. Or any commuter airline between New York and Chicago. If they're filling a 150 seat plane every 45 minutes, you could certainly fill a 20 seater in 15.

Slots at major airports are very expensive, and scheduled very carefully. You could only do this if you used minor airports, which would probably kill the convenience factor.

edit: Actually there probably are pairs of cities where it could be made to work by using small, low-traffic, convenient-to-the-city airports which can't handle large planes. But now your main problem is chicken-and-egg: until you have a lot of customers you can't possibly run a frequent service, and the customers won't be interested unless it's frequent. I suppose you could take off every twenty minutes regardless of passenger load, but in that case your operating costs are going to be enormous from day one.

Actually there probably are pairs of cities where it could be made to work by using small, low-traffic, convenient-to-the-city airports which can't handle large planes.

I think this was the intent -- fly out of Palwaukee, not O'Hare.

There's something sort of like that for Toronto City Airport (YTZ) to Ottawa (YOW). Porter flies out every hour and is just slightly more than a coach seat on the train. You can buy a fixed time ticket, or a flexible ticket for slightly more.

flyporter.ca if you're interested.

I've always wanted somebody to take the idea of "leave when full" minibuses in the 3rd world and apply it to popular airline routes.

Although it can result in shorter waits, it can also result in longer waits. I know people who've waited 8 hours for a cross country bus in the developing world cause the bus wouldn't leave till it was full.

> leave when full" minibuses in the 3rd world

that's an awesome, albeit impractical idea. I can just picture a surly captain chewing through a bag of rambutans he bought on the tarmac while he waits until there are enough people to make it worth his while to take off while his helper abruptly stops selling tickets and disappears into the nearest bar for half an hour.

Not to mention taxiing the plane around town shouting "Las Vegas Las Vegas Go Now! Go Now!"

Or he lands somewhere not on the schedule in the middle of the flight and a lady with her goat gets on and has a ticket for your seat, making you stand next to the toilet for the remainder of the flight.

(true story; chicken bus, not plane)

A long time ago, some friends and I rented out a wave pool at a Disney water park so we could have the waves all to ourselves. So after the tourists were kicked out, we put on our own music on the sound system and shared waves, a group of 10 friends. I think it cost $100 each. This is the same thrill, I'd imagine.

You guys are missing the major cost savings while pouring over the numbers. It all comes from empty private jets as loarabia pointed out.

Private jets fly empty all the time. This would be additional revenue for the owner/operators of the private jets. Notice that most of the flights are one way. That is because the jet is flying empty to pick up the real passengers, who pay, essentially, for the jet to come get them and take them where they are going.

The real problem is what happens when wealthy people who fly private realize that poor schmucks are flying on their dime.

Our company (based in Cincinnati) uses a scheduled service charter that flies from a secondary airport to Chicago, NY and DC on great, 30 seat jets; it's a great business model and we love using it - http://ultimateairshuttle.com/ - we feel rich flying it but it's cheaper than United or Delta for the same route + no TSA.

That is impressive. I cannot find one for here in Philadelphia!

For those of you analyzing costs -- it seems to me that some lower costs might come about for dead heading (flying empty somewhere else for a pickup of a full price charter). Presumably a given charter was going to require the aircraft to do that route anyway so they may as well get some cash for it.

The article is a bit disingenuous. While this might bring the cost down, it's certainly not going to be an alternative to commercial flights.

Let's look at a flight that I would love to take right now: Phoenix to Seattle.

Here is a map of the route you [could] take for this flight:


This 1028 miles, but lets say (for ease of calculation) that it's 1000 exactly.

Now for an aircraft. The Citation V is a nice plane, holds about 7 people, and is something that would be appropriate for what the article seems to be describing. Cruising speed for this aircraft is 495mph[1], but again, for ease of calculation, say 500mph.

Flight time is 2 hours each way, for four hours total. The citation 5 burns 210 gallons of fuel per hour of flight, so this means that round trip (4 hours), you're burning 840 gallons of fuel.

Current fuel cost at Cutter Aviation in Phoenix is $5.58/gallon, so total fuel cost for this trip is 840 * 5.58 is $4687.

That's just fuel. If there are 7 passengers, that is $669.6 per person.

You still have to pay a crew, pay maintenance on the jet (which is an enormous cost), pay airport fees, pay administrative overhead, etc.

[2] Estimates that cost/mile on a Citation V is $3.81 - My trip to Seattle costs $7620.0, or $1088 per person ($952/person if we use the jump seat). This now includes maintenance, but not administration, pilots, etc.

I don't know about you guys, but that's not even remotely close to something that I can afford.

According to hipmunk[3], even a super-short-notice flight to Seattle that leaves tomorrow is only $500. Even a first class flight is only $700. $700 is getting close to something comparable, but implying that this is something that is for more than just "the wealthy", is kindof wrong.

Cool, but there is a reason only the very wealthy fly privately: flying privately is an absurdly expensive thing to do.




edit: Just to be clear, I'm not saying that this is a bad idea. The aviation industry has been screaming that this is the direction that commercial flight is going to take for quite some time now. I'm saying that the article's implication that the everyman can now fly "like you're rich" is a misrepresentation of what this service is actually aiming to do.

Phoenix to Seattle is not the market. Even if I owned a private plane, I'd probably fly commercial for hub to hub flights like that. (and almost definitely for super long haul point to point like SFO-HKG; it's reasonable to own or charter a Caravan or King Air or Citation II or something if you fly a lot with a group of people, but a G650 or BBJ3 is an order of magnitude more. I've been a passenger on a moderate number of business/corporate/government vs. super-rich-person jets, and a top quality commercial business class or most first class products are actually a more comfortable experience, at a much lower cost).

A better market is for something like rural Texas to rural Montana; not hubs, and might require 3 flight segments each way (get to nearest hub, hub to hub, hub to destination); these can easily make a ~1000 mile flight into an all-day fiasco (plus, driving to the nearest commercial airport vs. a general aviation airport).

Flying 4-6 people on those flights might be $2500/day per person, plus $1000+ in last minute tickets, plus hotel.

I've been a passenger on a moderate number of business/corporate/government vs. super-rich-person jets, and a top quality commercial business class or most first class products are actually a more comfortable experience, at a much lower cost)

True in many cases, though not always. I think there are a lot of variables at play, all of which need to be accounted for: wait time and hassle at commercial airports vs. private jet strips; minimal to no risk of delays; and so forth. I agree that corporate private jets hardly offer anything approaching a luxurious in-flight experience, but in those cases, luxury of in-flight experience isn't the goal. Rather, the goals are roughly a) mitigation of delay risks; b) ease of travel and convenience; c) provision of a sterile, noise-pollution-free, whining-baby-free flight environment in which to conduct business and get stuff done in the air.

An uber-rich-person jet, on the other hand -- assuming we're talking about one owned purely for convenience and/or vanity, and not for corporate purposes -- is a more luxurious experience, with luxury as one of the core goals. True, most of these jets are too small to offer the day bed or stewardess service you'd get in first class on a major international flight. But I'd argue that those benefits of commercial are outweighed by power and freedom to fly at will, private catering on the flight, etc. Also, the most comparable use case is private jet vs. first class domestic, rather than private vs. first class international. International fist class is where all the bells and whistles come into play. Domestic first class is a pretty unremarkable experience; it is debatably the coach experience of 10 to 15 years ago.

> it is debatably the coach experience of 10 to 15 years ago.

Not even remotely. I'm going to argue the contrary, that coach-class flying reached its race to the bottom about 10-15 years ago and didn't begin to recover until discount airlines became mainstream and started to compete directly and profitably with the traditional airlines. yes, they've actually improved, believe it or not. the other variables not so much.

Flying coach in the seventies would be akin to flying business class these days, but still not there in terms of seating space or convenience. Those who remember the days before airline deregulation can attest to that.

I'll concede that my dates were totally arbitrary, but I believe my overall point still stands. That point, btw, was more about the relative decline of First w/r/t Coach than about the absolute decline of either. As far as I'm concerned, domestic First is nowhere near what it used to be, and it's currently approximating the Coach experience of X years ago, where X is an imprecise but extant number.

Coach, as well, is certainly nothing like it used to be. It's been getting better in recent years, to your point, but only very slightly. I think it's still somewhere in the basin of an overall historic trough, though perhaps with upward direction.

(Full disclosure: as a very tall person, I feel changes in seating configuration, etc., a lot more accutely than most people do. So it's possible my opinions are either amplified by, or colored by, my individual perspective).

Efficiency has increased in coach -- tighter seat pitch, extra revenue charges for exit rows, etc., but for me, video-on-demand (or, portable video devices and in-ear-monitor headphones) makes up for a lot.

Pre-deregulation, they couldn't compete on price, so they competed on quality of perks (free food, service, etc.). Once they deregulated, they competed on price, but then started cost cutting on perks to make earnings. It was only after LCCs and the "premium experience LCCs" were successful that airlines both eliminated bundled perks and provided for-fee superior quality products for sale.

The "economy plus" type products for frequent fliers also go a long way to make economy tolerable for larger people.

I think air travel will continue to improve -- the biggest setback has been the 9/11 security increase, but other than that, the legacy carriers seem to be getting better.

I still try to drive whenever possible.

I don't think you can use arbritrary (made up) information in describing the historical state of an event or situation. It's there in the books; either it happened or it did not. And my point is that both in the past and present, the upper levels of air travel as a whole have never declined to a point commensurate with the highest level of comfort and service achieved by lower class levels in the past forty years, which is my personal experience of flying. On a LCC or a short-hop/shuttle codeshare airline maybe there is little difference in classes, but in the legacy carriers even though the standards have adjusted downwards as society has changed it norms along with demand for said standards, there is a clear distinction between flying coach, business and first, from check-in to on-boarding, in the air and deplaning, the overall experience, across the industry, is different and it is still designed that way right from inception. And maybe that's one of the reasons that they've failed to make any real progress aside from surviving, since deregulation.

As a somewhat tall person, I feel your pain.

I almost prefer first class with no stops vs. a PJ. Those tiny ass airplanes can make for some bumpy rides! As someone who already hates turbulence, those little planes don't help.

A G150 cruising at 43,000 ft will experience far less turbulence than a 737 at 33,000.

Never been in one, cannot verify. Didn't even know they cruised that high. Anyhow, a typical Citation X say from Denver to SLC is one hell of a bumpy ride over the rockies, luckily its a very short flight.

Citation X is kind of a special case; for that route, I'd probably go with a turboprop except for "ramp appeal" and maybe in-flight noise. Citation X is exactly the wrong aircraft for that run, unless you are repositioning it or need it for later, or own it; it's the wrong choice to charter really for super short runs where it's all climbing and descending over mountains.

I think you've missed several huge things here. First, the plane goes specifically where you want it to go, on the schedule you need, modulo agreement with the other people who need it too (which tends to work out particularly well if going to the same event/destination). Second, "slightly more than a first-class ticket" seems a lot more appealing than "absurdly expensive". Third, no airport security circus to deal with. And fourth, note from the article that they take groups of varying sizes; they mentioned one group of 90 people who managed to fly cheaper than commercial.

I think it's aimed at the space between the average consumer - you or I - and Wealthy McGuy who owns or rents his own plane. The whole idea is aimed at people who can schedule a vacation for an indefinite time period - because there's no guarantee that the flight you want will actually fill up, you have to be very flexible with your vacation days, and that's not available to everyone.

The article is a bit disingenuous. While this might bring the cost down, it's certainly not going to be an alternative to commercial flights.

I think anyone with some common sense or basic economics knowledge would get that on average it's still going to be more expensive than a commercial flight. The point is that the use of social brings the price down.

Woo -- 12 whole flights completed. Yawn, until we see something scale.

It's easy to overrate the savings opportunities in private air travel: there are empty seats! there are deadhead flights with no passengers!

But hard to realize those savings. You need enormous scale. And most private jets would be far less comfortable than an MD80 or 737 if all the seats were full and it wasn't your friends or family -- loud, no headroom, no service, tiny bathroom. They make up for it by flying where you want, when you want -- but we lose those a lot of those benefits with this "solution".

As said, this makes no sense hub to hub. Flying from Lubbock to Springfield? Maybe. Good luck filling those other six seats, and also filling that deadhead flight back.

I checked out their website and found a lot of deals on international flights as well. This isn't just something to consider for quick flights within the U.S.

I don't understand this article. What does the "social web" have anything to do with why this is now possible?

Even their example, flying three planes of sports fans out to another city, seems like something that could easily be arranged by the president of the fan club or something.

If what they mean is that the "social web" makes this easier, then firstly, I'd love to know in what way exactly (they don't really describe how this works at all), and secondly, there's a big difference between making this easier, and making once impossible things possible (which is what this article claims).

All in all, looks like I'm missing something

It means a dozen random strangers who happen to want to do the same itinerary can now meet each other and get a Learjet. It's a matter of scale.

They just need to get ahold of the do not fly list, there are a few hundred thousand people there that can take private flights but not commercial airline flights.

One benefit of flying on a private/charter plane - you don't have to go through security.

In the past that's true because why would you want to hijack/blow up your own plane with your business partners / family / friends... but will that remain true if you're booking a private jet with 7 random strangers?

Yes, because inconveniences aren't for rich people. It's sort of like how kids in college don't get drafted.

Yes. Because when you have one terrorist plus 10 planes with 100 people each, your chance of getting blown up is 10%. But when you have one terrorist plus 100 planes with 10 people each, your chance of getting blown up is only 1%

Direct link for the tl;dr crowd: http://socialflights.com/

Or maybe give the world a break and don't fly!

You would rather we drove?

A bunch of people have tried this before... I can't think of the names off-hand, but names in a similar space that I've seen recently are http://www.emptylegmarket.com/ and http://www.flyruby.com/

I don't see how this will work - you need a huge marketplace, and even then it will generally be a lot more expensive than flying commercial. There are some limited uses like bowl games that I could see, but even then, why do you need socialflights? There are plenty of travel agents that charter flights for bowl games.

What I don't get is how a site like this got in Fast Company, and what's up with that "baked in" image? (it's part of this series http://www.fastcompany.com/tag/baked-in but why?)

The economics of "luxury" travel are less than you think. Example: in my last company, we had an office in London and an office in Nottingham (northern England, the place where Robin Hood comes from), and people frequently traveled between the two. Well if 6 people needed to travel, it would have been cheaper to hire a fancy stretch limo and driver for the day and cruise around like rockstar pimps than it would be to take the train - and we'd have gotten more work done on the journey too! We never actually did of course, but only for appearances sake, financially it made perfect sense.

I know that the UK trains (actually the tracks) are not as good as in France or Germany, but when I did stay in France, I often traveled from Paris to Tours.

On a train (TGV), this takes about 1.5 hrs. By car it can take upwards of 3 hours on a good day. Variance in arrival time for the car was high, on the train, it was rather constant.

Of course, if you don't have good point-to-point transport (ie, taxis, walkable) at either destination then all bets are off.

Was this before or after TSA got involved? I'm sure there is a market here for people like myself who don't ever plan to fly in or to the US again so long as the TSA are there.

I wish they had prices, and was less specific. Sometimes it will be Friday, and I'm like "Man i don't care where I go, but I want to go on a weekend vacation."

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