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.
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.
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.
Part of the reason why it's considered a sign of a civilized country if their trains run on time.
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?
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
I think this was the intent -- fly out of Palwaukee, not O'Hare.
flyporter.ca if you're interested.
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.
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.
(true story; chicken bus, not plane)
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.
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, 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.
 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
As a somewhat tall person, I feel your pain.
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.
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.
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
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?)
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.