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Hey! Taxi!

There´s a story they like to hear at DayJet. It is the tale of a young Frederick Smith, an undergraduate student at Yale, who was flying charter on the side out of Tweed New Haven, Connecticut. He noticed most flight departments belonging to those big Northeast corporations spent a lot of time flying parts and equipment around. With a term paper due, he cooked up a plan for overnight hub and spoke package air delivery and submitted the plan to his professor. He is said to have gotten "my usual C" for his efforts. He founded a company anyway and called it Federal Express.

Ed Iacobucci, founder of DayJet, the first and biggest very light jet (VLJ) on-demand air taxi service yet, likes this story a lot. He, too, wants to change the way the world works. His plan is to have 100 Eclipse jets and 500 pilots online by the end of 2008. For a small membership fee of 0, you will be eligible to call DayJet and get a seat taking you almost anywhere you´d like in the Southeast. The trip must originate or arrive at a DayPort. There are seven of these: Boca Raton (headquarters), Lakeland, Pensacola, Naples, Gainesville, Tallahassee and Savannah. One end of the trip can be at a DayStop. There are 38 of these in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. There´s no price advantage for advance purchase, but there´s a big savings if your time is flexible.

A sample trip in early January proved to be an interesting eye opener. A 1:30 p.m. departure out of Lakeland on a beautiful Florida day was booked. At precisely 1:30 a greeting party of two ground agents and two pilots was in place at the Landmark terminal. I was checked in and weighed by standing on an unobtrusive doormat-looking scale. No metal detectors, no lines, no little plastic bags with shaving cream, no waiting. Our pilots were entering the trip into their portable electronic flight bag. I was joined by Vicky Harris, director of marketing and a "founding member" of DayJet.

Out the door we went. Lee Witt and Jerry Bogartz were both retired American Airlines pilots and both seemed very pleased with their new employment (pilots make $ 50,000 a year, more than many entry-level jobs in charter and regional airline operations). Jerry did the walk-around, commenting that the Pratt & Whitney engines only weigh 240 pounds each. "You could almost pick it up and take it home," he marveled. I was reminded that he´d retired off the 777.

Though I had sat in the Eclipse at Oshkosh and found it to be very small, the DayJet leather passenger seats were comfortable and, with just two in the back, the leg room was excellent. A standard passenger briefing was given by the ground agent, who stood outside the airplane and leaned in through the clamshell door! As Vicky described the concept driving DayJet, we taxied out to Runway 9 and took off, comfortably air conditioned. As we talked in quiet, unforced conversation, Lee and Jerry got us up to 17,000 feet and almost immediately started back down. VREF was 94 knots on final approach. Forty minutes later another ground agent greeted us in Boca.

A tour of the headquarters gave a hint as to the size of the enterprise and the enormity of starting up such a venture. So far there were 260 employees. Nancy Iacobucci, Ed´s wife, is in charge of Customer Operations. She said that the pricing of a seat is "determined by you" and that flexibility is key. For example, a Lakeland to Key West flight was priced by the size of the time window. If you picked a departure time between 2 and 6 p.m. and a return to Lakeland the same night between 9 and 11 p.m., a single seat cost $ 2,224.59. If you "opened the window" to a departure time between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and a return between 8 and 11 p.m., the price fell to $ 1,400 round trip. If you have to be at a meeting in Tallahassee on a Thursday, but the meeting can be any time, you´ve got the best circumstances for pricing, for the windows can be wide open. To start the process on the DayJet website (dayjet.com) you enter the latest time you can arrive and the earliest you can leave; this will set the price. Most seats should go for more than an airline ticket but less than chartering a King Air. And, you´re in a jet, albeit a small one. Obviously groups traveling will find a charter cheaper in many instances. Nancy said that educating the market, one that has been trained by airlines for decades, is one of the biggest hurdles.

It is easy to see how Ed Iacobucci made his first fortune at Citrix, a software company. He´s smart, expressive, expansive and charming. Once he became rich, he acquired a Learjet 60 and a Challenger 604, which he housed in his own FAR Part 135 charter outfit, Wingedfoot Services. This conventional charter experience got him to thinking about those folks who might find the airlines onerous and yet hadn´t made a fortune similar to his. Recognizing that more than 80 percent of all business trips traveled are driven, not flown, prompted him to start DayJet. Some people in the Southeast live a good distance from convenient airline-served airports. Others live close to big airports but the airlines serving them don´t go to the desired destination without an airplane change. For example, an architect living in Lakeland doing business in Hilton Head would have to drive to Tampa, fly to Atlanta or Charlotte, then connect to Savannah. These people don´t need to book the entire airplane, as in conventional charter flying, because they travel by themselves, or at most in twos or threes. Selling only a seat instead of the entire airplane could make this work by controlling costs. Ed´s staff decided there was "enough low hanging fruit" to make a go of things with jets as inexpensive as the Eclipse.

"We´re learning," he said. "Our retired airline pilots like to make sure everything is set for flight far in advance, but we´ve learned not to let them fuel the airplane until 45 minutes before take off because if we get another passenger, we have to defuel the airplane." Ed thought that attorneys would be good clients and he has been proven correct. Other professionals are also good potential customers: architects, engineers; people, he said, "who have control over their time." Lakeland and Tallahassee have proven to be the best DayPorts in terms of business. The latter is the state capital, making legislators and lobbyists a surprising group of passengers. Considering the first revenue flight was on September 10, 2007, my visit was obviously early in the game.

"It is nice to have a big idea, but you´ve got to make it practical. We can see how people value their time. Those with tight schedules are willing to pay more. It is like a biological system. The logistics are a breathing, living thing, a lesson in complexity science," Ed said. You can see evidence of belief in technology everywhere. Scheduling crews, airplanes and pricing seats all make for a programmer´s dream.

The Command Information Center had large flat-screen displays of the entire system, overlaid Nexrad depiction and icons for DayJets in the air. On this early January Monday, there were 14 passengers booked as of 4 p.m. Two airplanes were in the air while we were in the center. The most passengers carried in a single day were 50, according to Vicky. Thirty-five percent of all flights are flown to position airplanes without passengers. Each revenue flight with paying passengers carries an average of 1.6 passengers, though that´s a tough figure to calculate because any DayJet flight may include one stop to pick up another passenger. As of January, more than 1,000 individuals had paid the 0 to become members. Only members can book a DayJet seat. One-third who had made one DayJet trip already purchased a seat on a second flight. Those buying more than one trip averaged 12 days between purchases. Iacobucci was optimistic.

When I mentioned that the 40-minute trip in the jet was just a minute shorter than the flight plan for our 28-year-old Cheyenne I turboprop, Ed acknowledged that over short distances the speed of the Eclipse doesn´t really make a substantial difference in flight time. He did point out that the Eclipse was a twin engine jet flown by two experienced pilots. He also noted that the speed of the Eclipse allows the pilots to deviate around weather with little penalty in terms of flight time. The Eclipse is, however, the first jet ever to be certified for what is often called a "two-engine takeoff," meaning there is no FAA certification assured performance that the airplane will be able to continue if an engine fails at the worst possible time. In that respect, its performance is the same as our old Cheyenne.

"How about a job?" I asked. Vicky told me I needed 3,000 hours, 1,000 PIC, 500 PIC turbine. Pilots get home every night (there are bases in Boca Raton and Gainesville), fly a maximum of eight hours a day and have a max duty time of 11 hours. As of early January, DayJet had taken delivery of 28 airplanes. Without a simulator yet available, all training was done in real airplanes. A simulator is scheduled to be online by the end of March. Vicky acknowledged a start-up investment of $ 205 million in debt and equity, but was not going to venture a guess about the ultimate cost to get the concept truly off the ground. "We´re in another round of financing," was all she´d say.

Time to go back to Lakeland. A different tail number but identical looking clean airplane was right out the door. Marco Fornchetti, a GA pilot recently flying Lears, and Larry Simpson, a recently retired 737 driver for Continental in Guam, were ready to go. Larry, who looked the part of an island guy, said he had begged for the trip. "Because of the holidays I haven´t flown in 18 days! I got 25 hours last month. I´m hungry."

With 1,605 pounds of jet-A, we had almost full fuel at engine start. We taxied out at 4:55 and had to wait for two arrivals before shooting down the runway at 5:07. VR rotation speed was 104 knots. We climbed out at 2,500 feet per minute until 10,000 feet, then, indicating 185 knots, went up to Flight Level 200 at 1,000 fpm. Level there, we were doing 318 knots true, burning 600 pounds per hour of fuel. This made the modest range of the Eclipse clear and made the service area for DayJet obvious. As Larry said, "If you´re going 600 nm, this is the airplane for you." He loves it.

We´re on the ground at 5:42 and parked at 5:44. We burned 385 pounds (57 gals) on the 145 nm trip from Boca to Lakeland. Asked about maintenance, all four pilots said dispatch reliability was "improving" and that most of the issues were about "electrons" not engines. The airplane is RVSM capable, but not yet certified for known ice. The IFR certification is basic; so far no GPS or weather radar, but Nexrad satellite weather was expected to be operational as of mid-January.

Will it work? It is hard to know about a start-up. I wouldn´t have given you a nickel for FedEx, so I am the wrong man to ask. But dreams of new things are what make us what we are. As I watched N147DJ depart to Gainesville to pick up a paying passenger for the flight back to Boca, I thought: This could be hard, but I wish them luck. DayJet is out to change the world.

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