At Hanscom Field last Wednesday morning, Bill Herp loaded a prospective customer into his new Eclipse 500 jet and gave his pilots the OK to taxi to the end of the runway. After a short pause, the $1.5 million plane, with an interior that resembles a luxury sport utility vehicle, charged down the runway and lifted into the sky.
Herp is the founder and chief executive of Linear Air, a Concord aviation start-up, and his sales pitches don´t require PowerPoint slides -- just a quick jaunt in the zippy, five-seat Eclipse. (Top speed is about 425 miles per hour.)
Linear will be one of two so-called "air taxi" services in the United States to start flying the Eclipse this fall; the plane, built in Albuquerque and bankrolled in part by Bill Gates, was only approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2006, and Linear took delivery of its first Eclipse earlier this month.
The goal is to make private jet travel more accessible to a wide range of businesspeople, with prices not far above the airlines´ first-class or last-minute fares, helping them accomplish in a single day what would ordinarily require two or three days of travel by car or on a major carrier.
Analysts, aviation journalists, and even executives in the private jet industry have been extremely doubtful that a plane as inexpensive as the Eclipse could ever be built (a comparable jet made by Cessna, the Mustang, sells for $1 million more), that anyone would want to fly in it, and that a market exists for on-demand air taxi services. To which Herp says, "Entrepreneurs see things that other people can´t see."
Herp started a cellphone rental business and a wine wholesaler before getting interested in the Internet. He launched one of the earliest e-mail marketing companies, e-Dialog, in 1996. While he was running e-Dialog, Herp took a vacation in New Mexico, and out of curiosity called Eclipse Aviation Corp. for a tour of the company´s hangar.
Eclipse had been started in 1998 by Vern Raburn, an early executive at Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp., and an aviation nut who earned his pilot´s license at 17. I visited Eclipse around the same time Herp did, and though Raburn had built a mock-up of the plane´s interior and was starting to construct a prototype, it was far from certain that the thing would ever fly.
But the idea of building a business using the Eclipse stuck with Herp, who´d earned his pilot´s license in the 1990s. In 2004, he started Linear Air. Since the Eclipse´s availability was delayed several times, Herp built up a fleet of Cessna Caravans, a boxy and spacious single-engine turboprop.
The Caravans have been flying weekenders to Nantucket and the Vineyard, and during the week ferrying businesspeople from Hanscom to small airports in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. To bring in additional revenue, Herp even had the Cessnas flying at night for the Federal Reserve, packed full of checks.
But the real vision was to start flying the Eclipse once it was finished. The company has 15 of the jets on order and expects to have four in its fleet by the end of the year.
Parked next to one of the chunky Cessnas in a hangar at Hanscom, the Eclipse looks like a harbor seal sitting next to a walrus. Linear employees are scurrying around, getting ready to taxi it over to another part of the airport, where it will fly Herp and his prospective customer up to New Hampshire.
The interior of the plane feels slightly narrower, but a bit longer, than an SUV. There are two seats up front for the pilots, along with an array of flat-panel displays that can show moving maps of the terrain below; there´s a pull-out keyboard for entering route information. The plane is flown using a joystick and foot pedals. In the cabin are three leather seats, all facing forward, and some room in the back for a bit of luggage; there´s no galley or bathroom, no in-flight entertainment aside from a magazine in the seat-back pocket, and not much room for milling around in the air.
Most flights will be under two hours, Herp says, and the solution to a bathroom emergency is simply to tap one of the pilots on the shoulder and ask him for an unscheduled pit stop. While the plane could be flown by just one pilot, Herp says that insurance is cheaper with two people up front -- even though that doubles his labor expenses for each trip. For passengers, the feeling of an Eclipse trip will be more about efficiency than luxury; Herp likes to refer to it as "a car service with wings."
A flight from Boston to Bangor on Linear would cost about $3,000 for three passengers, compared with about $1,800 on Delta for a last-minute purchase. The advantages Linear offers are a faster plane, the ability to set a custom schedule, and the option to fly to just about any airport in Maine for that price, not just the few served by commercial airlines. (Linear says that a roundtrip from Hanscom to Pittsfield would cost under $2,500 -- a trip that requires about five hours of driving and isn´t served by scheduled flights.)
Skeptics are still throwing stones. Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group doesn´t think that slightly cheaper charter service in a snazzy new plane will help Linear tap into a vast pool of new customers, but concedes, "It sounds like the basis for a nice little charter operation."
Steven Hankin, chief executive of Sentient Jet Inc., a Weymouth private jet operator, observes that the Eclipse is especially small. Sentient sells "membership cards," starting at about $100,000, which give members access to a fleet of private jets, priced at $3,500 to $9,000 an hour.
The company may eventually add smaller jets like the Eclipse to its fleet, but Hankin says, "We didn´t want to take the lead on a new plane and a new business model."
Interestingly, many of the entrepreneurs in the vanguard of this new jet age come from the technology sector. "The guys coming out of technology are used to new markets, and the notion that you don´t go after the same market that someone else already serves," says Ed Iacobucci, chief executive of DayJet Corp., a fledgling air taxi business headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. Iacobucci is an IBM alum who went on to start the software company Citrix Systems.
"You´re evangelizing a new concept, and that´s something we´ve been doing since the dawn of the software business," he says.
Herp doesn´t spend much time thinking about proving the skeptics wrong; he´s simply trying to show that the concept can work.
Once the FAA gives him the OK to start flying the Eclipse, the first flights for customers will begin -- likely in early September.
Describing his prospective customers, Herp borrows a phrase from high tech. He expects they´ll be white-collar professionals who burn a lot of time waiting out delays in airport lounges, and driving long distances in rental cars once they arrive.
"They´ll be the early adopter types," he says, "willing to give something new a try."