The New Charter

Massachusetts charter operator Linear Air is banking on the air taxi model for VLJs.

The roughly 280 total VLJs Herp expects to have in the Linear Air fleet by the end of 2010 may or may not be all Eclipse jets. "We don't know for certain because who knows what's going to happen in terms of new developments?

"We certainly are looking forward to putting our first Eclipse into service and we're optimistic, based upon the due diligence that we've done, that Eclipse has a solid strategy in terms of design of the airplane, their production strategy, and their support strategy. But, who knows what will happen between now and 2008 when our current contract will be complete?"

Herp believes the best utilization of the Eclipse will be operating within a 500-mile radius of major metropolitan areas. "And we've proven that model with the Caravan,"he says.

The business model for Linear Air into the future does include continued operation of the Caravan, and by 2010 Herp expects to have 20 on Linear Air's certificate. "The strategy of our business model right now is that the Caravan is the proxy for the Eclipse jet. So, in the future, we'll be able to say: ‘You can take eight people and all of your stuff and go a little slower in the Caravan, or, take three people and your briefcases and go reasonably fast in the Eclipse,'"relates Herp. Currently, the average charter load for Linear Air is three passengers.

With 300 aircraft, he says the company will grow from its current 25 full-time employees to some 1,200, 900 of which will be pilots. Linear Air has seen its revenue grow in its two years of operation and Herp expects that path to continue. With one aircraft in 2005, revenue was $1.2 million. That number is expected to reach $2.7 million for 2006, based on the four Caravans in service.

Marketing Charter

Herp has employed his marketing savvy from e-Dialog to attract, service, and retain customers at Linear Air. He says the company has some 600 customers and a database of 4,400 prospects. "And one of the main reasons why those 4,400 people haven't flown with us yet is they have a need for greater speed, or there's a perception with turboprop versus business jet. But those 4,400 people are highly qualified and are ready, essentially, to step into the Eclipse jet."Herp says this "solid group of initial customers"has earned Linear Air credibility in the marketplace — including with suppliers like Eclipse as well as the investment community.

Basic marketing principles, says Herp, have helped Linear Air become successful. "The basic approach is test and learn. What are you testing? What are you learning? And, how do you apply that?,"he says. When starting from scratch, explains Herp, the main focus should be on creating awareness; then stimulating trial, stimulating repeat purchase — then "you engender brand loyalty."Linear Air has created awareness through its public relations efforts and word-of-mouth referrals, as well as direct marketing. This includes delivering messages that stimulate ‘first use' through direct mail to those who own homes on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. E-mail marketing and phone campaigns are also part of Linear Air's outreach. According to Herp, "65 percent of our customers have purchased more than once, and the other 35 percent just haven't had the opportunity."

The Internet has played a significant role in the sales and marketing. The company has an online reservation system ( Herp says about a third of customers book single seats online, and 95 percent of charter requests originate via the web (actual bookings of charter are direct).

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