New Air Taxi Begins Flights out of Gwinnett

Tired of removing your shoes or having an airline counter clerk say you're too late to board your plane, even when it hasn't arrived at the gate?

If so, you can tell the big airlines to go straight to you know where. There's a new air service in Lawrenceville.

ImagineAir, an air-taxi service based at Gwinnett County Airport/Briscoe Field, started flying fares for regional hops two weeks ago. The company claims that on short flights, at least, it's competitive with the major airlines.

"People look at me like a deer in headlights when I tell them about it," said Haroon Qureshi, marketing director for ImagineAir. "But there has been a lot of research done by NASA, and they say that the way businessmen are going to travel in the future is going to be basically like the Jetsons. It's going to be small airplanes, and it's going to be affordable."

It's certainly more flexible. ImagineAir promises that a client can take off any time, day or night, at a set price, as long as the air taxi gets two hours' notice. "If you had to go on an airline, you would pay through the nose," Qureshi said.

Air taxi services are taking off across the country. The pioneer and model is SATSair, based in Greenville, S.C., which has been flying for just over two years, servicing Southeastern, mid-Atlantic and eastern midwestern states with about 1,500 flights a month, said Phil Quist, vice president for business operations.

The flights average about 300 miles, at about $675 each, or a little over $1 million a month in revenues, Quist said. "It is just like a cab in a city," he said. "Once you get in, the meter starts running."

ImagineAir, which only has two planes compared to SATSair's 26, is pricier. It charges roughly $975 per plane for the same distance. The one-way price is for the plane rental and can be divided by up to three passengers.

ImagineAir's prices should drop as it puts more planes in its hangars, Qureshi said. "We're getting two more planes in a couple of weeks," he said.

The planes are propeller-driven Cirrus SR22s that cost about $500,000 apiece and are state-of-the-art in terms of comfort and safety, Quist said. The planes have leather seats and a parachute system that Cirrus' promotional videos promise will allow a stalled or pilotless plane to descend slowly.

Quist said the parachute actually reassures passengers that their lives aren't necessarily over if the pilot has a heart attack.

"I'm an old marketing guy and, at first, I said, 'We're not promoting that' --- you know, never promote the negative --- and now it is in our literature," he said of the parachute system. "It is amazing the number of people who say, 'It's got a parachute, I'll fly on it then.' "

SATSair's rapid expansion --- it has 100 planes on order --- makes the service appear viable. But nobody is certain how many air taxis the market can sustain. Aircraft industry professionals and investors are watching, said Paul Nisbet of JSA Research, which advises investment companies on the aerospace industry.

"There is no history to go by and I'm personally skeptical," Nisbet said. "It is a new concept, and it is based on a very cheap aircraft. It will be interesting to see if it ends up limited to large metropolitan areas."

ImagineAir has nine of the Cirrus SR22s on order and it also expects to add five Eclipse jets next year, which will greatly expand its range from Montreal to Belize. Until then, the Lawrenceville company's range will be New Orleans to Washington to Orlando to St. Louis, Qureshi said. Patrons can book tickets through the company Web site, .

The company will pick up passengers at regional air fields across metro Atlanta. Round trips are heavily discounted if made the same day. And you get to bring all your stuff on board.

"At Hartsfield, they even take your water bottle," Qureshi said. "I'm not even going to take your toothpaste."

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