Two Air Taxi Firms To Operate Out of Polk County

WINTER HAVEN - After decades of fruitlessly searching for regular commuter airline service, Polk County has suddenly become a competitive market for two "air taxi" companies.

SATSair of Greenville, S.C., announced Wednesday that co-founder Tim McConnell will barnstorm 104 Florida airports during the next month to promote the company's commuter air service, which began service to the state in November. He will meet with airport officials and potential customers at each stop.

McConnell's "Fly Florida Tour" includes stopovers at the airports in Winter Haven, Lake Wales, Bartow and Lakeland on Feb. 27. He will stay overnight and leave from Lakeland Linder Regional Airport on Feb. 28 for the Plant City Municipal Airport.

The SATSair service comes just before the start of a similar service from DayJet Corp. in Delray Beach. The company said Wednesday it would not begin its service out of Lakeland Linder until the second quarter this year.

When it announced its local air taxi service in June, DayJet said it planned to start out of Lakeland Linder by March 31.

"It's a good thing for Lakeland," said Nan Walsh, the operations manager at Lakeland Linder. "They're hoping to be successful, and we would support them."

Service from DayJet and SATSair have some similarities but also differ significantly, particularly in price and service area.

Both offer reservation-only flight service for up to three passengers. Commuters can book flights through an agent by telephone or through a company Web site.

Commuters tell the companies the airport and date of departure and the destination airport for the outgoing flight and the same information for the return flight. A company scheduler will call back with a specific time and date for the flights.

Both companies said they're aiming at the business aviation market, particularly to executives who now drive on trips of 500 miles or less - "the person who gets in the car on Monday and does not return until Friday," said Wendi Hill, the marketing and public relations manager at SATSair's Greenville headquarters.

So far, business travel accounts for 85 percent of its flights, she said.

DayJet has said one of their flights would cost between $1 and $3 per nautical mile, depending upon factors such as the commuter's flexibility on the timing of outgoing and return flights. It also requires an annual membership fee of $250, which commits members to taking at least four flights a year.

A round-trip flight from Lakeland to Tallahassee would cost the DayJet customer $380 at the $1 rate and $1,140 at the maximum rate.

SATSair charges $595 per hour per plane, whether it carries one or three passengers, Hill said.

The company also has some special pricing deals, she said. That includes $475 per hour for Florida customers booking their first flight, 11 hours of flight time for the price of 10 hours ($4,995) and 22 hours for the price of 20 hours ($9,500).

But SATSair has a much wider service area, which stretches from southern Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to the north and as far west as eastern Arkansas and Louisiana. The company will fly to any airport in that service area, Hill said.

The company began its Florida service Nov. 1, she said. It made 183 landings at 50 Florida airports in December and 170 landings at 67 airports last month.

Hill said she did not know whether any of those landings occurred in Polk. Walsh said it had landed at Lakeland Linder, but did not know how many times.

DayJet will operate from a modified hub system, which it calls "DayPorts." Besides Lakeland Linder, other DayPorts will be located in Boca Raton, Gainesville, Pensacola and Tallahassee, the company said. The $1-to-$3 price applies to flights among those hubs.

The company said it will fly to other Florida airports at an additional unspecified charge.

DayJet said it hopes to expand within two years from the five initial hubs to as many as 50 DayPorts in Florida and other southeastern states, including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North and South Carolina.

SATSair and DayJet operate different aircraft.

The Greenville company flies exclusively the Cirrus SR22, a four-seat propeller aircraft made by Cirrus Design Corp. of Duluth, Minn., that includes a parachute in the tail section in case of an engine malfunction. It currently operates 26 airplanes every day of the year, Hill said.

DayJet will fly exclusively the Eclipse 500 VLJ (for "very light jet"), a new aircraft developed by Eclipse Aviation Corp. of Albuquerque, N.M. The company projects the fuel-efficient jet will operate at half the cost of other jet aircraft.

The company just delivered its first Eclipse 500 to a Southern California company Jan. 4. DayJet said it would start with 10 Eclipse 500s, but has ordered at least 239 jets for its first two years.

DayJet and SATSair are not the only U.S. companies getting into the air taxi business. Linear Air of Lexington, Mass., hopes to begin Eclipse 500 service in the northeastern U.S., according to The New York Times.

Eclipse also has competitors selling to the air taxi companies, the Times reported. Adam Aircraft of Englewood, Colo., is awaiting federal certification for its A700, a six-passenger light jet. Brazilian manufacturer Embraer Air hopes to sell its four-passenger Phenom light jet next year, and Honda said it is working on a six-seat model similar to the Eclipse.

The SATSair Fly Florida Tour begins Monday at Pensacola Regional Airport. Company co-founder McConnell will fly weekdays through March 15, when he will end at the Fernandina Beach airport.

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