Not Waiting for VLJs, Two Air Taxis Operate Out of Smaller Atlanta Airports

The air taxi is the latest in a long line of concepts meant to bridge the gap between driving and flying on packed airliners.

Air taxi pilot Sue Bolves takes an overnight bag when taking off from Atlanta's DeKalb-Peachtree Airport --- even if she's scheduled to return by the end of the day.

"You never know where the next call is going to take you," said Bolves, 45, of Newnan, a former commuter airline pilot. She recently signed on with SATSair, one of a bevy of new firms that aim to make regional air travel as simple as hailing a cab. "Even if it's only scheduled to be a one-hour trip, you have to be ready for anything."

Unlike traditional air charter firms that offer a few luxurious multimillion-dollar jets or turboprops for hire, air taxi services will use large fleets of small, single-pilot planes based in a single region. Instead of staying with customers for the duration of their trips as many charter crews do, air taxis drop off customers and fly on to the next fare.

Air taxi is the latest in a long line of concepts meant to bridge the gap between driving and flying on packed airliners. They include traditional charter service as well as "fractional" private jet programs that allow owners to share in the use of a plane.

Two air taxi firms --- SATSair and ImagineAir --- have begun flying in Atlanta using four-seat, single-engine Cirrus aircraft. Both hope to appeal to travelers seeking to avoid long airport lines or even longer drives. They book passengers by phone or Web and cater to business fliers taking short-notice trips.

The firms say their little propeller planes are building a market that they hope to someday fill with a new generation of "very light jets." But those planes, meant to cover longer distances, are just coming to market.

For now, SATSair and ImagineAir say they can operate profitably with their four-seat planes that cover 600 miles or less per flight.

Started in 2005

SATSair began flying in 2005 and put planes at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in 2006. Based in Greenville, S.C., SATSair flies 26 Cirrus airplanes and has orders for 90 more. The company intends to operate small jets someday, but the Cirrus is likely to remain its workhorse.

"There was a real question in our minds whether people would be willing to fly in propeller planes," said Phil Quist, SATSair's marketing vice president. "The answer is clearly yes. When they get in the plane, it feels like a new car. And the market for people who have to go relatively short distances is a lot bigger than the market for longer trips."

Quist says air taxis save time for business travelers who would ordinarily drive. To a lesser extent, he said they compete with airlines and air charter firms.

Cirrus SR-22s, which are becoming the ubiquitous '57 Chevys of the air taxi world, carry a retail price of about $400,000 each. Their Minnesota-based manufacturer is a stockholder in private SATSair but also sells to competing firms. All Cirrus planes are equipped with a ballistic parachute that, in some emergencies, can bring the entire aircraft safely to the ground.

They also have leather seats and satellite radios for passenger comfort and entertainment.

SATSair charges between $400 and $595 an hour for its air taxis regardless of how many of the plane's three available seats customers occupy. The lower rate applies to customers who buy blocks of flight time. Just like a street taxi, the meter goes on when the engine starts running.

Customers typically book trips one day in advance, Quist said, on a first-come, first-served basis. About 85 percent of SATSair's flights are business trips, but leisure travel is growing.

"Our weekends are getting nearly as busy as weekdays," Quist said.

ImagineAir, based at Briscoe Field in Gwinnett County, plans to start air taxi service in March and is offering scenic flights in the meantime. Two of its five Cirrus planes have been delivered, and the company has ordered three twin-engine Eclipse 500 jets scheduled to begin arriving in early 2008.

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