In our April issue, I have a feature on how Eclipse Aviation CEO Vern Raburn and DayJet CEO Ed Icaobucci want to democratize personal jet travel. DayJet is poised to become the largest air taxi service using Eclipse's planes (whose design has been approved by the FAA, but Eclipse is still awaiting a final "production certificate" for its manufacturing processes).
To report the story I went down to DayJet's headquarters in Florida and to Eclipse's assembly plant in Albuquerque, where more than 50 planes are already under construction. Excerpt:
Births are never easy. But Raburn and Iacobucci, two computer industry veterans, are about to deliver to the world a new model for the airline industry: the air taxi, which is to a commercial airplane what a shared car ride is to a Greyhound bus. Raburn is building the planes, and Iacobucci is going to use them to create point-to-point air service between small cities ignored by major airlines.
How big is that market? "The only thing you can say about predicting the size of new markets," Raburn says with a shrug, "is that you will be wrong." The forecast for PC sales in 1982 was 50,000 units, notes Iacobucci, a large Santa of a man with a short gray beard and a baseball cap. "Do you know what they actually shipped?" he asks. "Three million."
One of the things I found most fascinating is that whether the air taxi industry flies or not might depend more on breakthroughs in scheduling software than in airplane manufacturing:
Of all the air-taxi startups, DayJet has the most radical business model. While the others are chartering entire planes, DayJet will be selling individual seats. "In the traditional airline model," Iacobucci explains, "you build a schedule and market the seats." With DayJet's air-taxi service, by contrast, "you build no schedule as long as you can, until the very last minute when you file your flight plans."
Behind this reservation system is really complicated mathematics. It's basically a resource-allocation problem. Given a certain number of planes, routes, and existing reservations, what is the optimal way to reconfigure DayJet's network of air taxis to accommodate each new reservation request?
"We'll have to evaluate billions of options and come back to you with a yes or no answer in five seconds," Iacobucci says. Even a supercomputer would have trouble doing that.
Instead of a supercomputer, Iacobucci has two Russian mathematicians, Eugene Taits and Alex Khmelnitsky, stashed in a windowless room down the hall working on an algorithm they believe will solve the problem. . . . To test this algorithm, Iacobucci is working with some operations research scientists at Georgia Tech who do have access to a supercomputer. It takes them 24 hours to come up with the same answers DayJet's optimization algorithm comes up with in a few seconds.
In another office farther down the hall (these have windows), Iacobucci keeps his ant farmers. They are complexity scientists, originally from the Santa Fe Institute, who have created a massive simulation of the entire U.S. transportation system. They've mapped travel patterns into 10-square-mile blocks, complete with income levels, demographics, historical driving patterns, airport drive times, and airline schedules and fares.
"It's like Sim City on steroids," Iacobucci says.