How Air Taxis Will Work


Small, 4- to 8-passenger jets may operate from thousands of small airports across the U.S.
Small, 4- to 8-passenger jets may operate from thousands of small airports across the U.S.
Photo courtesy NASA

In the world of business, time is money. It seems like the faster you can get something done, the faster it has to get done. Even vacationers want to get to their destination as quickly as possible -- and preferably faster than that. Nowhere is this pressure felt more than in transportation. Since aviation is a major player in the game of modern transportation, many are looking at ways to improve how planes and airports work.

One concept has been the use of "air taxis" -- smaller planes that can take passengers between local airports upon request, bypassing the traffic and delays of major airports. Air taxis, formally the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), could make a trip to the beach or a visit with relatives go from taking six hours o­n the highway to a quick, no-hassles plane ride.

In this article, we'll find out how the air-taxi system will operate. While air taxis won't allow you to hail a cab from the 40th floor, they will allow you to travel faster and more conveniently than ever before.

The Basics

Photo courtesy NASA

Today, there are only 40 or so major airports in the United States, and as many as 100 million people might go through just one of them in a year. With so many people choosing to fly, many airports are operating above their capacity and are overwhelmed, causing delays and cancellations.

It is also very expensive to run major airports and major airlines. To help ensure a profit, airlines schedule flights so as to fill as many seats as possible. This limits the options for travelers, forcing them to conform to these schedules and destinations. As a result, many travelers choose to drive instead of fly, overloading yet another transportation system: highways.

The basic concept behind the Small Aircraft Transportation System is simple. Instead of relying on a few big airports, SATS will utilize the more than 5,000 small, local airports situated throughout the United States. SATS will also develop safer, more affordable small aircraft that are sufficiently sophisticated to operate in the same airspace as major airliners. These smaller airports and aircraft will be much less expensive to run than their super-sized big brothers, so SATS airlines will have the financial freedom to offer clients a greater variety of routes and schedules.

SATS aircraft will be able to utilize the limited resources offered by thousands of small airports in the United States. SATS aircraft will be able to utilize the limited resources offered by thousands of small airports in the United States.
SATS aircraft will be able to utilize the limited resources offered by thousands of small airports in the United States.
Photo courtesy NASA

Because there are so many small airports spread throughout the country, flyers will also be able to get to one that is much closer to their homes, businesses and destinations, cutting down on travel time.

 

Technological Advances

FJX-2 turbofan engine
FJX-2 turbofan engine
Photo courtesy NASA

Several technological advances in recent years have led to the current feasibility of the Small Aircraft Transportation System.

In 1996, NASA initiated the General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) program to encourage and advance the U.S. light-aircraft industry. The GAP program's main goal was to help develop more affordable propulsion systems, mainly engines. Williams International joined with NASA to develop the FJX-2 turbofan engine, the smallest commercial turbofan available at the time. It weighed less than 45.4 kg (100 lbs), with a thrust-to-weight ratio that would allow the development of a new class of lightweight aircraft. This technological breakthrough was a major step forward in the drive to create aircraft small enough to use local airports but sophisticated enough to meet the necessary speed, range, comfort and safety requirements of a commercial aircraft.

In 1998, during the development of the FJX-2 engine, Williams International's president and founder, Dr. Sam Williams, joined with entrepreneur Vern Raburn to form the Eclipse Aviation Corporation. Using first a commercial version of the FJX-2 engine, called the EJ22, and then choosing the PW610F turbine engine from Pratt & Whitney instead, Eclipse built the Eclipse 500 jet aircraft.

Eclipse 500 Eclipse 500
Eclipse 500
Photo courtesy Eclipse Aviation
Eclipse 500 passenger cabin Eclipse 500 passenger cabin
Eclipse 500 passenger cabin
Photo courtesy Eclipse Aviation
Eclipse 500 cockpit Eclipse 500 cockpit
Eclipse 500 cockpit
Photo courtesy Eclipse Aviation

The Eclipse 500 debuted in 2005, the first of a new family of aircraft, the very light jet (VLJ). The VLJ is a vital cog in the SATS wheel.

 

Advantages of SATS

Some of the most obvious advantages of SATS include:

  • Less congestion in major airports
  • Less congestion on highways
  • Greater flexibility in travel schedules
  • More points of departure and arrival
  • Lower operating costs for smaller airlines

There are several other advantages to SATS as well. SATS could provide an economic boom by increasing the number of people visiting recreation and tourism destinations that are not near major airports. Additionally, areas that might otherwise have been deemed unsuitable for economic and business development could have more potential if they were near a local airport.

SATS could also help with the housing crunch that exists near major cities. Employees could live in a wider circumference around their offices and commute by light aircraft. In addition, companies would not have to be located strictly in large population centers. If their employees had easy access to a local airport, the company could have branches in a much larger variety of locations. Flexibility in housing and business location could significantly reduce the traffic congestion found near all major cities in the United States.

Challenges Still Facing SATS

Artist concept of SATS aircraft
Artist concept of SATS aircraft
Photo courtesy NASA

While a lot has been accomplished, there are still many problems with the SATS plan. Although the price of air taxis will likely come down as the system matures and expands, they will initially be significantly more expensive than traditional air travel. At the outset, air taxis are likely to be worthwhile mainly for business travelers and others to whom saving time is worth the extra expense. However, the more they are used and the more that are available, the less they will likely cost per flight.

Another major problem is the question of safety. Will the new aircraft be safe? Will local airports be capable of safely handling the increased traffic? Both industry and government agencies have been addressing these issues. As they develop new aircraft, manufacturers have utilized the latest computer and electronic technology to increase the safety and reliability of their planes. Advances in navigation and air traffic control will also be necessary. At the demonstration in Danville, Virginia, NASA introduced a robotic air traffic controller capable of receiving requests to land from incoming planes and assigning them a number in line. Another system identifies each approaching aircraft by altitude, location and direction and shares this information with other aircraft in the vicinity. This is especially valuable for landings during bad weather, a significant problem for smaller airports.

 

The Future of SATS

Eclipse Aviation announced on April 25, 2005, that DayJet Corporation, a "Per-Seat, On-Demand" jet service company, had ordered 239 Eclipse 500 jets, with an option for 70 more. The Eclipse 500 received its FAA certification on July 27, 2006.

During the early stages of developing the technology to support SATS, NASA predicted that the system would not be up and running until at least 2015. In the end, both NASA's and DayJet's estimations may be correct. While service may begin on a small scale in the next year or two, it will take many years for travel by air taxi to go from being a novel choice to a common event. Progress may be further hampered by the fact that technological advances for small-airport infrastructures and air traffic control systems have not kept pace with the advances in light aircraft.

For more information on the air-taxi system, aviation and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • About DayJet. DayJet.com. http://www.dayjet.com/Company/Default.aspx
  • Bacon, James A. "The Small Aircraft Revolution." Bacon's Rebellion. http://www.baconsrebellion.com/issues04/10-18/Bacon.html
  • "Eclipse Aviation to Supply Fleet of Next-Generation Aircraft for DayJet’s Innovative Per-Seat, On-Demand Jet Services." Press Release. Eclipse Aviation, April 25, 2005. http://www.eclipseaviation.com/inthenews/pressreleases_detail.htm?content_id=776
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  • "Future Flight: A Review of the Small Aircraft Transportation System Concept by Transportation Research Board." National Research Council, 2002. http://trb.org/news/blurb_detail.asp?id=2926
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  • NASA Langley Research Center: SATS http://sats.larc.nasa.gov/main.html
  • NASA Scientific and Technical Information http://www.sti.nasa.gov/STI-public-homepage.html
  • NASA Student Features: Did Someone Call for an Air Taxi? http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Call_for_Taxi.html
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  • Wald, Matthew L. "Envisioning a Day When the Skies Will Teem With Air Taxis." The New York Times, June 19, 2005. http://www.eclipseaviation.com/inthenews/detail_05.htm?content_id=831
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