For a few years now, aviation enthusiasts have teased the idea of a Jetsons-style future in which small electric aircraft whisk us to work or across the state and region. That future is not here yet, though a handful of companies, including one based in the Pacific Northwest, are trying to get a head start on the future of flying using conventional planes.
Vancouver, Washington-based startup KinectAir was established to serve clients like architect and entrepreneur Casey Wyckoff. Wyckoff explained his life was complicated by virtue of making his home near Kalispell while running the firm LSW Architects and two other businesses headquartered in Vancouver.
"I live in Montana and travel every other week to Vancouver," Wyckoff said before boarding a charter plane home at Vancouver’s Pearson Field. "And to increase the complexity of my family's life, we're looking to open an office for the architectural company in Bend, Oregon."
There used to be direct flights between Portland and Bend as well as Portland and Kalispell. But Alaska Airlines dropped those routes, as happened to a lot of smaller cities around the country during the pandemic. Wyckoff said connecting through Seattle on every trip would be a hassle and a time suck. So, he started booking with the Portland-area aviation startup, which aims to make private air charter more affordable and accessible.
"For me, when I get to me plus two more (work or family members) and I think even a little bit about the value of time, that's where it breaks even," he said.
The appeal of on-demand air charter is easy to see when tagging along on Wyckoff’s trip home. It's pretty much, drive up and go. No crowds at the sleepy neighborhood airport. No TSA security checks. On board, every seat is a window seat on the single-engine turboprop. The lone pilot also loads the luggage and offers drinks before takeoff.
KinectAir’s business model is interesting. The startup does not own any aircraft or employ charter pilots. It makes money like Airbnb or the ride-hailing company Lyft by running an online marketplace, in this case, to match travelers with a curated network of underutilized small airplanes. They don’t use corporate jets.
"Jet charter today is only accessible to a very, very minute demographic," KinectAir co-founder and CEO Jonathan Evans said. "We can make it much more accessible by orders of magnitude just by choosing the right aircraft in the hands of trusted operators and pilots."
Evans said KinectAir has so far partnered with five existing air charter operators spread from Renton, Washington, to Truckee, California. The propeller-driven fleet is a mix of pressurized, 8-passenger Pilatus PC-12s and 4-passenger Diamond DA62s.
Evans recalled the eureka moment that eventually resulted in KinectAir happened back in 2016 when he rented a small plane from the Hillsboro Flying Club to take two tech CEO buddies on a flightseeing trip over the Olympic Range. The trio touched down for brunch in Washington's San Juan Islands.
“I was telling them the unit economics of operating that day, how much it cost,” Evans said.
Evans went on to describe how the existing air charter market was rife with inefficiencies. For example, many of the itineraries booked generate empty repositioning legs. Software could go a long way to unlock profits – and give discounts – by directing customers to seats on charter flights that would otherwise depart empty.
"Of course, being three entrepreneurs, we were talking about this idea," Evans said of the brainstorming brunch. “They were like, 'You got it, you should do this.'"
A year into actual operations though, the regional air taxi service remains expensive. A traveler booking Delta or Alaska Airlines between Seattle and Redmond/Bend could sit in first class for a $473 roundtrip in late May. The cheapest you could fly with KinectAir for the same trip on the same days would be $782 and that’s only if you filled every seat on the plane.
Evans said future iterations of the KinectAir smartphone app and booking engine would allow pooling of separate parties going the same way on the same day. He also said the company wants to show empty legs to flexible travelers for booking at “deep discounts.”
“I think it’s in the building stages,” observed pilot Jeff Wollenberg with McMinnville-based Precision, an air charter operator that flies for KinectAir. “The potential is there if you can streamline things and process all the data and get the data.”
Prices for on-demand private flying could come down another notch with the introduction of hybrid-electric, battery or hydrogen-powered commuter planes. KinectAir and its competitors have pledged to buy those next-generation planes as soon as they are available. Electric aircraft promises to be cheaper to maintain and operate, less noisy, and better for the climate. Evans figured certification and commercial deliveries are about five years away.
KinectAir is not the only company with visions of whisking you from A to B with fewer hassles and greater convenience than the major airlines. Two other regional aviation companies that decided to launch before the anticipated electrification revolution takes hold are California-based Surf Air Mobility and New York-based Blade Air Mobility.
The insider buzzwords for the niche these startups want to exploit include "regional air mobility" (RAM) and "advanced air mobility” (AAM).
A seminal NASA whitepaper on regional air mobility published in 2021 pointed out that the U.S. has slightly more than 5,000 public airports, only 10% of which currently have commercial airline service. Most Americans live within 20 minutes of a local airfield, the paper said. The NASA co-authors concluded that transformational aircraft designs and efficiency advances could make it economical to offer passenger flights from many more of America's airports and save people time in transit doing so.
A follow-up study published in 2022 by Georgia Tech researchers, also funded by NASA’s aeronautics arm, attempted to quantify the untapped demand for shorter-distance flights from underserved airports. The study found that fixed-wing aircraft seating between 9 and 30 passengers could be a profitable option at hundreds of airports that do not have commercial service now.
In the trade journal The Air Current, senior editor Elan Head added a dose of skepticism about the heralded revolution in travel. In an analysis posted online last month, Head wrote that the car remains a formidable competitor for private flying.
“Even on blue-sky days, the need to find ground transportation to and from airports will make trip planning more complex and introduce the potential for delays that could erase the time savings that come from flying or, in a worst-case scenario, scuttle the entire journey,” Head said.
“The low marginal cost of driving and the flexibility offered by a personal vehicle mean that for many trips within the theoretical range of an electric aircraft, it may still be cheaper and more convenient to drive,” she added.