Holmes Learns Lessons from Start-Up Airline
By: Jim Hodges
Shortly after Bruce Holmes retired from NASA Langley two years ago, he entered into a venture called DayJet, an idea whose time had, perhaps, not yet come.
It was an airline whose passengers, more or less, set the times of departure and routes between small airports in Florida and neighboring states by accessing the airline through a Web site to outline the parameters of a trip, including a window for departure.
The computer would aggregate the departures from any airport and state a price, optimizing the routes for best and most economical use of the aircraft. A bigger window that allowed more passengers meant a lower cost to fly.
The first DayJet flight was in October, 2007. The last was on Sept. 19, 2008. The airline died for want of capital to buy 22 more planes to make the whole on-demand idea work.
"It didn't play out the way we'd hoped," said Holmes, whose job title was "chief strategist, but with a startup you wear a lot of hats.
"But," he told an assembly of more than 200 Tuesday in the June Colloquium at the Reid Conference Center, "if I could get involved with another, maybe I'm a glutton for punishment but I would."
In essence, Holmes was practicing what he had been preaching about the Next Generation of air travel for more than a decade with NASA, from smaller airports to optimization of traffic.
"I believe that with the changes that can be made in the way we use airports and the way we can use airspace, and the aircraft, and system-wide integrated management, that it is possible for Next Gen to be a commons for innovation," Holmes said.
He added that it was essential for NextGen to work, in part because of the way scheduled airlines are contracting in the wake of the economy and increased fuel costs. Where three decades ago, about 900 U.S. airports had scheduled service, the number is shrinking and will at some point in the future number about 500, Holmes said.
"The Newport Newses and Norfolks will have scheduled service, but what about Roanoke, Charlottesville and Blacksburg?" he added. "And every state has its Roanokes and Charlottesvilles and Blacksburgs."
The contraction picture is one that begins with a trip of perhaps more than 100 or more miles to a regional airport, driving a car with rising auto fuel costs to wait two hours for a plane. For a business traveler, for whom time is sometimes big money, the idea of being able to schedule a trip from near home is appealing.
The idea of having to move from home to be closer to an airport perhaps is not as appealing.
DayJet flew almost 10,000 flights to 61 markets in seven states in 11 months. The real problem was that the airplane, an Eclipse 500, "was not ready for prime time," Holmes said. "We would not have launched this business without this airplane, but in the end it wasn't good enough."
The average DayJet flight was about 250 nautical miles at 21,000 feet. The Eclipse 500 was built for a flight of 1,400 miles at 41,000 feet, Holmes said.
He challenged NASA designers to build a better airplane for the job, adding that the nation's aviation future depended on the agency.
From DayJet, Holmes said, he learned that "the on-demand market is there. It's real. It's sizable. But it's hard to teach to consumers who are not used to thinking of their community airport as an airport for public transportation."
Next time, he added, a passenger education program was essential.
Also, "we learned the per-seat model worked," he said. "The optimization worked."
They are the elements of Next Gen and others throughout aviation – including NASA -- had been working on more than a decade.
What didn't work was the timing – getting more financing in the past year has been difficult for anybody, much less a startup airline – and the airplane.
It was a case of "the operation was successful, but the patient died," but it was only a start, Holmes said. It was a glimpse into an aviation future in which, he added:
--"We need to get to carbon neutral (aviation operation),
--"We need to halve the operating cost and
--"We need scalable airspace capacity."
The industry needs NASA, Holmes said, working with aeronautics of the 21st century to overcome the limits of 20th century technology.
NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry