Reinventing regional air travel – InsideSources
They say that in the southeastern United States, whether your soul is headed for heaven or hell, it will have to change planes in Charlotte or Atlanta. So goes the notoriety of the commercial aviation hub-and-spoke system. Regional flights often require you to go through a hub – and it’s often quicker to drive there – and it’s easier to stay home. This can change with what we call “planepooling”, and the moment of the idea can approach quickly.
Carpooling is like carpooling in the sky. Uber’s app offered a service called UberPool (mostly suspended during COVID). You tap the cell phone app, a car comes, maybe with another passenger already in the car when you get in. Maybe it picks up another passenger along the way and ultimately drops you off where you’re headed. It takes a little longer than a regular Uber, but splitting your ride and giving up a few minutes of speed lowers your fare. Now, let’s adapt this idea to flight.
In a recent article and accompanying memoir, we describe the “Nashville-Asheville Problem”: Suppose you live in suburban Nashville. You need to go to Asheville, NC, about 200 miles east of where you live, and have two options. First, you can fly via Atlanta – a 6 hour and 20 minute trip, of which more than 4 hours are spent by car or at airports. Plus, there’s the stress of worrying about missing one of your two flights.
Alternatively, you can drive to Asheville in 4 hours 21 minutes, 2 hours less than flying. Of course, when you’re driving, you can’t nap, read, work, or play games like you can on an airplane. So in 2021, the off-hub traveler has to ask a strange question: “Should I drive, or do I have time to fly?”
Get into carpooling. In the late 1990s, aviation pioneers Burt Rutan and Bruce Holmes suggested shifting some commercial aviation to small planes (6-10 seats) flying in and out of hundreds of small airports under- used in America. As with UberPool, our traveler taps on his cellphone app, scheduling a plane to pick him up at the small airport in Smyrna near his home. Boarding is quick; the plane picks up passengers at two local Tennessee airports and then flies to Asheville. The ride takes almost exactly the time it would take to drive. The passenger never has to change planes and never worry about missed connections. If you’re lucky and fly direct from suburban Nashville to Asheville, the trip takes three hours less than a current flight.
When Rutan and Holmes came up with the idea, carpooling was not feasible. Airlines and charter plane companies have been selling empty seats for years, but the process was largely manual, inconvenient and expensive. Things have changed. Ride-sharing technologies and new efficient planes (some electric and climate-friendly) will make ride-sharing less expensive. There are more potential (and wealthier) passengers in smaller communities due to emigration from big cities and the rise of telecommuting.
COVID-19 has accelerated these trends. Technology is still advancing and policy makers need to act to make carpooling economical. Existing federal aviation subsidy programs need to be reassessed, and local authorities should urge state and federal leaders to take a permissive view of new aviation technologies.
Carpooling would likely have positive effects on small communities. Today, a city dweller or a big-city business looking to relocate to, say, Rehoboth Beach, Dela., knows that the nearest reliable airports (Philadelphia and Baltimore) are over two hours away, with considerable risk of traffic delays. (For most of the past three decades, Delaware has been the only state without scheduled airline flights.) Undoubtedly, this immobility deters individuals and businesses from moving to Rehoboth. With plane pooling, travelers could arrive and depart from Delaware’s coastal airport, 18 miles away, or perhaps smaller airstrips even closer.
This situation is not limited to Delaware. In thousands of small communities across America, perhaps especially in the vast expanses of the West, growth is stunted because air travel is absent. The result can be lower house prices and limited job opportunities. Carpooling has the potential to change all that.