November 18, 2021

Planepooling: It’s Time to Reinvent Regional Air Travel

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COVID-19, recent technological advances in the taxi and aviation industries, and demographic shifts have created ideal conditions for the introduction and mass adoption of a new system of regional air transportation. Since the commercial aviation sector was deregulated in 1978, flights have mainly been based on a hub-and-spoke system involving large airplanes, large airports, and rigid schedules. More than two decades ago, federal officials explored an alternative system based on small planes, small airports, and on-demand scheduling. We refer to such a system as planepooling. At the turn of the 21st century, conditions were not favorable for such a shift, but in 2021, they have improved. In this brief, we discuss such a system, its increasing feasibility, and the technological and regulatory innovations needed to make it work.

The current hub-and-spoke system works well for passengers traveling 1,000 miles or more. However, only about 23 percent of flights and 41 percent of passengers travel such long distances; about half of flights link cities that are between 50 and 500 miles apart. Nevertheless, those traveling shorter distances must still spend two to four hours in airports and ground transportation in addition to their time in the air. Some opt out of flying—traveling instead by automobile or other ground transportation—or forgo trips altogether. Direct flights by charter or private small planes are sometimes an option, but this mode of travel is currently too expensive for most travelers. For those who wish to travel between two nonhub cities, flights are expensive, time consuming, inconveniently scheduled, or nonexistent. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, because some airlines have canceled regional flights and a few carriers have gone bankrupt or fallen into deep financial stress.

We call this the Nashville-to-Asheville problem. In a hypothetical example we show later, a present-day traveler wishing to go from the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, to downtown Asheville, North Carolina, can spend 6 hours and 20 minutes traveling by airplane or 4 hours and 21 minutes going by automobile. However, an alternative commercial aviation system such as planepooling can potentially reduce the trip to 3 hours and 20 minutes. Additionally, in the present-day system, the traveler must worry about missing the Nashville-to-Atlanta flight and the Atlanta-to-Asheville flight. With planepooling, there is little chance of missing the flight, and no change of planes is involved.

Planepooling describes a system of 8- to 10-seat aircraft flying in and out of America’s thousands of underused small airports. It would be an airborne version of Uber Pool, a ridesharing service in which drivers pick up and drop off passengers along routes drawn by coordinating algorithms. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked jointly on these ideas in the late 1990s. Aviation visionaries Burt Rutan and Bruce Holmes elaborated on the idea in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a series of lectures titled, “Life After Airliners.” Some regional air taxi companies began service but failed a few years later.

Making planepooling convenient and cost-effective will require some technological advances and some changes in public policy. We recommend that federal, state, and local authorities begin preparing for planepooling. In particular, regulators should consider reforming the existing federal Essential Air Service subsidy program to provide flexible grants to small airports and help develop a market for regional aviation aerial corridors.

ORIGINS OF PLANEPOOLING

Planepooling originated with NASA and the FAA in the 1990s and early 2000s. The stated goal was to “enable people to move, faster and farther, anytime, anywhere,” and “reduce inter-city doorstep-to-destination transportation time” by over 50 percent. Rutan and Holmes developed a vision of small aircraft dropping off and picking up passengers at America’s plentiful and underused small airports. They called their idea a Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), and that became NASA’s term for the concept.

Thanks to terrestrial-bound ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, the concept is intuitive today. With Uber Pool, for example, Uber’s algorithms match a single driver with multiple passengers, all of whom are summoning a ride via Uber’s app. The passengers enter and exit the car in sequence along a route that likely includes some zigzags to make access and egress more convenient for each rider. As Uber’s website notes, the ride will take longer than an ordinary Uber trip, but the benefit is a lower cost or more convenient trip. Planepooling would work the same way.

When Rutan and Holmes first presented their ideas, however, mobile apps were in their infancy, and Uber was still more than a decade away. Even if the ridesharing technology had been in place at that time, the cost of shifting a sizable portion of passenger travel from the hub-and-spoke system to planepooling likely would have been prohibitive. Doing so would have meant loss of business for traditional air routes and airports and would have necessitated mass construction of small planes, upgrades of small airports, and the addition of many air traffic controllers. These potential transition costs still exist, but demographic changes, recent technologies, and the COVID-19 pandemic could shift aviation away from traditional air routes and toward some regional routes through planepooling.

The market for private on-demand and private commuter flights is niche and has characteristics and regulations that differentiate it from both the general aviation industry and regional airline industry. Today, only about 7,000 planes are certified for private commuter and private on-demand aviation.

NASHVILLE TO ASHEVILLE: FOUR SCENARIOS

The Nashville-to-Asheville problem occurs all over the country. According to recent market analysis, there are hundreds of nonhub city pairs that have at least 30 passengers flying between them daily, but none of those flights are nonstop. Figure 1 (page 4) illustrates the current dilemma and the use of planepooling as a solution. This figure shows four ways to travel from the Nashville, Tennessee, suburb of Smyrna to Asheville, North Carolina.

In the figure, scenario 1 (flying from Nashville to Asheville via Atlanta) and scenario 2 (driving by automobile) are the current options for most travelers. Scenario 3 involves planepooling from tiny Smyrna Airport with two stops along the way to pick up and drop off passengers, and scenario 4 involves the same trip with no intermediate stops. Scenario 3 can be thought of as conservative but more common, whereas scenario 4 can be thought of as a better but perhaps unusual—passengers could get lucky by happening to planepool on a day when fewer stops need to be made.

CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES

When Rutan and Holmes offered their ideas around the turn of the millennium, conditions were not conducive to planepooling. But intervening changes may have tipped the balance toward making this idea economically feasible: first, except for a few well-known exceptions, there is a long-term trend of households migrating from demographically dense city centers to suburbs and even rural areas; second, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated these trends and added some new reasons to avoid large airports and large airplanes; and third, advances in aircraft electrification, ridesharing, automation, and aircraft design could sharply reduce costs of regional aviation and increase traveler convenience.