As the Uber/Lyft business model continues to hone its end-run around the heavily regulated taxi industry, many are now looking at the air transportation industry for vulnerability to Uberesque disruption. Enter Uber Airlines.
Long before social media, entrepreneurs have been trying to sell empty legs on private airplanes – almost 40% of all private jets fly empty as they return their pilots to base after dropping off their charge – and again for pick-up. Every few months I’d hear about some new start-up claiming to provide private jet service for the price of a commercial flight. A few limited operations exist, but not many – and they can’t scale.
I spent about a decade in commercial aviation and later co-founded Social Flights, a jet-sharing service out of Nashville – we unsuccessfully tried to solve the same problem and learned a great deal in the process. I can say with great confidence that it is not possible to close the business case on Uber Airlines, YET. A few more technologies need to be invented and maybe, just maybe, we’ll see an Uber Airlines achieve a scalable business model.
The aviation industry is heavily regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. There are mountainous regulations pertaining every detail of the air transportation process; the aircraft, the crew, the passengers, weather, DHS, customs, scheduling, baggage, the airport, etc. Aviation is many times more regulation dense than automobiles and the costs associated with air transportation are many times again higher than automobiles. In order to make the economics work, an operator needs to be a commercial airline with scheduled service flying big jets between hub and spoke airports or they need to be a private on-demand charter operator. You can’t just stand on a street corner and hail Uber Airlines to anywhere.
There are three technologies that need to happen first:
- Next Generation Air Traffic Control. NextGen ATC refers to aircraft management technology that uses space-based GPS instead of ground-based radar to manage air traffic around airports. NG-ATC could literally light up 500 municipal airports and eventually up to 5000 small airports with all-weather service. Currently, only 30-40 major hubs can handle such operations.
- Curiosumé is a concept that we first developed at Social Flights, LLC for determining the probability that a certain number of people within a certain geographic area would all want to go to another geographic location within a certain window of time – and again in reverse, on the same day. The reason that we wanted to take this approach was an attempt to manage 5 sets of FAA regulations statistically instead trying to do so preemptively.
- Blockchain Technology would then provide the database technology which could handle all of the pilot qualifications, flight logs, aircraft maintenance logs, passenger manifest, inter-party payments, ground transportation, hotel reservations, etc. A set of rules and adjudicated contracts could be developed to manage the rest of the regulations.
With these technologies, we estimated that an Uber Airlines service would need a minimum of 2.5 million registered users located within 10 miles of 500 small NG-ATC airports (5000 per airport) in order to fill 6-8 seats on a private aircraft traveling in both directions to and from any one of the other 500 airports within an 8 hour period at least once per day. If this puzzle can be solved for small airplanes, it is only a matter of time before you could disintermediate large carriers as well. That is how to solve this problem.