All-You-Can Fly, for a Monthly Subscription


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Nick Kennedy, right, founder and chief executive of Rise, with frequent customer Ben Lamm, chief executive of Chaotic Moon Studios, at Love Field airport in Dallas.

Credit
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Ben Lamm, chief executive of Chaotic Moon Studios, a software design company, wanted a shorter commute between the company’s headquarters in Austin, Tex., and its new office in Dallas.

“I never had a good day,” he said of driving the roughly 200 miles that could take five hours with traffic and construction.

Commercial flights had drawbacks with time to park and clear security. And on-time flights aren’t a certainty.

Last summer, he started flying with a new service called Rise. It offers subscription memberships for $1,650 to $2,650 a month for unlimited scheduled travel among four Texas cities — Austin, Dallas, Houston and Midland.

Rise does not, however, own a single plane. The flights are on eight-seat Beechcraft Air King 350 planes that Rise leases from charter companies. The planes have a Rise logo and depart from private aviation terminals. The company said passengers can arrive within minutes of departure. It provides free parking, Wi-Fi, snacks and the services of a concierge for help with connections.

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Rise offers its members-only flights on Beechcraft Air King 350 plans that it leases from charter companies.

Credit
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

The traditional airline is going virtual.

“This is the sharing economy with planes,” said Nick Kennedy, the chief executive of Rise. “We don’t sell seats on planes; we sell time to members.”

As commercial flights become more cramped and delays increase, member-only air services are drawing the attention of wealthier business travelers.

The membership model began in 2013 with the creation of Surf Air, an airline based in Santa Monica, Calif. It flies to California cities and has 2,100 members — up from 300 when it began. “We’ve grown solely on referrals,” said Jeff Potter, the chief.

Unlike Rise, it owns or leases to buy a dozen Pilatus PC-12s, up from three planes two years ago. Memberships start at $1,750 a month for unlimited travel with a $1,000 initiation fee.

Companies like Rise, along with Beacon, another new subscription service, have taken what they see as the next step in membership air service.

“We’re a sales-and-service company,” said Wade Eyerly, chief executive and co-founder of Beacon, which flies between Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., and Logan International Airport in Boston. He has seen the evolution firsthand, as Surf Air’s co-founder and first chief executive. Beacon offers unlimited flights for $2,250 a month.

“They don’t own airplanes, they don’t have pilots, they don’t perform maintenance and they don’t have an airline operating certificate,” said Robert Mann, an industry analyst and consultant. And that distinction, he said, makes these new entities marketing platforms — not carriers.

Instead, the member-only clubs have contracts with aviation companies to provide flight operations. One Rise operator is Menagerie Enterprises, doing business as Monarch Air, a charter company based in Addison, Tex. Another is Gulf Coast Aviation, which offers aircraft management services, which is based in Houston. Beacon has a contract with Dynamic Aviation in Bridgewater, Va., a supplier of commercial planes, to maintain and operate a fleet of Beechcraft King Air 200 planes configured with six seats.

To plan timetables, the start-ups are relying on an interpretation of a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that allows a commuter authorization for scheduled operations of five or more round trips in a week.

For passengers, the focus is on saving time and money, not logistics. Paul Krasinski, a senior vice president for business development and strategy at SessionM, a Boston-based mobile loyalty program, travels to New York two to three times a month.

Previously he flew on the US Airways Shuttle, booking a day or two before, buying tickets that ran $450 to $475 one-way for the 90-minute flight. A taxi from La Guardia Airport generally added 45 minutes to the trip.

Now, with Beacon, he said, he saves an hour on each leg because he can arrive 15 minutes before departure, whereas Logan airport in Boston recommends two hours for commercial flights. He says he breaks even if he flies three round trips a month. And, he is home in the evenings to read to his two young sons.

While the all-you-can-fly model is expanding, at least one expert doubts its long-term prospects.

“I’m rather skeptical that this is a sustainable business model in its current form,” said Edward Clayton, a senior director with the consulting firm Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), wrote by email. It would work well for passengers during the start-up phase, but as soon as a lot of people have signed up, they are going to run into problems with capacity at peak times,” Mr. Clayton said.

The services are part of a battle that has erupted for the high-dollar frequent flier, analysts say. Some specialists predict it is only a matter of time before competition intrudes. “The major carriers can begin to market against it,” said Clayton R. Critcher, an assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

And some have questions about safety and security. Mr. Mann, for one, is skeptical. “You don’t know what you are going to get,” he said. “You don’t have much opportunity to do due diligence.”

Club executives say the planes are subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, cite the safety records of the aircraft they use and say that they make every effort to minimize risk. Rise and Beacon planes fly with two pilots in the cockpit, although that is not required based on the size of the planes.

The aircraft operators used by Rise are evaluated and rated by Argus International, a Cincinnati company that provides information to the aviation industry. Monarch Air, for example, holds the company’s gold rating, Gulf Coast Aviation has a platinum one. Dynamic Aviation does not hold an Argus rating although the company doesn’t know whether it has ever sought one. About 510 Argus-rated operators worldwide pay $7,500 to $15,000 to complete the initial audit process, with additional fees for renewal.

Mr. Kennedy said Rise had a multilayered security process that meets all federal regulations. The company performs background checks on passengers, although it is not required to do so because small planes of 12 seats or less are not considered commercial carriers and are not regulated by the Transportation Safety Administration. “Our pilots are trained and empowered to search passengers and luggage at any time,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Beacon also conducts background checks. “It’s very much the same security protocol as if you owned the plane,” Mr. Eyerly said. “It’s designed to mirror that experience.” Passengers on private flights are not permitted to connect to regular commercial flights without clearing T.S.A. security.

Mr. Lamm, the chief of Chaotic Moon Studios, said he was satisfied with his Rise membership. “They’ve never been late,” he said. “And dependability is just as important as time saving.”



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