Flight school sees soaring potential for passenger taxi

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With airport inconveniences reaching abysmal heights in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many airline commuters to the Bay area may find it easier to hail a taxi.

That is the hope of John Brown and the impetus for his new air-taxi service operating out of the Minden-Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe airports.

"I decided to get in the air taxi business because I saw a need out there," said Brown, owner of Emerald Bay Aviation and Flying Start Aero flight schools. "We can't compete with the airlines to Chicago or New York, but I figure we can compete with the airlines on the short trips."

Until recently, Flying Start Aero operated only as a flight instruction firm offering locals lessons on its single-engine Piper Cherokees. But the recent change of tide in the business has Brown looking for other customer markets to tap.

"At this time a year ago we had 43 students; today we only have 21," Brown said. "In fairness, it can't all be blamed on Sept. 11. With the downturn in the economy I did see a little bit of a fall-off in new student starts. When the airlines sneeze, the little flight schools catch pneumonia."

Brown said the schools are often the starting point for prospective commercial fliers. When the industry is laying off pilots rather than blitzing on new hires like it did two years ago, it dissuades potential entry-level fliers from embarking on a course that costs $5,000-$6,000 to get that first license.

To supplement the school, and take advantage of the delays and inconsistency associated with major airports and carriers, Brown went through the arduous process of getting his air-carrier certificate.

"I saw a business opportunity out there and found out it is a rather extensive process," he said. "But the economy made me look around for things to do with the fixed costs of keeping up the airplanes and overhead. We've had a drop in demand for students."

To meet the stringent Federal Aviation Administration requirements, Brown, a seasoned private instructor, received instruction and tested with the agency. Flying Start Aero is also required to follow a strict set of regulations, including yearly inspections by the Federal Aviation Administration and increased frequency of aircraft maintenance and parts replacement.

"Primarily, they come out and make sure aircraft is held to even higher standards than airplanes we rent out to the public," Brown said. "Because I own a flight school and rent planes, they do an inspection every 100 hours as well as the routine annual inspections."

For about $500 a round trip, Brown can carry as many as three passengers to airports scattered throughout Northern California. While the flight obviously takes longer than a jetliner -- a typical Bay area flight is 2 to 2-1/2 hours in duration -- travelers can skip the hassles of early check-in, long security searches and inconvenient schedules.

"That's leaving on their schedule, not the airline's schedule," Brown said. "We can go to places like San Jose, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Reed Hillview and South County airport. I fly to those airports with students. Even Napa Valley when people want to go on a weekend trip to the wine country."

As for competition, Brown sees little on the horizon. He said he caters to the bottom of the food chain, unlike his Minden-Tahoe Airport neighbor Hutt Aviation.

"Hutt Aviation, they're at the top of the food chain. They fly around the world," he said. "They carry people who can spend $25,000-$30,000, no problem at all. There is no one I can think of operating on my level at a much more affordable rate.

"Right now we are a single-pilot operation. I think there's a real demand. We'll see how it goes. If it works, we have big plans."

Flying Start Aero is also owned by Mark Garic and Jim Crozier. After retiring from his former life as a corporate executive, Brown became an instructor in 1996.

"I've owned several airplanes and aviation has always been a part of my life," he said. "I love to fly, and I love to teach. I always felt that if I really want to learn something, teach it."


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