Imagine the reality behind the 1990s TV show "Wings" evolved into the age of the Internet. Imagine a charter air service that can fly to more than 900 airports in the Southeast and along the East Coast from Florida to Maine. Imagine that for a month now it has been booking flights automatically through the Statesboro airport's website.
No airline operates out of the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport, but ImagineAir, an air taxi service headquartered in Gwinnett County, creates something closer to the feel of that happening.
Customers schedule their flights in advance and pay by credit card. After an email and then a phone call from the company confirm the time, a pilot and planemeet you at the airport, like a taxi at the curb.
"Price-wise it's about double, but if you ever fly private, it will ruin it for you for the rest of your life," said Elizabeth Joyner. "You will never want to fly commercial again."
One day last week, Joyner, a first-time ImagineAir passenger who had flown with other charter services, strolled through the Statesboro airport's terminal, where she was greeted by pilot Adam Nance. He helped her load her baggage into the plane and made sure she was secured in her preferred seat. Within 10 minutes, they were on their way to her destination in North Carolina.
That's a kind of personal service you can't get with a major airline with hundreds of seats. Nor do you get to sit beside the pilot, if you wish, in an airliner.
Of course, the major airlines don't have you climb in via the wing, either, the way one boards a Cirrus SR22, the sporty, late-model single-propeller planes that ImagineAir flies.
Like most of the SR22's, the one Nance was piloting had three seats available for passengers. He noted that some of ImagineAir's newest SR22's have four seats in addition to the pilot's.
3 as cheaply as 1
Whether an air taxi trip really costs twice as much as an airline flight depends on the destination and the number of people flying. Because with ImagineAir the customer is booking an entire plane instead of one seat, two or three people can fly for the same price as one.
How many people can fly in such a plane is actually limited by their weight plus the weight of their luggage. That's why the company asks your weight after you book a flight.
Costs can be determined, short of actually paying for a flight, through the new "Book Your Flight Here!" widget at www.statesboroairport.com. It books only ImagineAir.
After the "from" and "to" airports and departure and return dates are selected, the widget displays a roundtrip price.
With 10 planes in service, ImagineAir is small enough that it was possible to get the company's CEO, Ben Hamilton, and Vice President of Business Development Lynda Jo Norred on the phone at the same time for an interview.
But that is the largest fleet of Cirrus SR22's now in air taxi service in the United States, Hamilton said. One of the most popular new single-engine planes in recent years, the SR22 has been in production only since 2001, and Norred said that all of ImagineAir's planes date from 2006 forward.
For small planes, these have very advanced avionics.
"A lot of the technology in the aircraft rivals that of modern airliners in terms of what the pilot sees," Hamilton said.
The Cirrus SR22 also has a feature that ImagineAir pilots have never had to use and hope never to use, he said. Called CAPS, it's a ballistic parachute system designed to float the entire airplane to the ground when incapacitated.
But after eight years in business, ImagineAir has flown almost 30,000 flight segments with no accidents.
The company is not attempting to compete with the airlines for long-distance flights. ImagineAir's main niche is to provide an alternative to drives lasting from three to eight hours, Norred said.
"They can get there in from one to two hours instead of having to get on the road," she said. "It's absolutely more relaxed than having to drive."
ImagineAir isn't basing a plane or personnel at the Statesboro airport. Because the pilots fly from airport to airport as needed, the company does not consider them to be based anywhere, Hamilton said.
"The neat thing about our business model is, we can serve any of the 900 airports in our service area, so we've actually been serving the airport there for several years now, but we're just trying to increase our presence," he said.
What is new is the booking widget on the airport's website. The company has been working with the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport and its manager, Kathy Boykin, to have ImagineAir treated more like a base customer "and actually allow us to book flights from the airport," Hamilton said.
"It's really helping turn smaller airports into transportation gateways for their communities," said Norred.
ImagineAir does fly to larger cities, even vast Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta.
But ImagineAir's emphasis is on flying to and from small airports.
Statesboro's airport "really fits the profile of the small airports we're looking for, that is a little bit under-utilized but with a lot of potential," Hamilton said. "We're a lot more interested in airports that meet that profile than we are busy airports."
Owned by the city of Statesboro and Bulloch County and operated by the county government, the Statesboro-Bulloch County airport is equipped for instrument approach and has two runways, 6,000 feet and 4,382 feet long.
Several aviation-related companies have a presence. Headquartered at the airport, the Jumping Place offers skydiving lessons and flights for experienced skydivers. Air Evac EMS Inc. bases a helicopter there to serve the area. MartinAire airlifts parcels for UPS.
MidCoast Aviation Services provides flight training, as do some independent instructors, Boykin said.
Additionally, several corporations with a local presence use the airport, often with turboprop planes and small jets.
Boykin said she believes ImagineAir will be a valuable addition.
She described it as an alternative to driving to a larger airport and the hassles of traffic, checking in and clearing security.
"It's like your own private plane, and you go where you want to go on your own time," Boykin said. "I think it will really help the residents of Bulloch County."