Last week saw the launch of Beacon, a startup airline offering unlimited flights along the NYC to Boston corridor for a monthly fee. Starting with a dozen flights between the two East Coast hub cities per day, Beacon promises a schedule and seating load so dependable that users need only give 15 minutes’ notice before a flight to guarantee their seat. Frequent NYC-BOS commuters, prepare for takeoff.
The service itself seems pretty straightforward. Beacon rents out space for dedicated Beacon concierges at Westchester Airport north of NYC and at Boston’s Logan Airport. Once a subscriber alerts a concierge that they will be on a certain flight, the concierge arranges for taxi travel to the first airport and from the second. Since the passengers are in Beacon’s system, there’s no lengthy security check (aside from a metal detector that Logan Airport requires). Once again, you call at least 15 minutes beforehand, show up, grab a snack, and walk onto your flight. But what does actually doing such a seemingly preposterous thing actually feel like, and how does it work?
In late August, Beacon invited me out with a few other journalists for a trial flight from Westchester Airport, where they’ve built out their hub at a private gate. The smaller airfield is 25 miles north of Yankee Stadium and within spitting distance of the Connecticut border, accessible via the Metro North rail line and a quick cab ride. A back road takes me right up to a small airline gate and I walk in to find couches, coffee, a popcorn machine, and a Beacon-logo’d podium adorned with snacks. This is where a Beacon employee would greet me by name and make sure I was kept comfortable before the next flight, ask me if I needed any travel arranged on the other end, and ask if I had any snack preferences. That’s end-to-end treatment.
For the plane nerds out there, Beacon’s fleet of contracted planes will consist of Beechcraft KA-200/KA-250 and the larger 1900 models, both twin-engined turboprops. Beacon had contracted a KA-250 from Eagle Air for our journo sky jaunt that would be functionally similar to the planes they’ll be using (which they’ve since contracted, spruced up, and painted in “Beacon blue.”) Halfway up the rented plane’s stairs, I realize I’ve never been on a plane so small: at 47 feet, the KA-200 is barely longer than a school bus and just shy of a gray whale.
Beacon’s planes are propeller-driven, not Learjets. While everybody wants to fly in the cool jet, turboprops make more far more sense for Beacon’s model. Taking a jet along the 200-mile NYC-Boston corridor only reduces the 50-minute flight time by about 10% while using far more fuel, upping the cost of the whole flight service.
“Taking a jet on a short route like this is like taking a Ferrari through traffic. You save six minutes and burn two-to-three-to-four times more fuel. Save those jets for trips to Miami or Chicago,” says Beacon CEO and cofounder Wade Eyerly.
Eyerly came with us on the flight to answer questions and share trivia: Ironically, after launching two airlines and spending a few months commuting from New York to Dallas on weekends to see his wife and two boys, he doesn’t like to fly. Still blanching at that split, I was distracted during the plane’s actual takeoff. That’s what you get when ditching jumbo jets for private aircraft: A short spin-up and you’re in the air, no extensive safety briefing necessary.
You also get to sit in a small cabin with only a handful of other guests, businessfolk just like yourself. Beacon wants to encourage its members into a feeling of community, so they post which members are already slated to fly out so members can pick flights with acquaintances. Despite enjoying the luxury of flying with only a handful of other passengers in 15-passenger cabins converted to seven-person “business elite” seating, there is no dedicated stewardess to pass out drinks–it’s a real “pass me a Coke” environment, says Eyerly.
The pilots–there is a pilot and a copilot despite legally only needing one for a flight so small, as Beacon is going out of its way to emphasize safety–took us over the Long Island Sound for around 45 minutes to simulate Beacon’s typical flight length from NYC to Boston. As the plane lined back up for its descent back down to Westchester Airport, I was antsy: any longer and the plane would start feeling a lot smaller. I could imagine a near-three-hour flight to Chicago in a KA-200 would drive me a bit bonkers. But the flight touring over the water between Long Island and Connecticut was smooth. With good conversation and clouds so close out the porthole windows, the flight hardly felt like any time at all.
Of course, Beacon isn’t for everyone: Its target demographic, says Eyerly, makes between $400,000 and $500,000 annually. But folks making less than that likely don’t have the professional need to shuttle between NYC and Boston multiple times per month, or even per week. Lining up multiple round-trip flights ahead of time might not justify Beacon’s base subscription rate of $2,000 per month, but Beacon’s advantages are not just affordability beyond a threshold of flights-per-month. Beacon assures that every flight scheduled will take off, all but guaranteeing a seat on any Beacon flight as long as they give at least 15 minutes’ warning to Beacon’s front desk.
Beacon fills a particular niche for this demographic that needs quick, dependable travel but wants convenience and care. At its current size, Beacon will probably only have 300 to 400 members, signing up fewer than the 500-member maximum their fleet size would allow in order to keep a seat or two free, preserving that final slot for the odd last-minute traveler. That assurance of an empty seat costs Beacon, but that is indicative of the consideration their brand extends to customers. Shore that up with concierge service at each airport that caters to member requests (even to providing members’ preferred snacks at the gate) and you have the dependable, comfortable vibe that Beacon is selling.
“Eighty percent of people only fly once per year, and airlines are 97% perfect. But as soon as your flight becomes a problem, you become the lowest priority,” says Eyerly. Airlines would rather focus on the many customers who are enjoying flawless flights–which is why when you get delayed on the tarmac, you stay delayed for a while as other flights jump you in line. They don’t care if they lose you as a customer. “For them, it’s nothing. They eat the cost. For us, it’s years of relationship gone.”
As I wrote back in February, Beacon is very similar to Eyerly’s first airline startup, Surf Air, that brought the same subscription airline service to the Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor. When bringing the Surf Air model to the NYC-Boston corridor, Eyerly and the other three cofounders applied lessons learned from Surf Air–mainly to rent, not buy the planes, since maintaining planes is pricey and might leave you in the lurch if a plane needs repairs.
Eyerly says Beacon will expand “as fast as we can without sacrificing our service,” and Washington, D.C. is the smart choice for its next destination. But Beacon’s model fills a sweet spot of affordability that only fits within a certain travel radius of about 200 miles. That distance takes about an hour to travel from gate to gate, which allows Beacon to stagger flights to take off every few hours from each location. But to expand to Chicago, a city over 700 miles from NYC, Beacon would have to upsize its logistics and would not be able to guarantee as many flights without a larger operation. This would compromise the service Beacon wants to deliver, says Eyerly.
“Basically, anywhere high-speed rail works, we work,” says Eyerly.
That could include many of the more obscure flight corridors, like NYC to Albany or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Other lower-load destinations like Princeton or Yale might be worth expanding to if there is significant demand for their brand of subscription flights, says Eyerly. In those cases, Beacon might arrange for flights there and back a few days per week (Monday and Thursday perhaps, says Eyerly) to handle a small but dedicated group of members. Members near small airports might end up being the constituency they never expected.
“Twenty-seven airports in this country are completely overbooked, but there are 19,820 airports to land planes. Ninety percent of American airports fly less than a third of their capacity, while 50% run on less than 10% of their capacity. That’s for us,” says Eyerly.
Beacon is definitely expanding to the Hamptons and Nantucket next summer, says Eyerly, and both are already prominent on the Beacon website for next year’s “seasonal” launch. This is obviously attractive for Beacon’s demographic in the Northeast who frequent those areas, but it will also expand the Beacon name into recreational flights. Folks may get signed up for Beacon by their companies to fly back and forth for business, but can then use their memberships to fly out for fun on the weekends.