Friday, February 12, 2016

Air taxi' business sees promise at Westchester County Airport (KHPN), White Plains, New York

Andrew Schmertz, CEO of Hopscotch Air, has seen enough demand in Westchester to add two planes to the fleet and base them primarily out of the county airport.

If Andrew Benerofe forgets something at home before hopping on a flight, he can just run home to get it.

It's not just one of the perks of flying out of Westchester County Airport, just a few minutes from his home in Purchase, it's one of the selling points of flying on Hopscotch Air, an air taxi service that provides travelers with private, on-demand, short-distance flights to regional airports across the Northeast and parts of Canada.

Like the company says on its website: "Get to the airport. Get on the plane. Get to where you’re going."

"Over the last couple of years, I’ve been using Hopscotch pretty exclusively," said Benerofe, who flies all over New England for his work managing summer camps and to see family. “They really are the most convenient and most economic."

While Westchester County Airport is no stranger to smaller-scale flights, travelers like Benerofe are helping Hopscotch carve out a niche by offering flights cheaper than traditional charters (priced in the mid-$2,000 range for a day trip), faster than driving and able to be booked on short notice.

“It’s private aviation at a far more affordable price, and reaching more people than we would consider a traditional charter," said Hopscotch CEO Andrew Schmertz, who noted his company brings in flyers from all over the Lower Hudson Valley and southwestern Connecticut.

His 9-year-old company does 70 percent of its New York area business out of Westchester County Airport and plans to add two planes to its fleet — a 30 percent increase — by May, right before the service gets busy with fliers looking to go on their summer vacations.

Hopscotch's planes seat no more than four passengers, helping to keep costs down compared to their private aviation competitors. Customers who use the service go through a private hangar at the airport, bypassing the cattle call of the main terminal.

The company has no fixed routes. Customers can book a flight online, Schmertz said they ususally hire his planes with two days' notice or even less. Flying into smaller airports often gets travelers closer to their intended destinations, especially vacation destinations like Block Island and Nantucket, which amount for about 75 percent of the company's customers' preferred routes.

“You’ll never hear the world 'charter' out of my mouth as the type of business we are. We’re really an air taxi service," Schmertz said. "Everything about it matches what a taxi is, except it doesn’t pull up to your house. It pulls up pretty close to your house.”

Brett Snyder, who covers the airline industry on The Cranky Flier blog, believes the market for an air taxi-style service is generally confined to places where people can pay.

“The convenience factor is huge. If you live in Westchester and you want to go to Martha’s Vineyard, do you really want to sit in traffic or go to JFK (airport)? It’s a pain, right?” Snyder said. “The problem is, the cost factor is still there."

“It’s a niche... but it’s a niche that can work," he added.

Air taxi services can also help solve the problem of ensuring smaller markets retain air travel links, Snyder said.

Many airlines have begun pulling out of smaller airports, and Westchester is no different. According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of flights taking off and landing there has dropped from nearly 184,000 in 2007 to 144,634 last year.

Westchester gets a revenue cut from every commercial plane that takes off and leaves.

"The more flights that come in and out of Westchester is good for us,” said county spokesman Ned McCormack. “Any extra business that they bring there will be additional revenue for us.”

For Benerofe, the Hopscotch customer, anything that lets him stay away from the area's major airports — JFK, LaGuardia or Newark — is welcome.

“It’s just a nice environment and it’s a nice atmosphere to be in when you’re flying," he said. "It’s very relaxed."

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