“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
Exit: Rubbing Elbows With Your Pilot
One charter operator is offering passengers an unusual seating choice: cabin or cockpit.
Hopscotch Air, a small charter operator that uses five-seat single-engine Cirrus light airplanes, just celebrated its fifth anniversary, a notable accomplishment in this economy. The company—which focuses on short flights, primarily within a 300-mile radius of New York City—serves destinations throughout New England and as far south and west as Washington, D.C., and most of Ohio.
One of Hopscotch Air’s selling points is that you can ride up front, next to the pilot, if you want to. I think that’s a significant reason for the company’s continued marketing success: embracing the image of an uber taxicab—one that can get you from just outside New York City to Nantucket in an hour and a half—rather than trying to pretend to be flying you in a much larger “luxury jet.” The company assumes its customers will acknowledge that the inside makes them feel as if they’re sitting in a 7-series BMW, not an Upper East Side Manhattan penthouse.
In the video promo for Hopscotch Air, one of the pilots describes how he enjoys getting to know the passengers who sit right next to him. That comment got me thinking. The last message you’d hear from a traditional charter operator is, “You’ll be rubbing elbows with the pilot.” To some people, that’d be like hearing a tree surgeon say, “I just love being able to chat with my customers while I work.”
No, most passengers want to glimpse their pilots only twice—first, as they carefully examine the airplane before takeoff; and then, after a smooth, on-time landing, as they stand by the cabin door and say goodbye. In between, passengers prefer to imagine their pilots skillfully flipping switches, monitoring instruments and saying “roger” and “niner.” At Hopscotch Air, you can sit in one of the three back seats if you want to, of course. But according to the company, many repeat customers learn to love the view out the big window up front. And it’s not just for pilot wannabes. For some people who tend to be uneasy about flying in such a small airplane, it’s comforting to be able to listen in with the pilot’s conversations with air traffic control—understanding that in the unlikely event anything should go amiss, they’ll be among the first to know. After a trip or two, any residual fear of flying usually melts away.
As a pilot of small airplanes, I have to adjust my thinking to imagine not wanting to sit up front. I wondered how I could identify with people who prefer the back. Then I got it. Every once in a while, I get to ride to an airport with a limo service. As much as I love cars, I have no desire to sit up front with the limo driver. Especially with a zero-dark-thirty departure, I usually slide into travel mode the minute the door slams, focused on the next steps for ensuring an uneventful trip or on catching up on last-minute prep work. Other times, I simply cherish the chance to enjoy the solitude or to snooze. So I can see how business travelers who feel the same way would want to ride in the back of a Cirrus, or in the main cabin of a business jet.
Still, I’m really glad Hopscotch Air encourages its paying fares to enjoy the view from the very front row. It’s not for everyone, but those who try it gain a better understanding of why we pilots feel so passionately about what we do. Mark Phelps is a freelance writer and private pilot.