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Short-hop air service will offer a way to beat traffic

Times Staff Writer

With airlines cutting back on flights and losing money by the billions, it may not seem like the right time to be starting one. But a former dot-com entrepreneur believes some traffic-weary Southern Californians are ready for a new way to get around.

A novel air service, starting with just four propeller planes, will begin later next month shuttling passengers between dozens of airports, stretching from Oxnard to San Diego, in what it calls “ultra-short-haul” service.

Harking back to the early days of aviation when pilots in biplanes picked up passengers on farm fields, the flights on Miwok Airways are not scheduled. They fly on demand and can take off from any of the more than three dozen airstrips in the region.

Passengers can set their own flight time and then be flown in four-seat Cirrus propeller planes with fares as low as $82 one way. The fare will depend on the distance between airports and on how many people are sharing the plane, rising to more than $300 if no other passengers are on the plane. The plane can seat three paying passengers.

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By comparison, chartering a plane can cost more than $600 an hour.

“You can travel like a rock star for $82,” said Gad Barnea, a former Israeli Air Force air traffic controller and a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who has spent nearly three years putting the company together.

An avid hiker, Barnea named the company after trails left by Miwok Indians in Yosemite and elsewhere.

“We’re offering on-demand air travel for an economy-class ticket,” he said.

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For now the service is limited to trips within the region -- the longest is 150 miles from Oxnard to Palm Springs -- so the service is mainly targeted at business travelers who are looking for alternatives to driving on congested Southern California roads.

“This makes a whole lot of sense,” said Preston McAfee, a Caltech economics professor who has analyzed Miwok’s business plan. “It’s not competition to the airlines but a competitor to driving.”

For instance, McAfee said, an attorney in Santa Monica who has a court deposition in San Diego could either fly from Los Angeles International Airport or drive the 130-mile route. Either way, the travel time could range from two to four hours depending on road and airport conditions.

By flying Miwok from Santa Monica airport, travel time can be reduced by an hour, door to door, and the fare would not be more than what the big airlines charge for economy seats on flights from LAX to San Diego. The air service is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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“It’s never going to be cheaper than driving without the value of time, but with the time savings, it’s a killer application,” McAfee said.

As a demonstration, Barnea flew me from Santa Monica to John Wayne International Airport in Orange County on Wednesday.

At the airport, I was able to park 100 feet from the plane and was seated in the back seat of the aircraft in about five minutes. The plane, a Cirrus SR22, felt cramped, but there was still elbow room between me and Barnea, who took the other back seat.

There was enough room in the storage bin behind the seats to hold two small pieces of luggage and a golf bag. A bag less than 20 pounds is free, but there is a $15 fee if it weighs more than that. Passengers in a full plane can’t carry more than 40 pounds of luggage each.

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Before departing, the pilot gave quick instructions on pulling the emergency handle for the aircraft’s parachute -- in case everyone else on board became incapacitated. The 55-foot parachute, a standard on the Cirrus plane, deploys from behind the cockpit and brings the aircraft down to the ground with an impact described as equivalent to jumping off a 10-foot ladder.

Within 15 minutes after I arrived at the airport, the plane was in the air, flying directly over the San Diego Freeway, where southbound traffic was bumper to bumper. Less than 20 minutes later, we were at John Wayne Airport, about to get into a rental car at a private terminal.

The flight, with a cruising speed of 200 miles an hour at 4,500 feet, was smooth and provided a panoramic view of the Los Angeles Basin. During the flight the pilot advised passengers that she could land the plane at any time if any of us felt sick. The plane passed near four airports -- LAX, Hawthorne, Torrance and Long Beach, any of which could have been used for landing.

It had taken all of about 35 minutes, from parking the car at Santa Monica Airport to getting into a rental car at John Wayne Airport. Earlier in the day, it took me one hour and 30 minutes to drive from John Wayne Airport to Santa Monica, navigating past an accident and three traffic choke points.

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The fare for saving nearly an hour of travel time and much aggravation was $95 one way.

Under a computer algorithm that Barnea developed for Miwok’s booking system, fares change constantly, reflecting the number of passengers on the flight, the distance of the route, the time of day when demand is the strongest and how the plane would have to be repositioned to pick up the next set of passengers.

A flight from a Los Angeles-area airport -- passengers can pick the most convenient one -- to a San Diego-area airport can range from about $110 one way to $338. A passenger who initially booked a flight for $338 would pay $110 if two other people eventually got on the same flight.

The online booking system is similar to EBay, McAfee said, with Miwok acting as an intermediary between the passenger and an airplane operator. Miwok itself doesn’t operate the airplanes but contracts the work to aircraft charter companies that fly Cirrus planes. Travelers can begin booking flights in mid-October.

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The company has lined up an operator and is in talks with five others. For the start-up, Miwok will have four planes, each capable of handling five flights a day. In all, the planes will be able to pick up and drop off passengers at 40 airports in the region, Barnea said.

If the Southern California market is successful, Barnea envisions starting up the service in the Bay Area and possibly in the Chicago and New York areas.

Eventually, the service areas could be connected by longer-range jet planes, ultimately creating a national carrier.

“We want to focus on the very short-haul market. It’s the most lucrative and the most under-served,” Barnea said. “We’ll have limited capacity initially, but if the demand is way beyond, it’s easy for us to get additional airplanes.”

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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A trip from Santa Monica

Miwok Airways hopes to provide a more efficient alternative to traveling within Southern California. Here are some comparisons of various modes of travel for a Santa Monica resident planning a trip to San Diego on Monday. Prices represent last-minute fares, and distances don’t include travel to a train station or airport.

*--* Mode Cost Trip length Amtrak $29 one way 2 hours and 50 minutes (L.A. Union Station) American, United $515-$517 one way 55 minutes and Alaska airlines (LAX) nonstop Miwok Airways About $110 to $338 one way, 40 minutes Santa Monica depending on number of passengers Airport) Personal car Mileage cost at 50.5 cents a mile: 2 hours 13 minutes to 3 hours (Santa Monica) $67.67 (134 miles) 10 minutes, depending on traffic *--*

Sources: Miwok, airlines, Amtrak, Internal Revenue Service and Google Maps

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How to book on Miwok

Booking a flight on Miwok Airways will be similar to reserving a taxicab but with a twist -- the ability to tap into an Internet social network.

When the reservation system goes online in mid-October, registered passengers will first see a screen with a list of flights that others have already booked and that have seats available.

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Getting on someone else’s booked flight can be much cheaper, $110 one way for each passenger when there are three compared with more than $300 with just one passenger flying from Los Angeles to San Diego. You can also check who’s on the flight.

If the booked time doesn’t work, you can reserve your own flight time with the hope that others will join you. You can either wait or message others in the Facebook social website, which is linked to the Miwok site, asking them to take the flight with you.

If you prefer privacy, you can block the flight from being booked by anyone else, but you’d have to pay the higher, single-passenger fare.

-- Peter Pae

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