'Uber of private jets' sets up in Fargo thanks to business-friendly government, helpful local FAA office
FARGO—A company that describes itself as the "Uber of private jets" could've set up anywhere, and the founders chose Fargo.
TapJets Inc., which launched in April 2016, is the only company in the world that offers instant flight booking through an app. Customers can hail a jet to pick them up at their nearest airport in as little as an hour and fly them to their destination of choice within the contiguous United States.
Rather than build up a large fleet of its own jets, the company uses algorithms to find the closest charter jet and assign the trip to other charter operators. If another company can't take the request, TapJets has five jets of its own to pick up the flight.
Because the company's software-heavy operation doesn't require big offices, CEO Eugene Kesselman said it could've set up anywhere, but Fargo had a couple things in its favor.
Small private jet flights represent a $20 billion industry in the U.S., he said, and there are about 4,000 to 5,000 such flights a month. For a company with just a few aircraft, launching in a major metropolitan area with an unending demand for flights "would've been disastrous."
Fargo worked because it has fewer regional flights, ensuring TapJets won't overextend itself. But he said they could've just as well picked Bozeman, Mont., or settled in New Hampshire.
Kesselman said he was impressed by this "very aviation-progressive region," including the capabilities of Fargo Jet Center. TapJets headquarters is in a small office space at 3802 20th St. N., which is leased from Fargo Jet Center.
He also liked the cooperative nature of local and state officials here.
"We have met people in Fargo that have the attitude of, 'How can we help you?' rather than, 'How can we say no?' " he said.
Director of Operations Bob Klumb said the local Federal Aviation Administration office also made a good impression. Local officials were "proactive" and responsive as the startup sought its FAA operating certificate, he said, while they knew they'd have to wait years in some other communities.
"Fargo really recognized that it was our best interest for them to be efficient with getting that application into a certificate," he said. "They were just very helpful, very down-to-earth in all regards."
Nick Eull, manager of Fargo's FAA flight standards district office, said the team was just doing its job.
"What we did is what we do for everybody who comes to FAA," he said. "If you meet the guidelines or requirements, then we go through and we do what we're supposed to do."
Line Services Manager Jeremy Sobolik said Fargo Jet Center wouldn't give office space to a competitor, but the business model of TapJets means it won't conflict.
The Fargo market isn't the target market for TapJets because its private flights often take off from larger cities and fly to other metropolitan areas, he said. Fargo Jet Center also probably wouldn't participate as a charter operator for TapJets flights because the Fargo fleet is booked for roundtrip flights, not one-way trips.
"When he explained it that way to us, this can be somewhat of a symbiotic relationship," Sobolik said.
Kesselman said TapJets caters to people who need to go somewhere quickly, whether it's an important business meeting or a special event. It operates like Uber, the ride-hailing taxi service that dispatches nearby drivers and focuses on speed.
Since launching, Kesselman said the company has noticed some interesting trends. Very few people use the service for flights planned far in advance, and most requests come within hours of the desired flight.
The price varies from $1,800 per hour for a smaller aircraft to more than $10,000 per hour for larger jets.
TapJets has about 6,000 subscribers, gaining about 500 users a month. For now, it only offers flights within the contiguous 48 states, but Kesselman said he expects to be able to fly to Canada, Mexico, Cuba and some other North American destinations by the end of the year.
Vice President of Sales Stephanie Rodriguez said the company gets busy on Thursdays, and holidays and special events tend to cause a spike in requests. They noticed a boost in flights shortly before and after the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby, and Kesselman joked the company made so many flights to Aspen for winter vacations that its pilots could "fly to Aspen with our eyes closed now."
But the busiest days tend are related to major dog shows around the country, he said, with passengers that include humans and canines alike.
"We're really big on dog travels," he said.