Richard Noble is an interesting character. Known mostly for driving Thrust2 to the world land speed record, and managing the ThrustSSC project that broke the sound barrier, he’s also had a few side projects that have left him seriously jaded about the state of engineering and business innovation in the UK. His most recent attempt was the Farnborough F1 aircraft, designed around the concept of quick-turnaround charter ‘air taxi’ services. It’s apparently a dead project, even their web presence being defunct.

However, as with several of Noble’s ventures, it turns out that he may have been right after all. Or perhaps almost right. is a new American venture to offer charter services, built around a large fleet of the new Eclipse 500 twin-turbofan aircraft. But as Robert Cringley points out – and one wonders if this is what Noble missed – it’s not the aircraft that’s important. It’s the scheduling software.

Managing a fleet of jets with constantly-changing departure and destination points, whilst trying to minimise costs to deliver both maximum occupancy (through customer take-up of the quoted price) and the largest possible margins… it’s the traveling salesman problem writ large. Evidently, it’s taken a couple of Russian PhDs two years to reach the stage where DayJet is willing to launch. Intriguingly, it seems they thought about selling the software to other providers, but in the end realised that the availability of suitable aircraft limits the growth rate of the industry, since there’s a minimum number of aircraft in a given region below which the whole system falls apart. “Our greatest limiting factor turns out to be the rate at which Pratt & Whitney can make jet engines,” says the founder.

Cringley’s worth reading on this one, in part because he posits the obvious next question: what happens if you apply similar software to car pooling schemes? Oh, and he’s quite interesting in the rest of the article, too, about the iTunes Movie Store we all assume is just around the corner, and licensing the iPod.

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