Beacon's maiden flight started with the co-captain on his knees in the snug cabin of a Pilatus PC-12, explaining how to exit the plane in the case of an emergency. It ended with me on my knees wishing I had never flown in the first place.
Beacon is a subscription flight service co-founded by Wade Eyerly, a Russian-speaking former Defense Intelligence Agency employee and Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign staffer who founded the California-based Surf Air. The company, Eyerly explained on a crystal-clear spring morning on the flight out to Boston from White Plains, New York, would work like the Netflix DVD service, but for private flights.
Customers will pay a flat $2,000 monthly membership fee, which gets them as many flights as they want between White Plains and Boston (there will also be seasonal service to Nantucket and the Hamptons). Customers can book up to four flights a time, but they can fly as much as they want. The restriction on booking is only to make sure people don't book blocks of flights and then pick one to fly on.
As the hassles of air travel increase — long security lines, overbooked flights, scarce overhead bins — Beacon is one of a handful of companies trying to fill the gap between business class and corporate jets. For New York to Boston, Eyerly says, three flights a month is when a subscription starts to make sense logistically and financially.
Flights can be booked through a website or, eventually, the mobile app (whose layout, fonts, and colors are reminiscent of Uber). The service is squarely pitched at corporations and high-earning individuals, with incomes of around $400,000 to $500,000.
Our Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 comfortably seats (seats, you can't really stand) six. "This is a Lexus," Eyerly says, "it's a nice sedan, not a Ferrari; it's a strong, great plane."
We were warned about "a little bit of light turbulence," despite the very clear skies above.
Eyerly tells his small audience about the pains of being a Cheney advance staffer on the 2004 campaign — as a military-aged male buying one-way tickets, he was forced to constantly endure secondary screening. And so Beacon promises to remove the "pain points" of flying, like having to wait in long security lines and do exhaustive comparison shopping for flights. He says this as I'm about to endure the most painful flight of my life.
"I love turbulence," says one of the other passengers, a Celine-bag-toting lifestyle and travel blogger. Her friend sitting across from her will later say, "I am not going to yak on a white dress." Me neither.
A few minutes into the flight, Eyerly explains that small and big planes experience about the same amount of turbulence — after all, they're small metal cans in a very big sky — but it takes smaller planes longer to get through it. Powered by a single engine, I'm not at all reassured as we bounce above Connecticut.
So why should someone who can't afford their own private jet, or fractional ownership of one through NetJets, want to roll, pitch, and yaw for the 40 minutes it takes to get from New York to Boston? Eyerly says it's mostly time and convenience.
The few hours you can save on both ends by not having to deal with security or wait on the tarmac, are the difference between coaching a son's basketball game or not. "When you can buy back an hour each way, that's money well-spent."
After a choppy start, it takes us around 10 minutes to stabilize, and I'm downing shrink-wrapped Altoids whenever I'm not gripping the bottom of my chair or the inside casing of the window, hoping to stabilize myself in an unstable aluminum tube.
Following its launch, Beacon plans to expand service to Martha's Vineyard and Washington, D.C.; what Eyerly calls the company's version 2.0. He says that farther destinations, like Miami, won't be the most efficient routes for planes they use. "I really like this plane for an hour."
Our flight is scheduled for under 40 minutes.
When I press him on the value of a $2,000 subscription, he stresses the time savings again, but moves onto another selling point: Because the plane flies at a lower altitude and requires less pressurization, "you will feel better getting off," unlike even relatively short commercial flights that leave many feeling wiped out.
He's partially right. I have never felt the way I did when I got off this flight.
The other part of the company's pitch is that by putting wealthy fliers in close proximity to each other on regular short flights, Beacon will work a little bit like an exclusive members club. In a past interview with BuzzFeed News, Eyerly described his service as being like Soho House, the network of social clubs.
Eyerly told me that "it's like a country club," where you can rub shoulders with fellow CEOs, executives, and Important People. "We're not a budget play for all people," he said. "I'm not going to beat the Chinatown bus."
A particularly rude jolt knocks about seven Altoids out of my tin, and there's no obvious place to discard them. My hands are clammy and I'm tightly gripping the remaining mints, which are melting into my skin, giving my right hand a slightly bluish tinge. It apparently complements my face, as several Beacon employees will soon tell me I'm looking green. About every 30 seconds, it feels like an elevator is dropping several floors, and there's no reason to believe it's going to get better.
My distress becomes increasingly obvious and my fellow passengers ask me if I get carsick. (I have, sometimes, but never like this.) Eyerly then tells us that the plane could glide for 30 miles if the engines cut out. But I don't fear this flight being suddenly cut short. I fear it continuing.
I try to look out the front of the plane, because I've always been told that if you can anticipate movement, you'll feel better. But there are no hairpin turns or bumpy roads to steel myself against. My adversary is invisible pockets of air, and they can't be seen on the horizon.
"This plane lands so soft," Eyerly says. And it's true: Despite being jostled side to side on our descent, I barely notice that we've hit the tarmac. He later tells me that it was in the top 3% of turbulent flights.
The Altoids are now fully embedded into my right hand, and even if I had somewhere to throw them away, I'm worried that I can't easily get them fully unstuck. One of the pilots says later that "clear and sunny is indicative of an unstable air mass."
For the only time in my life, I dread clear, warm weather.
Eyerly says that the way back should be better: We had to take a particularly bumpy descent over the water, and this time, we'll be able to just rise up through it.
We spend about half an hour lounging in Boston Logan's terminal for private planes, which Eyerly describes as a hotel lobby with a gas station attached to it. About half a dozen of Beacon's operational and sales staff were there to chat with us, but I mostly stick to myself, sipping on a Smart Water knockoff and finding carbonation salvation in a San Pellegrino.
Eyerly tells us again that the flight back should be better.
But soon enough, I feel like I need to jump out of my chair to keep my stomach from flying out of my throat.
There's no real conversation on the way back. I catch a few minutes of sleep and focus on my breathing, but on the descent I am wide awake, trying to grab on to what I can. I hear a siren from the cockpit as we roll a bit too far. It could just as well be coming from my stomach.
We hit the ground — again, very smoothly — but all I can think about are two things I've been told about the plane.
One: There are airsickness bags, and two: I don't want to use the bathroom. Before we first took off, a Beacon employee asked me if I "knew about the bathroom situation." No, I didn't. "There is a bathroom on the plane, but you probably don't want to use it," the employee said.
While Eyerly is scrambling, looking behind the back of the seats for an airsickness bag, I think of Chekhov's bathroom. I rush forward, and Eyerly hastily constructs the barrier that's supposed to to protect my privacy, but everyone knows what's about to happen.
On my knees, I lift up the black plastic block covering up the metal hole just a few inches deep, and hope it can handle what I'm about to hurl at it. It does, and I can't make eye contact with my fellow passengers again.
I should have taken the bus.