Flying in a Cirrus SR22-GTS is a lot like riding in a car--that is, if your car could go airborne and cruise at about 200 miles an hour. 

Okay, so maybe it's not like riding in a car. But that's not stopping Benjamin Hamilton from making the comparison. He's the co-founder and CEO of Atlanta-based air taxi service ImagineAir, which wants to do as much for the aviation industry as Uber did for car travel.

"We started with the idea that we could get millions of road travelers off the highway and into the sky," says Hamilton, 33, who hatched the idea for the company in 2005 with Georgia Tech classmate and ImagineAir co-founder Aaron Sohacki.

At the time, Hamilton and Sohacki reasoned, it should be faster and more convenient to fly than to drive, especially given the thousands of tiny, under-utilized regional airports across the United States. But few people did.

It's no secret that, with security lines, baggage fees, and potential delays, commercial flights can be a hassle, and driving long distances is obviously no better. The company, which offers flights that cost on average around $1,200, has a long way to go before it truly convinces people that private air travel is the way of the future. But it is making progress. 

Since 2012, the company's revenue has grown nearly 980 percent to $2.8 million in 2015--helping it secure the No. 390th spot on this year's Inc. 5000. ImagineAir has also expanded geographically, servicing more than 1,000 regional airports in the eastern United States. It's also now eyeing flight paths west of the Mississippi.

Before Takeoff

Hamilton and Sohacki met as flight instructors at Georgia Tech's Yellow Jacket Flying Club. The two sophomores became fast friends--and co-pilots--and after graduating in 2005, they knew they wanted to go into business together.

They also wanted to share their love of small plane travel with a wider audience. Hamilton had known how to fly since before he could drive a car, and their shared vision was a company that could popularize the kind of private plane travel they both loved. But aside from multi-millionaire businessmen and rock stars--who preferred more expensive private jets to planes like the Cirrus--people didn't see private, on-demand air travel as an option.

"Flying your average chartered jet starts around $7,500," says Hamilton. "We took for granted that you could fly 200 miles, and it really didn't have to cost that. We wanted to try it with more affordable planes that had great safety features, and to do something really scalable."

Turbulence Ahead

Though encouraging, acceptance has hardly been widespread. "Trying to do something new in aviation is not an easy thing," says Hamilton. "It's a very traditional world, and our idea was not something that a lot of people in the industry saw as viable."

It'll continue to be a challenge, adds Hamilton. (Sohacki left the company in 2011.) Scaling the business with its high overhead costs--each aircraft costs ImagineAir around $700,000--has been tough. But it's also crucial to Hamilton's mission.

The more ImagineAir grows, the better it'll get at optimizing its flight paths, he says. That, in turn, will help drive the price point down and attract more customers. Hamilton is hopeful he'll soon get the company's average ticket price to triple digits.  

"Getting people to buy into this vision is a lot easier now that we're gaining traction," says Hamilton. The only downside? He wishes he could spend more time in the sky and less in the boardroom. "I'm a pilot at heart."

Published on: Sep 27, 2016