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Outsiders view VLJs as a revolution - but will it be? There’s an air race going on over America – but not the annual ‘crankin’ and bankin’ of the roarin’’ racers held each year at Reno. This is a race to the starting gate – and the contenders are all Very Light Jets. As you know- the VLJ story is a long-running saga dating back nearly a decade and already littered with a few wrecks of failed programs. Industry handicappers focus these days on the Trifecta Finish ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st October 2006
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Outsiders view VLJs as a revolution - but will it be?

There’s an air race going on over America – but not the annual ‘crankin’ and bankin’ of the roarin’’ racers held each year at Reno. This is a race to the starting gate – and the contenders are all Very Light Jets. As you know- the VLJ story is a long-running saga dating back nearly a decade and already littered with a few wrecks of failed programs.

Industry handicappers focus these days on the Trifecta Finish looming. Ahead in the homestretch was Eclipse- which labored hard to advance the provisional certification announced at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh to full flying authority – and full utility for its 2-500 buyers. But- Cessna ultimately passed Eclipse five weeks later when the FAA awarded full approval to Cessna’s new Citation Mustang on September 8th.

Undaunted by the lead change- Eclipse still looks like it was going to edge out Cessna in terms of starting deliveries this year- since Cessna has reaffirmed its plans to make initial Mustang deliveries after the start of 2007.

Meanwhile- Adam Aircraft- whose A700 once looked like a close contender for third- lagged in the home stretch and may not reach the starting gate until 2007. While still likely to place third- how far into the new year was less clear- for both certification and initial deliveries.

Farther back in the race are no less than seven other companies with their own VLJ designs. It is- to anyone who follows business aviation- a familiar race after nearly 10 years in the making.

From the outside- however- the news of an impending revolution in business and personal travel seems to carry impact equal to the news of a cancer cure or an effective Laser weapon. It’s difficult these days to turn a page in a business publication and not hear somewhat breathless pronouncements about the new VLJ category and the presumed revolution it’s predicted to be ready to spawn.

In some ways- it harkens back to the 1950s and 1960s and all those excited pronouncements about the future of aviation – the flying cars- backyard launch pads and skyways filled with people commuting and traveling George Jetson-style.

In many ways- these wide-eyed comments reflect the rhetoric accompanying the development in VLJs – the statements of the executives behind the programs. We’ve all heard and read the range of these comments- from the tame 'a natural next step in the progression of business travel' to the more hyperbolic- 'We’re revolutionizing how people fly.'

So- rather than revisit the old sources for new ways of saying the same old things – after all- no one is abandoning what’s worked rhetorically – and with the racers nearing the starting gate and consumers approaching their first opportunity to weigh in and render their real-world judgments- we thought it a good time to examine how the world outside aviation views this revolution in small jets.

These excerpts from recent articles represent only the tip of the iceberg- if you will. Look closely enough and you’d think the VLJ had already rewritten the book on air travel – rather than being only close to the starting point of testing its potential against the harsh realities of the real world.

So read and reflect on where we could be a year from now- as we approach what will be the 60th NBAA convention in 2007.

From Forbes’ Rich Karlgaard & 'Private Jet Boom':
'Jet charter bookings in the U.K. shot up 40% for the week following the foiled airliner bomb plot in London. Sales worldwide of private planes rose 35% in the first half of 2006 to a record $9 billion. Good news for Gulfstream and Cessna is bad news for the airlines. The number of passengers in the U.S. paying for first-class- business-class and full-price economy airfares has halved in the past five years- from 18% to 9%- says the Velocity Group- an aviation consultancy. The number of Mr. Bigs boarding their own magic carpets now equals one-third of all the premium-fare-paying passengers using the U.S. airline system.

'That leaves two-thirds of us 'premium' business travelers who- when being frisked for tiny tubes of toothpaste- don't feel so premium. But now there's hope for us poor suckers: small jets and air taxis. Hallelujah - free at last.'

Free at last? Possibly...
In reality- it remains to be seen whether the likes of POGO- DayJet and others can effectively operate a new model in on-demand air travel using the low costs of VLJ.

The theory is the low acquisition and operating costs of VLJs lends them to capturing executive travelers – those most prone to paying full fare in coach- business and first class – and giving them a lower-cost alternative that - not coincidentally - also lets them bypass the hassles of removing their shoes for screening- pulling their laptops out of their cases and succumbing to multiple 'random' checks between the ticket counter and the jetway.

Sure- the per-mile numbers are attractive – below $1.75 per mile for some of the VLJs. But low costs alone do not make a profitable air-taxi operation. There’s a raft of variables- from scheduling- dead-heading- and the reality that many of the airports customers will want to fly to won’t be capable of supporting Instrument operations until the FAA gets them a WAAS-supported GPS approach procedure.

No doubt- the idea has appeal. Bound to be an added attraction is the prospect of bypassing the detested hub-and-spoke system that forces passengers to add hours and hundreds of miles to an otherwise relatively short trip. In a business environment where time is money- premium pricing for premium travel times could well carry the day.

There’s no question- the idea – a vision of Eclipse’s Vern Raburn – is a driving force in the vast order backlogs for the VLJs. Eclipse alone lays claim to 2-500 – a large percentage destined for such air-taxi service; Embraer just picked up 50 for its Phenom; Adam has had its share- as have others. Add them all up- and VLJs account for a backlog of about 4-000 airplanes – all yet to be delivered- and a large number of them are booked for these new on-demand- point-to-point- low-cost air-taxi start-ups.

Even if the idea isn’t the panacea it’s hoped to be- all those units will make for some attractive discount pricing for the pre-owned plane purchaser.

From Travel & Leisure Golf’s Joe Passov: 'The Golf Jet':
'Quite possibly the perfect private plane for flying foursomes.

'Greg Gates was like a kid at Christmas. In fact- he was at his country club's holiday party- quietly enjoying an eggnog- when he first heard the news that quickly had him quivering with glee. His pal Bob Cecka- a longtime Delta Airlines pilot- had happened upon a new type of aircraft that he thought would revolutionize flying. He mentioned his find to Gates- a fellow member at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale- Arizona- and any talk of sugarplums and fairies promptly ceased. In that instant- Gates knew exactly what he wanted for Christmas: an Eclipse 500. He grasped that if what Cecka said was true about the innovative design and astonishingly low price point- he could travel hassle-free to every great North American golf course he ever wanted to play.'

For the highly motivated or the financially fortunate (but not filthy rich)- the prospect of a million-dollar jet unleashed the imagination- the potential of turning what-if daydreams into let’s-go-do-it realities.

Evidence abounds that general aviation overall and business aviation- to its own extent- are beneficiaries of the continuing disenchantment with commercial airline travel. Piston manufacturers such as Cessna and Cirrus report solid sales growth – and many of their recent customers are pilots of relative new vintage.

Many of these buyers are individuals with incomes to support $400-000 airplanes and the personal wherewithal to earn a Private Pilot certificate and the instrument rating needed to make the airplane practical and reliable in a wide variety of weather. If they never have to cross an airliner threshold again- they’ll be happy travelers.

And as history has shown time and again- people who enter aviation by earning a license and buying a new airplane often move up in aircraft size and performance until they reach the limits of their finances or skills.

With the advent of jets costing less than $1.5 million- the upper limit for those fortunates now encompasses the possibility of owning and flying their own jet – a prospect out of reach when the entry price started at the $4.2 million of the former entry-level leader- Cessna’s wildly successful CJ1.

From Travel Weekly’s Andrew Compart in:
Microjet concept raises questions at aviation event
'Federal transportation officials are making a very big deal about a very small plane.

'Why? Because the aircraft in question- the Eclipse 500- is one of a new breed of very light aircraft that the Transportation Dept. and Federal Aviation Administration believe could have a significant impact on future airline travel in the U.S.

'Thousands of new jets like this are going to redefine the way Americans travel- help cut airport congestion and drive economic growth in cities and towns across the country that today only dream of commercial air service-' Maria Cino- the Transportation Dept.’s acting secretary- declared in late July at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture Oshkosh event in Oshkosh- Wis.'

And this opens up the other area of debate whenever VLJs are the subject among aviation insiders – and- increasingly- well-traveled- airline-savvy outsiders: How’s the Air Traffic Control system going to cope with thousands of additional flights connecting thousands of airports not currently used for airline travel?

The debate is a key one within the Federal Aviation Administration as the agency grapples with the financial- technological and human aspects of moving ATC to the next level – something they hope to be representative of the 21st Century… before the century ends.

Truth is- the FAA has the unenviable task of trying to read the tea leaves from a cup not yet brewed. Despite the bulging order backlogs- no one can say for sure yet just how much these new little jets will be used. No one seems to anticipate a world in which VLJs will compete for landing space at the nation’s top 500 airports- the ones around which the ATC system is predominantly designed.

Instead- there’s a body of thought that predicts VLJs will actually relieve some of the strain on the busiest airports by relieving the airlines of their most profitable passengers. Others- while concurring in this theory- don’t see traffic falling as much as ticket prices plunging as airlines try to attract budget passengers to fill those now empty- formerly full-fare seats.

But most observers – even outside aviation – grasp the potential benefit of small jets able to fly from small airport to small airport far from the congested airspace of the air-carrier airports. And since these little jets offer their greatest efficiencies at the same altitudes as larger business jets and airliners- en route centers- particularly- could be busier than ever.

The best we can all hope for is a smooth- seamless- low-cost transition from today’s radar-dependent environment to that of Automated Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast- or ADS-B. With each aircraft able to uplink its altitude- speed and flight direction to ATC and other aircraft- the need for radar shrinks and the coverage area expands. And with the Wide Area Augmentation System making GPS as accurate as an ILS- airports no longer will need expensive- sensitive ILS systems to provide all-weather access.

If VLJs take off as predicted by their proponents- air traffic would explode in double-digit growth rates. But even if VLJs stumble and fulfill only a fraction of their predicted potential- air traffic is still headed up.

The growth rates in airline traffic and the expanding corporate aircraft fleet all but guarantee more traffic. And that means the FAA has its work cut out either way – but particularly in human terms- as a bubble of retirement-eligible controllers approaches in numbers as high as 11-000 over the next decade.

Revolutions are never clean or painless
Progress marches on. Human history proves that adage again and again- with the looming advent of no fewer than 10 VLJs in development and another three to four Personal Jets (PJs) coming in-trail. To what degree this revolution impacts business aviation we won’t fully see for another three to five years.

Airlines want to change ATC funding and control to offset the impact of business and personal aviation. Business and personal pilots want the airlines to remember the system was designed for them; we can do a lot without ATC or the airlines. The argument won’t be clean or easy to resolve.

The VLJ proponents see nothing short of a complete revolution; the doubters see another flash in the pan that will have only minimal long-term impact – 'People won’t be comfortable in those little jets'- one marketing executive told me with the greatest sincerity.

The reality- when we can finally recognize it- will likely fall somewhere in between. But let no one doubt that the VLJ and PJ will inalterably change the landscape.

The most we can do is to make sure the landscape gives them room to rise to their own potential and welcome these newcomers as another new wave of aviation users.

After all- the more of us there are using the system- the harder we are to ignore – and the more we collectively benefit from lower facility costs- better technology and smarter solutions… if- that is- we as a community are as smart in adapting to these new wings as the engineers were in creating them.

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