New tiny jets aim to revolutionize air travel


The image is out of The Jetsons, minus the convertible briefcase: Ultra-small aircraft flying around by the thousands to ferry business people to work.

But to the makers of one new airplane, this is not animation.

Eclipse Aviation Corp.'s Eclipse 500, which received provisional government certification July 27, weighs less than 10,000 pounds, seats up to six and can land at almost any general-use airfield. It flies faster than propeller planes and more efficiently than existing business jets. And at a price of $1.5 million, it costs less than half as much.

That's enticing, industry observers agree, for plenty of business travelers fed up with security lines and crowded planes or unable to get commercial service in their towns, but also unable to afford their own jets or charters.

A handful of prospective air taxi firms have ordered 2,500 of the Eclipse 500s, one of a half dozen or so of the new "very light jets" that manufacturers are expected to produce. The biggest customer, DayJet Corp. of Delray Beach, Fla., has ordered 239 Eclipse 500s for delivery over the next two years and plans to start flying among five cities in Florida by December.

But will a whole new form of commercial air service emerge - one seat, on demand - as DayJet and Eclipse imagine?

DayJet officials envision shuttling passengers on day trips for the same cost as coach airfare, a hotel stay and per diem.

"We've spent a lot of time to understand the market demand, the pain that people experience getting to and from secondary markets," said Traver Gruen-Kennedy, DayJet's vice president of community and government affairs. "Two of our five markets don't even have scheduled service. ... We heard some real horror stories."

Others in the aviation business believe the future of very light jets is a little more down to earth.

They see the jets being sold for use as traditional charters and time-shares, which constitute the bulk of the air taxi business now, or as replacements for the old or high-priced planes of corporate and leisure owners.

That's what Cessna Co., a leader in business jets, plans for its new Mustang, a slightly larger and more expensive plane than the Eclipse. The bulk of the orders are from individual owners, with a small number going to corporate or charter fleets, although Cessna spokeswoman Bree Cox said the company wouldn't oppose a new use.

Richard L. Aboulafia of the Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Va., a consultant for the aircraft industry, said there is room for new taxi service. But he called the ubiquitous air taxi something of a "utopian fantasy."

Aboulafia questioned whether Eclipse could consistently sell as many planes as its business plan calls for - up to 700 annually to make a comfortable profit. He expects the number to be closer to 300.

And the company, which has its headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., will have to share the business with a half-dozen other companies such as Cessna, Honda Motor Co. and Embraer SA, which also plan to manufacture very light jets.

"These are great planes with great technology," he said. "I'm just hard-pressed to see what kind of magic they enable."

Others agree that the market is uncertain, including Edward M. Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents companies that use general aviation aircraft.

He said about 3,000 general aviation planes, including all business jets, are sold annually.

Just a fraction become charters or other kinds of air taxis, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Records show there are nearly 220,000 general aviation planes in service with about 6,200 used as air taxis.

FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said at a recent air show that she expects 5,000 very light jets in service for all uses by 2017.

The Business Aviation Association's Bolen said that the jets - quiet, fuel-efficient and zippy - are "capturing the public's imagination." And a broader taxi industry could result from the sales, but it's not clear how much broader.

"There is a lot of excitement in the aviation community about the new planes," he said. "How exactly it's going to be used, how big is the market, is the subject of a lot of speculation."

An Eclipse spokesman said officials understand that their goals sound sky high, but they believe they have "disruptive technology" - a plane so new and advanced that it will not only sell like no other but create a large new market nationally and internationally. Air taxi businesses, he said, account for two-thirds of their 2,500 planes on order through 2010.

"Analysts," said Andrew Bloom, the spokesman, "are always wrong. They didn't think personal computers or cell phones would sell well at first."

DayJet's Gruen-Kennedy said air taxi services would expand the general aviation market with the vast untapped business traveler who now drives.

They may be more accepting of the plane's lack of bathrooms than the average big corporate chief executive. And they may be less bound by company policies that ban executives from flying on planes certified to fly with only one pilot, although DayJet plans to have two.

Day-trippers would log onto the DayJet portal, say where they want to go and at what time and their return. Costs go down if passengers share the ride. With enough planes in the fleet, one should always be available at the nearby airport.

The new jets require far less runway space to land than larger corporate aircraft and can use any of the nation's 5,600 regional, public use airports, which typically have easy parking and no congestion.

Eclipse's Bloom acknowledged that all of the new planes could burden air traffic controllers, but he said by the time that happens the Federal Aviation Administration will be well into a planned overhaul of the system to make it more efficient. The FAA, however, can't provide a timetable for its new satellite-based system.

A more immediate concern, Bloom said, is safety. A prototype of a rival very light jet crashed last month at an air show, killing two people aboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board reports that most airplane accidents involve general aviation planes. Preliminary data from 2005 show that per 100,000 flight hours, the privately owned general aviation planes reported 6.83 accidents, while those operating as charters or other kinds of air taxis reported accidents at a rate of 2.02 per 100,000 flight hours. In contrast, the rate for major U.S. air carriers was 0.17.

To counter small planes' image as unsafe, Eclipse says it has undergone more testing than required, built in redundant systems and implemented an extensive pilot training program.

But Eclipse and DayJet believe what business travelers care most about is convenience and price.

That's what may turn Ishmael Rentz into a customer. He's president of a $9 million commercial contracting firm, SL Contracting & Remodeling Inc., that limits its work to a two-hour driving radius of its headquarters in Gainesville, Fla., so managers can go to job sites but be home for dinner.

He had been thinking about expanding that market range to two hours' flying time, so he could compete for work in Miami and other cities, but commercial airlines don't fly everywhere he wants to go and buying or chartering flights would be too costly.

"Sometimes, as managers, we just need to be there," he said. "Before we heard about DayJet, we'd been talking about this very service: One seat, on demand. I don't think my experience is unique. There are a lot of companies like mine."


Name: Eclipse 500

1Manufacturer: Eclipse Aviation Corp. of Albuquerque, N.M.

1Type: Very light jet

1Seats: Six, plus two pilots

1Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofans

1Cruise speed: 370 knots

1Maximum altitude: 41,000 feet

1Range: 1,125 nautical miles

1Price: $1.5 million

1Status: Provisional certification from the Federal Aviation Administration

Source: Eclipse Aviation Corp.

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