Air taxi an upgrade for the private jet set

In a hangar outside Boston sits a small, sleek jet waiting for final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to take to the skies with paying passengers.

It's the first Very Light Jet (VLJ) delivered in New England, and Linear Air, a start-up air taxi and charter service, hopes it will be the start of an aviation revolution.

VLJs are light, powerful, and affordable compared with current corporate jets. Advocates believe that with engines originally designed for cruise missiles, sleek exteriors of light carbon-fiber composite, and the latest in avionics they will usher in an era of affordable, on-demand air taxi service. The goal: Pay the price of a full-fare coach ticket and, instead of the hassle of going to a major airport and waiting in check-in and security lines, you arrive at a small airport five minutes before takeoff and are ushered into a small, comfortable jet that delivers you directly to your destination.

Sounds great, enough to lure millions of dollars in investments. But skeptics doubt the demand exists to support large-scale air taxi services. These powerful, little fuel-efficient jets, they say, may prove to be nothing more than dotcoms with wings -a great innovation that brings jet flight to a relatively small number of private pilots.

Still others worry that if VLJs do take off, they'll crowd the already-congested air space, making the record delays of this summer look good by comparison.

Six companies plan to manufacture VLJs, banking that air taxi service will succeed. Linear Air has ordered a total of 30 Eclipse 500's to be delivered over the next two years.

"These aircraft represent a technological leap forward that has the potential to change the economics of private air travel in such a way as to make it affordable to vastly larger numbers of people than you can justify today," says William Herp, president and CEO of Linear Air.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also gung-ho on the VLJs. The FAA hopes they'll bring commercial air travel to thousands of smaller communities around the country. That's a major selling point for the consultants and investors banking on the air taxi model who believe the VLJ finally makes it possible. While regular small business jets start at around $4 million each, the VLJs on the market currently cost between $1 million and $3 million. They can seat up to six people and have high performance, fuel-efficient engines that make them twice as fast as turbo-props, which are often used in regional private travel.

"The advantage of the air taxi is that it would call into use the over 5,000 under-used smaller airports around the country," says Bill Strait, the CEO of VLJ Group, an aviation consulting group in Jupiter, Florida. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that in the next ten years, as many as 7,000 VLJs will be delivered to air taxi companies, charter services, and private pilots by manufacturers. Experts are split on whether there's enough demand for affordable air taxi service to keep them all flying profitably. Proponents, like Mr. Herp, believe there is. Three years ago, Linear started a point-to-point air taxi service using turboprops between New York, Boston and Washington. "We have some pretty good data based on actual results from flying actual customers that tells us there's a substantial opportunity to deploy very light jets," he says. "The issue is really speed. For a trip of an hour and a half you can go twice as far [as in a turbojet.]"

But skeptics abound in the aviation community. The idea of creating a thriving air taxi industry has been around for a long time. But the economics - the cost of the jets, the fuel, the insurance, the pilots - have never made it affordable except for the rich. Aviation experts like Robert Mann question whether VLJs will fundamentally change that. In part, because he doubts there's enough demand in any one area to make an air taxi service feasible.

"With the numbers of jets that are being talked about and the number of hours that you'd have to fly to make them economic, there just has to be a huge demand," says Mr. Mann, of R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York. "It is absolutely the case that a lot of high-time-value individuals, entrepreneurs and corporate executives are opting out of the commercial airline system because of the delays and the inconvenience and are looking for alternatives." But, he adds, it's not clear that the VLJ model will be more successful than the larger corporate jet services that have grown dramatically over the last five years.

Major airlines are particularly concerned about the projected growth of the VLJ market, because of their impact on the nation's already congested airspace.

"The business aviation community is fond of telling people that they use only 4 percent of the capacity at the 25 major airports in the United States," says John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major commercial airlines. But he contends that's misleading, because business jets use a significantly larger percentage of the air traffic control resources.

"For instance in Southern California, they use 37 percent [of the air traffic control operations,] while the commercial sector uses 40 percent," he says.

Mr. Meenan worries the introduction of thousands of VLJs could eventually create aviation gridlock. But VLJ proponents like Mr. Strait, contend that since the microjets will be flying to smaller airports, the concern is nothing more than "a red herring."

(c) Copyright 2007. The Christian Science Monitor


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