New Generation of Jets Spurs Questions About Safety, Delays

U.S. Senators questioned a plan to integrate thousands of new, smaller jets into the nation's air travel system saying the move might pose safety risks and could cause more delays at airports.

The questions came Thursday before the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, which examined how the new generation of planes, dubbed "very light jets," (VLJs) are going to impact the nation's air space. The FAA estimates up to 5,000 VLJs could hit the skies over the next decade. VLJs carry a handful of passengers, weigh 10,000 pounds or less and cost less than the current crop of jets on the market.

Some believe VLJs could bring major changes to the airline industry. They expect a new wave of "air taxi" or "on-demand" carriers to crop up to serve business travelers flying short distances or people hopping between smaller airports. The first set of VLJs could take off later this year.

The commercial airline industry has given the new jets a chilly reception, saying they could further clog the nation's congested skies. Delays have risen from 15 percent of flights in 2003 to 22 percent of flights in 2006, according to the FAA. Those concerns were echoed Thursday.

"I worry about whether the infrastructure is in place for dealing with this new phenomenon," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-New Jersey. "You talk about airports not being parking lots, but I think that will happen in some cases."

Lautenberg also cited safety concerns pointing to the fact that the FAA predicts it will lose more than 10,000 air traffic controllers, or 70 percent of the workforce, over the next 10 years. FAA officials said they have a plan to deal with the losses, which are mainly from retirement.

Lautenberg and other senators also questioned the training of pilots and potential airspace conflicts between commercial airliners and VLJs. FAA officials, airline manufacturers and the fledging VLJ carriers tried to dispel some of the fears in their testimony.

Nicholas A. Sabatini, the FAA associate administrator for safety, said the introduction of other types of planes - such as the Boeing 707 - have presented more difficulties than VLJs. He said the introduction will be gradual over a number of years and the FAA is prepared.

"Nothing indicates to us that the introduction of the VLJs will be as difficult as jets," Sabatini said.

Sabatini said VLJs would not interfere with commercial airlines because they will fly below them at altitudes of 18,000 to 30,000 feet. VLJs will also primarily use secondary airports, not major hubs.

Edward Iacobucci, CEO of VLJ carrier DayJet, said its pilots will get state-of-the-art training and each flight will have a crew of two. DayJet will also meet TSA guidelines for safety and perform background checks on pilots and its maintenance personnel. He said DayJet planned to start operations in the Southeast and the VLJs would provide a valuable service for rural residents, who often have scant access to flights.

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