Boston private-equity powerhouse Thomas H. Lee is a key backer of Sentient Jet, whose board includes the former head of the Federal Aviation Administration Jane F. Garvey and which has also set up a safety advisory board with former top officials of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Safety concerns have not cast shadows over the industry's growth. NTSB figures indicate that operators of smaller scheduled and nonscheduled planes had 73 crashes that killed 65 people last year, compared with just 13 fatalities for all domestic commercial airlines. Measured in fatalities per hour of flight, commercial airlines were about 24 times safer than private operations.
For all its recent growth, many industry officials expect the noncommercial passenger aviation business will take an even bigger leap next year as a new breed of aircraft called very light jets begins to enter service. The FAA is expected to certify VLJs for commercial operations as soon as March.
Costing as little as $1 million to $2 million each, or a half to a quarter the cost of the cheapest small jets today, VLJs could carry four passengers at speeds up to 400 miles per hour on routes of up to 1,200 miles.
Even more important, VLJs will be able to land at airports with runways as short as 3,000 feet. That could ultimately bring jet service to 5,400 smaller US airports that are within a half-hour drive of 93 percent of Americans' homes, according to industry data. Those potentially include Massachusetts airports in Chatham, Gardner, Hopedale, Mansfield, Marshfield, Shirley, and Tewksbury.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is a big VLJ believer, investing millions in Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, one of a half-dozen aircraft makers building the small jets.
"VLJs are probably going to revolutionize this industry," said Dan Hubbard, vice president of the National Business Aviation Association, a trade group. "They're going to make charter flights a very reasonable option. Why go through all the hassles of airlines that operate on their schedule, landing three hours away from the city you want to get to? To me, that's a no-brainer for people who fly frequently."
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While America's 31 major hub airports choke on soaring passenger volume, a few thousand other airports -- in small cities and on the fringes of big ones -- have plenty of capacity. Now there's an...