Very Light Jets: Boom or Blip?

Most of the buzz is focused on those planes priced at the "low" end, which will begin hitting the market this summer.

The first of a new wave of pint-sized advanced-technology jet-powered personal and business aircraft will begin hitting the market this summer, giving propeller-laden pilots and business owners a realistic means of joining the jet crowd. The development may also give weary business travelers the chance to punt the airline grind for a low-hassle point-to-point jet taxi.

The entry of the very light jet (VLJ) comes as general aviation (GA) recorded its highest billings ever -- $ 15.1 billion, up 27.2% in 2005 over the previous year, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. The industry delivered 2,465 piston-powered aircraft, 365 turboprops, and 750 business jets, with exports accounting for 19.5% of the shipments and 30% of the billings.

There is optimism the boom will continue, fueled by a large number of relatively low-cost VLJs on the "low" end of the jet market coupled with continued strong demand for high-value long-range business jets at the other end of the cost spectrum.

Predicting the impact

Forecasts for how big an impact the VLJ will make vary considerably. By definition, a VLJ is generally considered an aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight below 10,000 lb and certified for single-pilot operations. The already established "light jet" category, by contrast, includes jets such as the Cessna Citation CJ1 and Beechcraft Premier 1A, aircraft that typically weigh in at more than 10,000 lb fully loaded and cost $ 4 million-$ 5 million or more.

VLJs are expected to cost anywhere from less than $ 1 million to about $ 3 million. Though expensive relative to automobiles, the new jets will not be all that unreasonable by lightweight piston-powered aircraft standards -- new top-of-the-line four-seat, propeller-driven Cessna 172s or Cirrus SR22s are priced at $ 250,000 and $ 450,000 per copy, respectively. Most VLJs are slated to provide twice the cruise speed (around 350 kt) and twice the cruise altitude (41,000 ft) of their piston-powered brethren.

Those performance numbers and relatively low buy-in costs will lure a certain percentage of piston-powered aircraft owners up into the jet ranks, in addition to drawing air taxi providers and so-called "fractional" operators into the sector. Under a fractional program, owners buy a share of an aircraft, typically as small as 1/16, and pay fixed monthly costs and per-flight-hour costs to have the aircraft piloted, maintained, and managed by a fractional provider.   Bears vs. bulls

Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group predicts a bear market for the VLJs. He says the high end of the business jet market -- aircraft like the $ 45-million ultra-long-range Gulf-stream 550 and Bombardier Global 5000 -- are a "much safer bet" than the low end -- the million-dollar Diamond D-Jets or $ 1.5-million Eclipse 500s. He predicts deliveries of 1,265 VLJs over the next 10 years, 17% of the 7,417 new aircraft delivered. Aboulafia says VLJs will account for less than 2% of the $ 106.7 billion in total value of aircraft delivered over the period.

"Bottom line?" says Aboulafia, "VLJs will not provide the next revolutionary stimulant that transforms the industry."

Forecast International, by comparison, is predicting a more bullish market. "Indeed, it is the low end that may hold the key to the overall prospects of the market itself," writes analyst Ray Jaworowski in the company's "World Market for Business Jet Aircraft" report. The company is forecasting 10,895 business jets over the next 10 years, a 96% increase over the 5,560 deliveries made during the period from 1995 to 2004.

VLJs, says Jaworowski, will account for more than 30% of the deliveries -- about 3,000 jets -- and 5% of the dollar value for the forecast period. "The VLJ segment is expected to be one of the most dynamic segments in the business jet market during the next 10 years," he says, "and will drive much of the growth in the market."

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