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Airline's Bad 'Tude Toward VLJs More About Money Than Generation Gap

By Elliot Borin, Air TaxiFlights.com Staff Writer - © 2009, Reproduction without permission strictly prohibited. All company and product names in this document are the property of their respective copyright and/or trademark holders.

Happy landings? Depends on whether you consider landing an hour or two late a cheerful experience.

According to the FAA, domestic airline flights will increase by approximately 30 percent in the next decade, passenger travel between the U.S. and the rest of the world will jump by around 70 percent and overall world-wide commercial air travel will soar by more than 80 percent.

Sounds like good news for members of the battered and/or bankrupt airline industry, right?
Not to hear them tell it. According to their exceedingly well-financed and politically astute (or, as opponents put it, over-funded and politically ham-fisted) ministry of propaganda, the Air Transport Association, chaos, not prosperity, is really what's lurking just around the corner.

Among other claims made in testimony before Congress, press releases, "talking-head" TV appearances and other forums, the ATA predicts that air traffic delays will increase close to 65 percent and passenger delays could double during the same decade.

Even more horrifying, the airline industry claimed before a Senate committee, "these projected delays will cost the airlines at least $2 billion in extra costs that will seriously erode profits needed for future fleet and infrastructure expansions."

If that seems to say that the more business the airlines get the more money they plan to lose, don't feel that you're missing anything. That's exactly what it seems to tell most people with a third grade or higher level of English comprehension.

Like all good spinmiesters, the ATA has an "enemies list" of favorite scapegoats for their various ills. The FAA and its failure to immediately spend tens of billions of dollars to tear down the current air traffic control system and rebuild it to the major airlines specs has been, until recently, the prime whipping boy. But that argument has been weakened by the current system's unparalleled safety record and the fact that many major passenger delays occur on the ground thanks to airline corner cutting. (Example: Sitting on the plane at a gate for 20 minutes because the ground crew responsible for opening the door has to service six or eight gates with virtually identical arrival times.)

More recently, the airline industry has embraced Very Light Jets as a perfect straw man upon which to hang their forecasts of doom and gloom. While the ATA is not exactly, precisely, running around like a headless chicken screaming (through its neck hole) "VLJs are coming, the sky and everything in it is falling," it has waxed positively lyrical on the subject, telling Congress that allowing VLJs to use high-altitude airspace "is analogous to allowing tractors on a freeway."

Perhaps. And perhaps if a freeway had ten levels of hundred-mile-wide lanes stacked 1000 feet apart letting a tractor use it wouldn't be a problem.

Or, perhaps, the ATA's real problem with VLJs has less to do with tractors, than with this: "Using VLJs, air taxi operators could open access to new business centers that previously were beyond the reach of available aircraft," the ATA says. "This new access could generate new markets and opportunities resulting in further economic benefit."

But not to the ATA's member companies, not to the scheduled airlines. If there is one industry that would definitely not derive an "economic benefit" from VLJ air-taxi operators' ability to convert the vast majority of America's over 4,000 airports without commercial service into "new markets" it is the scheduled airline industry. To the contrary, any form of transportation -- be it Very Light Jet or European-type high-speed rail -- which allows travelers to eschew the airlines' hubs, spokes and inefficient-operating procedures will cost the airlines both customers and money.

No wonder they're "agin" it.

The ATA's complaints about VLJs can be loosely divided into three categories:

1. Traffic congestion
The ATA claims that the estimated 4,000 VLJ aircraft the FAA expects to enter service by 2015 will cause traffic congestion so severe that "it isn't hard It isn't hard to imagine a system where access to airspace is rationed. That is precisely what exists today at New York's LaGuardia and Chicago's O'Hare airports. Congested airspace above New York and South Florida threatens to force further restrictions." Never mind that VLJ air-taxis won't be using LaGuardia and O'Hare, they're still -- according to the ATA -- going to raise hell there. And about Florida. Since DayJet, the very first air-taxi operator to begin service, and several feisty competitors operate in Florida, it is just possibly no coincidence that the ATA selected that region for special application of the tar brush.

Laying it on even more thickly, the ATA tells us "it is critical to note that capacity limitations are not necessarily tied to a lack of runway or terminal capacity. More and more, airport accessibility is driven by the ability of the airspace above to accommodate the traffic. For example, VLJs attempting to access Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport may be blocked by saturated airways even though the airport itself could handle the traffic."

Once again, perhaps. Or, more likely, perhaps not.

According to the FAA, total active aircraft in the United States include approximately 221,000 airplanes in general aviation and air taxi service and 7000 in airline service. Doing the math, we discover that adding 4,000 VLJs to the friendly skies over the U.S. will increase the total number of aircraft fighting for air and landing space by something like 1.5 percent. Even using NASA's more optimistic (or pessimistic if you're an ATA member) guesstimate of 8,000 VLJs entering service in the next ten years, you still wind up with only a 3 percent increase.

But wait, there's more. Or, in this case, less. Much less. To understand this, it's only necessary to consider where today and tomorrow's VLJs will be delivered.

The great majority of single-engine models from companies like Cirrus and Diamond will be going to general aviation and small corporate buyers where they will be replacing existing piston-engined aircraft.

Some economy model twin-engine VLJs like the Eclipse 500 are being purchased by air-taxi startups like DayJet, but an equally large number will probably be used to decommission less comfortable and more inefficient piston-engined air taxis by operators like Linear.

A great many higher-end ($3 million and up) HondaJet and Embraer Phenoms will be purchased by corporations willing to pay a slight speed penalty to retire their low-end light jets in favor of far more economical VLJs.

To put it simply, every new VLJ that rolls out of a factory in Albuquerque, North Carolina, Wichita or Brazil is not going to equal one more aircraft clogging up the airways. The actual ratio, taking into account the replacement factor, will probably be closer to three new VLJs equaling one more plane aloft.

2. Air Traffic System Overload
" Historically, the cruise performance capabilities of the aircraft operated by the various segments of the aviation community naturally segregated them into distinct operating environments," the ATA says. "Larger, faster aircraft (like business jets and commercial airliners) typically cruise above 28,000 feet, while piston-driven recreational and on-demand charter aircraft primarily operate at lower altitudes. VLJ performance will blur the lines between the blocks of airspace conventionally used by the different types of operators. VLJ operators will be able to climb to and cruise at altitudes that previously were inaccessible due to the performance limitations of their previous aircraft."

No argument there, VLJs will fly higher and faster than the Beech Bonanza-type aircraft many of them will be replacing. The significance of this obvious fact is open to debate, however.

To the ATA, it means that air traffic control will become "more challenging" resulting in an "increase (in) spacing to manage the difference in aircraft speeds and reduce (controller) workload ... wasted capacity and ultimately constraints on demand."

But will it really?

VLJs are economical, but not that economical. No transportation model that that isn't muscle powered is that economical in an "oil-rules" society. Corporations are not going to schedule unneeded flights from Plant A to Plant B just because they've replaced their Lear 40 with a HondaJet. Gen aviation pilots won't fly from Nantucket to Dobb's Ferry to visit Aunt Ellen every week instead of twice a year after they take the delivery on a Diamond Jet and donate the old Cessna 150 for static display at a local pre-school.

While the fact that VLJs are faster than piston-engined planes won't make life any easier for controllers, the fact that they will (in general aviation and air-taxi service, at least) get from Point A to Point B while spending less time aloft will.

The ATA also ignores the state-of-the-art avionics, navigation and communications systems which combine to make VLJs easier to track and control than their less high-tech-evolved predecessors.

3. Money
"Unfortunately," the ATA contends, "the revenue collected by FAA will not cover their costs to provide ATC services to VLJ operators and will fall far short of the amount needed to finance NAS (National Airspace System) modernization. FAA will be faced with significantly increasing demand for services without a corresponding increase in revenue."

So what else is new? The airline industry has been complaining about General Aviation not carrying its share of the load for decades. As already noted, the VLJ will not substantially increase the demand for FAA services, thus nothing in this argument changes.

Nor is it true, as the ATA would like the public to believe, that the airline industry pays more than its fair share of the system.

Using figures given Congress by the ATA itself, we discover that "a typical 737 commercial airliner flying from New York to Fort Lauderdale pays $1,506" toward funding the FAA, while an Eclipse 500 corporate VLJ on an identical route using the same ATC services pays only $53."

Sounds grossly unfair, doesn't it? Except that a "typical 737" carries 150 people (passengers plus crew) and a typical Eclipse carries five. Thus each person going from New York to Lauderdale is contributing roughly $5 to the FAA regardless of which way they fly. What could be fairer or more equitable than that?

Truth is, the airline industry, the air-taxi industry and the general aviation industry -- alone, combined or trebled -- cannot afford to pay for a total upgrade of the nation's air transport infrastructure. That's the kind of essential service that income, capital gains, inheritance and other federal taxes were invented to finance.

Contrary to the airline industry's doomsayers, many impartial researchers believe a robust VLJ-powered air-taxi industry would provide an excellent way to take at least a little pressure off the existing ATC system while debate over how to fund the next-gen system continues.

A NASA-financed study by Purdue University, for example, recently found that nationwide deployment of VLJ air taxis could "offload demand from the business hubs" thereby reducing demand for services and congestion at major commercial airports."

And a research paper by Aviation Consultant Captain J. L. Robinson and Boeing Vice President of Advanced Air Traffic Management Strategy Neil Panzer is even more damning to many of the ATA's arguments.

"In the ongoing debate about the impact of VLJ operations, the question of VLJ speed compatibility has been raised often," Robinson and Panzer wrote. "In large measure, this is a red herring. The commercial and business fleets of today operate at a variety of climb, cruise, descent and approach speeds ... controllers are able to integrate traffic of varying speeds quite efficiently so VLJs will add no significant complexity."

Robinson and Panzer's study also found that there is "ample available en route airspace to accommodate new aircraft" using today's ATC technology and that the "suggestion that VLJs will cause or exacerbate en route traffic congestion is certainly not the case in the near to mid-term."

After noting that the" typical" VLJ's safety and equipage package "will distinguish itself as better equipped that many of the aircraft in today's commercial fleet" (an interesting observation from a vice president of the company which made most of today's commercial fleet), the authors conclude that even if, for some reason nobody can foresee, VLJ operators decide to operate into hub airports the "effects will be minimal.

"Will those operations disrupt or induce gridlock?" they ask. "Absolutely not!"

In a recent plea to Congress, the ATA urged that a "sensible policy on VLJs would be to 'first do no harm' against the small jet sector," which is memorial for being the only time the airline industry has ever begged federal regulators to bestow blessings on the Lears and Gulfstreams of the world.

In addition to containing a full measure of hypocrisy, the ATA's suggestion that VLJ development be hamstrung to save the light jet industry brings to mind a movie studio executive going to Congress in 1948 to urge that television be outlawed to protect theater owner's investments in projectors.

Or, perhaps more accurately, it reflects the sentiments of Digital Equipment Corporation Founder Ken Olson's 1977 statement that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

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