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Fly-On-Demand: Coming Soon To An Airport Really Near You

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.

It was 1948. The world was at peace and anything seemed possible. A young boy was traveling from Boston to New York when the decrepit, pre-war bus he was riding on broke down. While he and the other passengers were waiting to be rescued, he noticed a gleaming, golden button on the old coach's dashboard. He leaned forward, said "Let's go to New York" and pressed it.  The rest of the story is obvious and, yes, the tale of Jenny, the Magic Bus was only a children's story.  But it was also the first recorded forecast of the fly-on-demand air-travel revolution being ushered in by the development of Very Light Jet (VLJ) aircraft and point-to-point air-taxi services. 

Will flying from, say, Concord, California to Heber, Utah, soon be as economical as flying from SFO to SLC business class and as easy as pushing Jenny's Magic Button?  Depends on whether you consider your cell phone buttons magical.  The fact is that there are over 5000 U.S. airports currently without commercial passenger carriers.  Many - if not most of them - should have fly-on-demand service by the end of the decade, some by the end of next year.

And there are hundreds of resorts, business parks, convention centers, and casinos which have the acreage to support the 3,000-3,500 foot runways needed by the coming generation of single and twin-engine VLJ aircraft.

It is important to note that the upcoming revolution in personal air travel is not being fueled by the wishful thinking of a few visionaries with empty pockets. The field is indeed filled with visionaries, but the majority of them have envious track records of technological achievement and extremely fat purses.  Actively working to launch the new air age are two government agencies, NASA and the FAA; three engine makers, Pratt & Whitney, Honda, General Electric, and Williams; at least eight air frame makers including such solid players as Eclipse Aviation, Cessna, and Embraer; several air-taxi startups, including one headed by the former CEOs of American Airlines and People Express; and a host of avionics, communications, and computer companies.

VLJs, aka microjets, trace their lineage to the mid-1990s when NASA established its General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) program, an attempt to inject some fresh air into the nation's general-aviation industry by encouraging the development of small, low-cost, energy-efficient turbofan engines.  A key component of GAP was an engineering competition won by Michigan-based Williams International with a design for an engine that would develop over 750 pounds of thrust and weigh under 100 pounds.  Continuing to develop its engine under a cooperative research and development grant from NASA, Williams attracted the attention of high-tech engineer and venture capitalist Vern Raburn, who had long been interested in bringing the expensive and inefficient charter-jet industry into the 21st Century.  Impressed with the Williams powerplant, Raburn founded Eclipse Aviation and set about building a 5-6 person Williams-powered jet that would sell for under $1.5 million and cost about $1 a mile to operate.  It would be nice to be able to say that this story ended as happily for all parties as The Magic Bus. Unfortunately, it did not. Eclipse engineers eventually decided the Williams engine did not have enough torque for the job. Thus the three prototype Eclipse 500s now in the air sport Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofan engines.

Regardless of engine manufacturer, the Eclipse 500 and its competitors are all growing up as birds of a substantially different feather from anything previously seen in civil aviation.  Different in construction, different in control interfaces, different in avionics, and, most importantly, different in function.  "These airplanes will go to the passenger," said former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall, CEO of Pogo, a startup on-demand air-taxi service that hopes to begin flying customers from one to another of New England's over 600 community airports for under $1.50 per passenger mile sometime in 2006.  "This air-limo service is the kind of service that a lot of people can afford to use," Crandall added.  "We're going to make this service as easy to use as it is to use a limousine today."  Crandall and his partner, People Express founder Donald Burr, also expect Pogo to generate considerable business from executives who now drive or use conference calls for meetings 200 or 300 miles from their base.

One of Crandall and Burr's competitors, DayJet Corporation CEO Ed Iacobucci couldn't agree more.  "We are at the threshold of a new era … a personalized air transportation network that promises to end the dilemma of 400-mile drives with overnight stays or hub changes and layovers," Iacobucci said.  DayJet, which is closely allied with Eclipse and expects to be the first carrier to fly the 500 after its projected FAA certification next year, describes its product as "per-seat, on-demand jet service … a new class of transportation for short-haul regional travel that combines the convenience and efficiency of corporate jets with the affordability and availability of scheduled airlines."  DayJet, the company adds, "will fly on your schedule, taking you where you need to go, when you need to go." It will enable you to "move when high-impact or priority business opportunities arise (and) get there before your competition … get business done without losing sleep … (and) use your time more efficiently so you can meet all your travel demands and still sleep in your own bed at night."  All this, the company says, will be available at prices only "slightly higher than full-coach fare … about the same cost as an overnight trip (including airfare, hotel, and per diem.)"

Industry insiders aren't the only people excited about VLJs and flying on demand.

In a May, 2005 poll by USA Today, more than 50 percent of the respondents indicated that they would be inclined to use air-taxi service once it becomes available and a full ten percent said "I've been waiting for this chance all my life."  Financial and transportation analysts have also been generally upbeat about the prospects.  "The exciting aspect of the combination of microjets and on-demand services, if priced competitively, is the vast number of airports and communities that can receive such modern, comfortable aircraft," said Mark Sixel, director of the Sixel Consulting Group. "The published operating costs of these jets may just remove the barriers to entry and use that have not allowed on-demand scheduling to work in the past. If it works, it will be a revolution in air travel."

Before this revolution can take full flight, however, two elements must be in place: The hardware, i.e. the microjets themselves; and an upgraded air-traffic control system capable of handling thousands of VLJs flying in and out of rural and suburban airports without control towers or other traffic-control systems.

Enter NASA's Small Traffic Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), a program with the stated goal of empowering small airports with navigation, landing, and takeoff support equivalent to or better than that at metropolitan airports.  At this point in its development, SATS is an amalgam of tried-and-true and cutting-edge technologies ranging from identification and anti-collision transponders to a "robotic" air traffic controller that processes information from incoming planes and assigns landing priorities.  According to NASA, the SATS system will eventual enable small airports to safely handle 12 to 15 landings and takeoffs an hour even in poor visibility.  Says FAA Director Marion Blakey, "the only small thing about SATS is the size of the aircraft."  The same could truthfully be said of the microjets that will be SATS chief beneficiary. 

Though each of the current contenders is as different as the companies behind them, they are all largely based on mechanical and electronic technologies never before used in general aviation - or in some cases commercial - aircraft.  Among the technologies already being used or considered are composite or friction-stir-welded aluminum body panels to eliminate rivets and decrease aerodynamic drag, computer display panels in lieu of mechanical analog instruments, satellite navigation links, and topographic radar that "paints" a virtual picture of the terrain being over flown.  The Eclipse 500 even incorporates a satellite communications system that will automatically notify factory support personnel within 30 seconds of a failure in one of the craft's two engines.

Despite their differences, all the microjets currently in the air, up on wheels, or still on the drawing board have similar configurations. They are designed to carry four to six passengers and be flown by one pilot as a private jet or two pilots in commercial service on maximum routes of about 600 miles. Cruising speeds are about 350-375 mph, flight ceilings about 40,000 feet, operating costs are projected to be $1.50 per mile or under at current fuel prices, and passenger compartments will be roughly five feet wide by four-and-a-half feet tall.

Currently, Eclipse seems like the clear favorite in the race to produce the first VLJ to carry a revenue passenger.  With three completed non-conforming 500s already undergoing flight trials, they are expected to have a conforming craft airborne later this year and apply for certification early in 2006. 

Also edging close to producing a conforming prototype is Cessna, whose $2.4 million Mustang is pre-selling so briskly that the next available delivery slot is sometime in 2009.  One Mustang prototype, powered by Pratt & Whitney PW615f engines, has already been built, several more are nearing construction, and certification is expected by the end of 2006.

Though they have only recently joined the VLJ stampede, Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer must also be considered a major player if only because of the size of its bankroll - company directors have already committed $235 million to the project.  Scheduled to begin service in mid-2008, the Embraer entry will be powered by twin P&W PW617 turbofans. And, in keeping with the theory that bigger is always better, Embraer is already bragging that its ultra light microjets will be bigger and roomier than the competition's.

Another startup venture which apparently feels size does matter, is Avocet, which claims its ProJet "isn't just bigger … it's better."  The first ProJets, a joint venture between Avocet Aircraft LLC of Westport, CT and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), which will build and certify the aircraft, are expected to enter service by late 2007.  Avocet has not yet indicated a choice of engine makers or unveiled a prototype and there are rumors that IAI has been actively seeking another American funding source for the project. 

One company that does have prototypes in the air is Adam Aircraft, whose first (non-conforming) A700 AdamJet has been flying since mid-2003. Based on the company's A500 centerline-thrust, piston-engine twin, the AdamJet features carbon-fiber prepreg (pre-impregnated with resin) construction and Williams FJ33 fanjet engines.

Other manufacturers committed to producing VLJs include piston-powered airplane builder Diamond Aircraft, which plans a single-engine, five-seat, all-composite microjet for under $1 million; Tam-Air Epic, a joint venture between Oregon-based Epic Aircraft and Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing of the Republic of Georgia, which is building a $1.9 million carbon fiber twinjet based on the Epic LT turboprop; and the Excel SportJet, a $1 million, single-engine VLJ designed, the company says, "for single-person operation by a pilot trained in piston-powered airplanes." 

And then there's Honda. Which in the past, has absolutely, positively denied any plans to put their four-passenger (plus two pilots), glass-canopied, Greensboro, North Carolina-built HondaJet into production.  Perhaps they're telling the truth.  Perhaps the HondaJet was only built as a test bed for Honda's new VLJ engine, which will be marketed and supported by GE for about $300,000 and reportedly delivers more than 1600 pounds of thrust and HondaJet speeds of over 425 mph.  After all, Honda does see itself as an engine company first and foremost - the largest manufacturer of internal combustion engines on earth, supplying customers ranging from the makers of the Mantis garden tiller to General Motors - so it may truly only be interested in microjets from a powerplant point of view.  On the other hand, there is the legacy of company founder Sochiro Honda, who began a lifelong love affair with airplanes in 1906 when, as an eight year old, he "borrowed" his father's bicycle and rode to Hamamatsu to hide in a tree and get a free view of the first airplane to visit the area.  Not much later, Soichiro converted his own bike into an "airplane" by adding bamboo propellers to the frame. Attired in a pair of homemade cardboard "flying goggles" he 'flew' around his home village incessantly. 

A decade later, as an apprentice mechanic in Tokyo, Honda was asked to build a race car.  Designing the suspension, chassis, steering gear and brakes himself, Honda fitted the racer with an 8-liter Curtis-Wright V8.  The airplane mill had plenty of power and the car, like every Honda two or four-wheel racer ever since, was a consistent winner.  Still later, in the 1960s, Honda spoke often of his desire to build a "people's airplane."  Honda retired in 1973, but his first two successors as CEO of the company that bore his name, both aeronautical engineers, consigned a significant part of each year's R&D budget to aviation, a practice that continues under current President Takeo Fukui.  And, finally, there is this comment from a VLJ airframe manufacturer who prefers to remain anonymous: They can say that all they wanted was a test bed for their engine. But they could have bought anyone's chassis for that. You don't design and handcraft a complete airplane to use as an engine stand.  

With some industry experts foreseeing as many as 14,000 microjets crisscrossing U.S. airways within a decade, it is obvious that the phrase "jet set" is about to take on a whole new meaning.  But there are questions, at least as many as there are answers.  Some concern the price and process of implementing passenger security systems at thousands of previously non-commercial fields. While it is generally assumed that fly-on-demand security measures will be less stringent than on commercial airline flights, they will probably be more thorough than those at most executive terminals serving personal and corporate aircraft.  The point is as obvious as the numbers 9/11, anyone will be able to buy a seat on an air-taxi and no one wants to risk letting a terrorist seize an airplane - even a very small one - and turn it into an aerial bomb.

Another big question is how to finance the massive Air Traffic Control (ATC) system upgrades needed to manage all of that new traffic. NASA's blueprint for SATS says that air-taxi service plus enhancements to the current ATC system could result in a 50 percent reduction in average travel time by 2015, but the Agency offers no opinion on how SATS should be funded.  At least one VIP (Very Interested Party), Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, predicts the rehab will cost several billion dollars and has suggested that a bond issue guaranteed by future revenues from a ticket tax or other sources could be used to pay the bills.

No matter how the new aviation infrastructure is funded, regardless of which VLJ manufacturers succeed and which fail, whether it happens in a year or takes a decade, a radically new point-to-point, go-anywhere-anytime-all-the-time aviation era is on the way.  And while it's not going to doom the jumbo jet dinosaurs of today to extinction, it is likely to cause some major defections among the scheduled airlines' most profitable passengers.

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