Thursday, May 8, 2008

Private Jets

On a windy day at Farnborough airport outside London, a line of private jets rolls to the runway, ready to carry Europe's élite through their rarefied world. Among these aircraft, watched by a group of pilots, is the airport's newest addition: a jet so tiny that sitting behind a medium-sized business jet it looks like a duckling trailing its mother. Yet as he waits to see the elfin aircraft take off, one pilot declares, "You're looking at the future."

Fans of what are known officially as very light jets — sometimes called microjets or "minivans with wings" — predict that this new class of aircraft will democratize private air travel on the Continent much as low-cost carriers opened up commercial aviation to the masses. Microjets start at $1.5 million, a fraction of the $8 million price tag of the cheapest business jets currently on the market. Thanks to their more efficient fuel use, very light jets will also cost some 50% less to fly, allowing air-taxi and corporate shuttle services to sell a seat on one for about the same price as a commercial business-class ticket. "We don't see private jets as a luxury but as a tool to save companies money," says Peter Leiman, managing director of London-based Blink, which will begin offering seats on the Continent's first microjet air taxis this month.

With a maximum flight time of three hours, microjets will shuttle corporate executives over most of Western Europe. Given that they can land on short runways, they can also use secondary airports that may be closer to customers' final destinations. Blink will fly 45 Cessna Mustangs, and later this summer Dublin-based Jet Bird will launch a rival European shuttle service with 100 Embraer Phenom 100s. More operators are expected as manufacturers such as Adam, Hondajet and Eclipse bring new microjets to the market.

But as the new planes take flight, Eurocontrol, Europe's air-traffic control agency, has raised concerns over their introduction to already congested airspace. The agency predicts that 100 new microjets will take to Europe's skies each year for the next decade, each of them flying an average of three flights a day. Very light jets cruise at the same altitudes as large commercial craft, but at slower speeds. Under legislation written before such small jets were conceived, they are not required to carry the same collision-avoidance systems as larger jets. Alex Hendriks, Eurocontrol's deputy director of air-traffic management, compares the introduction of microjets to European airspace under these circumstances to dumping hundreds of mopeds into the fast lane of a motorway without sophisticated safety equipment. Microjet operators say they will hire experienced pilots, and insist that the planes' collision-avoidance software is sufficient.

In November, Eurocontrol negotiated what Hendriks calls a "gentleman's agreement" with Blink, Jet Bird and other microjet operators that they would not fly above 28,000 ft. (8,500 m), the minimum cruising altitude of commercial jets. But that agreement collapsed in April after the operators claimed that flying at lower altitudes would burn too much fuel, making it tough to operate profitably. In October, Eurocontrol will conduct a simulation in Budapest that will flood air-traffic control with hundreds of microjets. If the test suggests that the safety of larger planes could be compromised, Eurocontrol may push regulators to mandate dedicated flight paths and better collision-avoidance gear.

Such challenges aside, there is a palpable excitement in the aviation industry over the new planes. Hendriks himself says he recently spent three days piloting a very light jet from Wichita to Brussels: "As I was cruising over the Atlantic at 41,000 ft., I thought, 'What an amazing experience, flying this little plane up here.' But then the concern came: what happens when everyone wants this experience?"

1 comment:

Private Jet said...

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