Video: New planes make jet-setting cheaper

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updated 7/28/2006 9:51:50 AM ET 2006-07-28T13:51:50

Not one of the planes has yet been delivered, but that hasn't stopped customers from placing orders for several thousand of the super-small jets that some industry observers predict could alter the face of business travel.

The small planes, whose interiors are the size of a minivan's, are aimed at businesses that want to diversify their corporate fleets, and at wealthy pilots who want to fly their own jets. Buyers also include new companies betting on a budding air-taxi industry that would link small airports.

Eclipse Aviation Corp. of Albuquerque, founded in the late 1990s by a former Microsoft executive, is expected soon to become the first company to deliver such jets to customers. The company said it has taken nearly 2,500 orders, worth $3.8 billion. Federal regulators Thursday granted Eclipse a provisional certificate, an indication that they soon expect to allow the company to begin providing the jets to its customers.

"The revolution that people are calling it is just about to be launched," said Vern Raburn, Eclipse Aviation's president and chief executive. "This sector of the marketplace is attracting more interest, more investment and more activity than any other place in aviation."

Microjet company executives say air-taxi services could benefit from the problems of business travelers who waste a lot of time shuttling in and out of hub airports. A one-way, 400-mile trip on a microjet could cost about $1 a mile per passenger if there are four customers on the plane, executives say. Analysts say the price of some trips could be about that of a first-class airline ticket -- without the need to pass through standard airport security.

Similar trips on a corporate jet can cost more than $10 a mile.

DayJet Corp., a start-up in Delray Beach, Fla., is looking to get into the air-taxi market and has ordered 300 Eclipse jets, which will be the backbone of its fleet.

Some analysts caution that it is too early to say whether the air-taxi business will flourish. The companies will have to be extremely disciplined and efficient to make a profit, they say.

"You are going to have to run some pretty tight ships to make sure it's profitable," said Gueric Dechavanne, an industry analyst.

Still, Raburn and executives of other manufacturers are riding high on orders and backlogs. And they are working hard to distinguish their planes in the emerging marketplace. Most of the companies created elaborate displays here at the Experimental Aircraft Association's show.

Most of the very light jets have similar performance and styles. They carry five to seven passengers and a pilot, and fly 900 to 1,400 miles, depending on load. They can travel about 425 mph and as high as commercial airliners to avoid bad weather, leaving turboprops thousands of feet below. They are also very quiet. And some have restrooms.

A microjet costs $1.5 million to $3 million, compared with corporate jets, whose prices range from $4.5 million to $50 million. Microjets are also less expensive than most of their turboprop competitors.

Marion C. Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, told a group of pilots on Wednesday that as many as 5,000 very light jets are expected to go into service by 2017. "This is a market that shows a lot of promise," she said.

The interest in the marketplace was spurred by start-ups but has attracted traditional aircraft makers, such as the Cessna Aircraft Co. and Embraer SA. Honda Motor Co. announced here on Tuesday that it would begin selling a microjet in the fall and sent its futuristic-looking blue jet up for a demonstration flight.

The Eclipse 500 is priced at $1.4 million, can seat five or six people and has an interior — without a restroom — designed by BMW. Among its competitors is Adam Aircraft Inc., which sells a jet for $2.25 million that can seat six or seven passengers and comes with a restroom — a flip-up leather seat in the back of the plane. (For privacy, passengers can push a button and raise a sliding door.) Adam has taken about 340 orders for the jets and is expected to begin delivering them next year.

"With a three year backlog, the market has already spoken," Adam's president, Joe Walker, said. "The challenge isn't selling these planes. It's the production and getting them certified."

Cessna executives are not sure there is much of a market yet for such small jets but entered the market with the Mustang, which sells for $2.4 million, seats five plus the pilot, and is toilet-equipped. Cessna has a backlog of 240 orders.

"If the air-taxi market emerges, we'll be able to move quickly," said Jack J. Pelton, Cessna's chief executive.

© 2013 The Washington Post Company

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