For most travelers, air travel these days means few smiles from demoralized airline employees, unpredictable security lines and a measly packet of pretzels on board.
But for wealthy travelers willing to pay a little more than the cost of a first-class ticket, the skies could soon become more friendly. A group of entrepreneurs backed by the likes of Bill Gates and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are building tiny jets that cost a small fraction of what corporate executives and celebrities pay for luxury Learjets and Gulfstreams. Other executives plan to use the microjets to start air taxi services flying into small airports. The goal, the executives say, is to provide an alternative to the hassles and delays of commercial airline travel.
Adam Aircraft's A500 jet. The firm's first microjet is expected to be approved within a year.
(Courtesy Of Adam Aircraft Industries)
The microjets, also called VLJs or very light jets, have an interior the size of a Chevy Suburban and seat four to six passengers in leather seats with plenty of legroom. Instead of flying into major airports, the planes touch down at tiny, underused airports to avoid security and check-in hassles. One company led by two former airline executives plans to launch an air taxi service charging about $6 a mile. Passengers could book a flight online within hours of departure to fly, for example, from Gaithersburg to New Haven, Conn., for about $400 per person, one way.
The fledgling industry is "going to be looked upon like the Wright brothers in 1903," said Ken Hespe, a spokesman for the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility, a nonprofit group that has been studying and developing new uses for the nation's tiniest airports and for small jets with NASA, which estimates a market for 8,300 microjets by 2010. "It's going to be a revolution in the transportation industry," Hespe said.
Analysts say microjets will appeal to a cross-section of customers including corporations, which might add planes to their fleets, and wealthy travelers who are looking for a less-expensive alternative to owning a jet. Since 2001, companies such as NetJets have grown by providing access to planes around the world for members who pay for fractional ownership of aircraft. Aviation experts say air taxis with all-microjet fleets could serve as an even more affordable version of the fractional ownership aircraft model.
Microjets are "a natural extension" of fractional ownership aircraft, said Daniel L. Petree, dean of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's College of Business.
Microjets have emerged after decades of few major technological innovations among the smallest aircraft. But a combination of new jet engine technologies, sophisticated avionics equipment and wealthy investors interested in aviation provided a launchpad. Older manufacturers such as Cessna Aircraft Co. and Honda Motor Co., which is developing an engine for the microjet industry with General Electric Co., also will compete for market share.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to approve microjets to begin flying early next year, although the air taxi business is not planning to begin until 2006. Manufacturers of microjets have already received thousands of down payments for the planes, with a list price starting at $1 million. Some experts say the tiny jet airplanes will make clunky turboprops obsolete.
Turboprops, which have already disappeared on many routes flown by commercial airlines, "are going to start going the way of DC-3s," said Vern Raburn, chief executive of Eclipse Aviation Corp., which plans to debut its microjet in 2006.
Raburn, based in Albuquerque, plans to launch two versions of microjets with $400 million in funding, thanks mostly to two wealthy individuals -- Bill Gates and Alfred E. Mann, a top American philanthropist and former chief executive of several companies involved in manufacturing medical devices.