Very light jets are coming to Europe - but are the continent's congested airports and crowded airspace ready for this new category of business aircraft?

Europe is getting ready for very light jets. The continent is already proving fertile territory for manufacturers of this new category of aircraft and demand is set to take off as the first aircraft enter service in the coming weeks.

Cessna looks set to mirror its success in the USA and be first across the VLJ finishing line with European certification and first delivery of its Citation Mustang earmarked for this quarter. Roger Whyte, the Wichita, Kansas-based company's senior vice-president for sales and marketing, says more than a third of its 250-strong Mustang backlog is headed for Europe, with "around 100 aircraft earmarked for delivery by 2010".

© Cessna   
Cessna's Mustang aims to be the first VLJ into Europe

A Mustang demonstration tour is under way to stimulate sales even further, a tactic also being deployed by Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Eclipse Aviation, which is hoping to deliver its first Eclipse 500 to an unnamed Russian operator in the coming weeks. This aircraft will be placed on the US register initially until Eclipse secures European Aviation Safety Agency approval, scheduled for year-end.

"We have over 120 European orders for the Eclipse so far and have barely scratched the surface," says chief executive Vern Raburn.

While Cessna has service centres across the continent, the Eclipse support structure is in its infancy. Raburn admits his company has a lot to do. "We may have an impressive orderbook, but we are not going to make any headway in Europe unless we build a strong support infrastructure." Eclipse signalled its commitment to Europe last month by appointing Amsterdam-based Flight Simulation as its training provider. "This is the first step and we plan to push ahead aggressively," he says.

Embraer, a newcomer to the business-jet arena, has secured around 400 orders so far for its Phenom 100 VLJ - under development and scheduled for certification in the USA and Europe late next year. Although the Brazilian manufacturer does not break the orders down by region, it says Europe represents a significant number of these aircraft, with two European operators - Spain's Wondair and Ireland-based air-taxi start-up JetBird - accounting for 24 and 50 firm orders, respectively. JetBird also has options for a further 50 aircraft, with the ability to upgrade them to the larger Phenom 300 light jet if required.

Embraer forecasts more than 1,000 VLJ deliveries to Europe, the Middle East and Africa over the next 10 years. While the traditional markets, including corporate buyers, are expected to account for around 400 aircraft, new business models such as air-taxi companies will account for a far greater share, Embraer says with Europe a "sizeable recipient".

Ideal range

This prediction is supported by Rick Adam, chief executive of Adam Aircraft and developer of the twin-engined A700 Adam Jet. "The VLJ with its typical range of around 1,500nm [2,780km] is ideally suited to Europe," he says. Denver, Colorado-based Adam, which is striving to achieve US certification for the all-composite aircraft by the end of the year and European validation shortly after, says more than a third of its 374 orders are earmarked for Europe, including 96 orders from its European launch customer and start-up operator Nexus Jets. The manufacturer is actively recruiting training providers and service centres in the region ahead of first delivery next year.

Adam believes the long-awaited success of fractional ownership provider NetJets Europe is a strong indicator of the pent-up demand for business jets in Europe. "NetJets has bought a lot of clout to this market and blazed the trail for the rest of us," he says, adding that, as the lowest-priced jet sold by NetJets costs around $8 million, "for a quarter share in one of these aircraft you can buy a VLJ".

The low price tag of the VLJ has undoubtedly lowered the bar to entry into business jet ownership, but perhaps more crucially these aircraft are set to open up the hitherto privileged world of business aviation through established operators and the growing army of VLJ-tailored air-taxi programmes.

Cessna says its European Mustang orders are split "roughly 50:50" between traditional commercial air-taxi operators and owner/flyers, around 40% of whom are moving up from piston twins. For Adam, Eclipse and Embraer, however, the air-taxi market is providing the richest pickings and is a niche they are keen to exploit. Embraer vice-president for market intelligence Marco Tulio Pellegrini says that, while NetJets has blazed the trail for business aircraft operators in Europe, the introduction of block charter programmes has provided a significant boost for short-haul charter.

"Business aircraft are being used commercially in Europe on an increasing scale," says Pellegrini. "Even national airlines such as Lufthansa have a very successful private jet offshoot through its partnership with NetJets, which gives first-class passengers the opportunity to fly point-to-point to airports across Europe that are not served by airlines."

It is the capability of business aviation to avoid the congested hub and spoke system in Europe and fly passengers point to point that sets its apart from the airlines. It is this vital ingredient that the new class of air-taxi operators are set to transpose through VLJs and raise commercial transport to another level. Matthijs de Haan, senior executive with Netherlands investment firm European Technology Investment Research Center (ETIRC Aviation), says he is working with seven air-taxi companies, established and start-ups, to develop a network of air-taxi operators offering direct on-demand point-to-point services within Europe. "Air-taxi operations are set to become a commercial reality here, and VLJs will fill the gap in personalised business aviation," he says. De Haan is tight-lipped on the strategy and the operators involved in the project, but says ETIRC is developing technology that would allow operators to leverage the client base and use each other's fleets. "We plan to start with 20 aircraft and grow the fleet over time to no fewer than 40. All maintenance, training and support will be outsourced," says de Haan. ETIRC says the aim is to offer a good service priced at less than one-and-half times the standard business-class fare on an airline. "There is such a diversity of regional airfields in Europe, so the origins and destinations will be driven by expected customer demand," he says.

Push factors

Haan's expectations are mirrored by JetBird, which plans to be the first pan-European branded low-cost air-taxi company when it begins service in 2009 with its fleet of Phenom jets. "There are countless push factors that are driving the growth of business aviation in Europe - security delays, airport congestion, limited infrastructure," says JetBird founder and chief executive Domnhal Slattery. The former aerospace banker aims to transform executive travel in the same way that the low-cost airlines changed airline travel.

© Eclipse Aviation   
Eclipse has 120 orders in Europe - and says it has barely scratched the surface

"We plan to offer flexibility, efficiency, comfort and enhanced personal security serving all major European cities from our hubs at secondary airports in Switzerland, Italy, France and the UK." JetBird, owned by Irish private investment firm Claret Capital, says the busiest routes are on a London-Rome axis, taking in key cities including Brussels, Geneva and Paris. The Phenom 100 can serve 90% of these routes, says JetBird, which has identified up to 1,000 airports in Europe that are closer to business centres than mainstream airports and it will be able to operate from more than 800 European destinations, with flights of typically 60-90min. Flights will be charged by the hour.

These air-taxi services are designed to appeal to businesses that are striving to improve the efficiency and productivity of their senior and middle managers. For Brian Humphries, chief executive of the European Business Aviation Association, the provision of competitive fares is fundamental to the success of these operations. "The value of the time saved by the traveller must be worth more than the cost of travel," he says.

Generic flight profiles

"Except for group travel, business aviation in Europe has until now only been affordable to high-value managers, so it is essential that VLJ-based air taxi operators can deliver vastly reduced cost to middle managers over conventional small jets such as the Beechcraft Premier I and Cessna CitationJet," Humphries adds.

This is not going to be a simple task. Many public-transport charter aircraft in Europe are privately owned, resulting in their being offered for charter below the full cost. Humphries suggests the VLJs will have to achieve high utilisation to deliver the targeted cost reduction. "If it is not significantly cheaper than the existing small business jets, will passengers accept the cramped cabins, limited luggage space and the absence of a lavatory in the smallest aircraft [the Eclipse 500]?"

While passenger comfort and price are key considerations, the ability of the VLJ to secure timely and affordable access to Europe's labyrinth of airports is fundamental if they are to realise their full potential. Sceptics have raised concerns that primary airports such as Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt Hahn and London Heathrow are already congested and, with the rise in numbers of low-cost carriers, access to secondary airports such as London's Stansted and Luton is also becoming restricted.

Speed distribution in BizAv aircraft

Even dedicated business aviation airports such as Farnborough in the south of England are reaching capacity. "There are a number of smaller airports in Europe that VLJs can use, but few offer all-weather capability, and this will restrict the flexibility and reliability of these commercial services," says Humphries.

Other sceptics, such as Eurocontrol's senior operational consultant Andrew Taylor, question the suitability of VLJs to operate from capacity-constrained hubs or even some secondary airports, especially at peak hours. VLJs are smaller and slower than airliners, which means that air traffic controllers have increased separation between the contrasting types. The knock-on effect at these airports could result in slots being lost, he says.

Furthermore, the runway exits at many of the larger airport are designed for heavy jets. "As VLJs use less of the runway when they land it can take time for them to reach the exit to make way for the next aircraft. This will also affect slots," Taylor says. "If VLJ numbers increase significantly some airport operators may consider investing in new exists to accommodate these aircraft."

VLJ operators dismiss these concerns and stress that their intention is to avoid the main hubs wherever possible and use Europe's smaller unconstrained airports. While this rationale is welcomed by Eurocontrol, it is anxious about the impact of aircraft on Europe's heavily congested airspace. Recent research conducted by the Brussels-based agency suggests VLJs will account for 200 flights a day in 2009, increasing to 1,000 a day in 2015.

More complexity

For Joe Sultana, head of network capacity at Eurocontrol, "the introduction of VLJs will add complexity to the en-route phase inside the terminal manoeuvring areas and have a significant impact on the workload of Europe's air traffic controllers". He says that VLJs, particularly those operated commercially, will fly at the heavily populated flight levels of FL330-350, yet their cruise speeds, based on preliminary data, will typically be around 15% slower than other aircraft occupying those bands "and the climb speed disparity is even greater. Around 2,000 flights a day occupy FL330, where the typical cruise speed is 400-475kt [740-880km/h]. The VLJ won't be operating at those speeds, which will affect capacity unless we can come up with a tactical and structural solution."

This could be achieved through a number of measures including reassessing terminal airspace design, providing parallel offsets in the en-route sector or increasing the number of feeder routes in and out of non-primary airports, perhaps by developing new ATC techniques, Sultana says. "Once we have accurate data with aircraft numbers, origins and destinations of operations and definite profiles of the aircraft users, we will be able to launch a comprehensive set of studies, but we need to start preparing this data immediately."

Eurocontrol and the VLJ industry are committed to developing a safe and workable infrastructure in Europe and early this month formed a dedicated "brainstorming group", called the VLJ Integration Platform, designed to support the integration of VLJs into service.

Alex Hendricks, Eurocontrol's deputy director for air traffic management strategies, says: "This market is unlike any other and we [Eurocontrol] need to work with the manufacturers and operators to define the requirements for airport and airspace access without compromising existing operators. So by the time VLJs come on board we will have a solution."

Eurocontrol's Sultana agrees: "VLJs are coming, they are different and we need to get ready for them now."

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Source: Flight International