The situation in Europe is slightly different to the USA, with concerns over liability insurance and en route charges higher up the agenda for manufacturers of very light jets (VLJs).

European operational requirements for personal jets are still being defined by the Joint Aviation Authorities and its successor, the European Aviation Safety Agency. As with those for other aircraft categories before them, European rules are likely to mirror proposals by the US Federal Aviation Administration, possibly with additional equipment mandates. Instead, manufacturers are working to smooth out other potential glitches in introducing a potentially lucrative aircraft class into the European market.

Europe seems to be the perfect market for personal jets, even more so than the USA, as most business is still concentrated in a small part of the continent, and thus the range required is smaller. Eclipse Aviation's vice-president for sales and product support, Mike McConnell, says: "Most US aircraft manufacturers forecast around 30-35% of export sales, but we really see a chance to change that ratio to 50%." Eclipse's second largest order is from Swiss-based air taxi membership scheme Aviace.

One peculiarity in Europe is the application of en route navigational charges only for aircraft with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 2,000kg (4,400lb) or over. Although the arbitrary weight was meant to distinguish between general aviation and business aviation, Eurocontrol says it would cost too much to change the rules for too little gain even if advances in composite technology have made this weight achievable for a business jet. Austria's Diamond Aircraft is pursuing an MTOW of 1,999kg for its D-Jet, with the hope that customers will be convinced by the savings. Eclipse too says it was initially looking at squeezing its Eclipse 500 under 2,000kg before it had to ditch the Williams EJ22 engine for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofan, which is around 400kg heavier.

Route charges payable on an aircraft of 2,000kg for a trip from Farnborough in the UK to Frankfurt in Germany would be €110 ($135), plus sales tax, says Lawrence Kelly, head of the billing section at Eurocontrol's central route charges office. "Although switching to an aircraft below 2,000kg would certainly make some savings for the user, they would not be significant unless you switched from a very much heavier aircraft, something we don't believe will happen on any scale, for a multitude of reasons," he says.

There is a risk, however, that Diamond's engineering may have been for nothing. The sub-2,000kg MTOW is based on an assumed average passenger weight of 85kg in Europe - compared with 105kg in the USA - with the same aircraft likely to be certificated in the USA weighing in at 2,200kg, allowing for officially heavier passengers and extra fuel needed to transport them. There are signs that European regulators may take a look at average passenger weights, at least following the French airworthiness body DGAC's recommendations of an increase to 88kg, but possibly much more.

Whereas saving en route navigational charges may be relevant for owner-flyers, Eclipse believes it is ultimately air-taxi fleet operators that will use the new lightweight jets most. For them, there are more pressing concerns than extra charges of a couple of hundred euros. Currently, under JAA operating requirements, all jets require two pilots. For five- and six-seat aircraft, the seat lost to the extra crew member could be crucial to operating costs, says McConnell. However, Eclipse has joined other manufacturers in holding discussions with the JAA to see whether a change in the rules would be considered. Similarly, rules governing the commercial operation of single-engined aircraft could affect the potential of single-jet types such as the D-Jet.

Training will also be an issue in Europe. For very light jets to be competitive with turboprops, training costs need to be reduced. Some VLJs, for example, will have a certificated maximum altitude ceiling of 25,000ft (7,620m), allowing US pilots in with a minimum of 300h of instrument flight rules experience to obtain a type rating with less difficulty than for a high-altitude, fully pressurised jet. It is unclear yet whether Europe's disjointed pilots licensing will be as flexible.

Similarly, insurance could be stumbling block. In the USA Eclipse has a four-year deal with Global Aero insurers to reduce premiums on the Eclipse 500 to a level equivalent to that of a turboprop for pilots having followed the training course.

The company is negotiating with underwriters in London to ensure the same premium is available to European customers, adds McConnell. However, the level of risk is ultimately still decided by national courts in Europe, by precedents set for compensation. The Netherlands, for example, has high pay-outs and there is a fear that the cost of a single European insurance scheme could be pushed higher than necessary.

Diamond for one is investigating fitting ballistic parachutes to reduce insurance costs for owners.

Because it is a new aircraft class with no simulators or training programmes available, Eclipse plans to offer training at its facilities. But since the aircraft will be approved in Europe six months later than in the USA, McConnell says he does not know whether the JAA can approve the training centre before aircraft certification, but he is confident that a solution will be found.

Furthermore, Europe does not yet have an equivalent to FAR Part 135, licensing scheduled use of air taxis for shared owners. For this reason, fractional-ownership programmes in Europe have adopted hybrid block charter or club-style programmes. While not ideal, McConnell says "people are entrepreneurial and they'll always find ways around problems". Like other classes of aircraft that came before it, the vlj will have to feel its way in Europe before finding its feet.


Source: Flight International