Eclipse chief stands by VLJ air-limo concept

 - October 3, 2007, 11:07 AM

As Albuquerque, N.M.-based Eclipse prepares to fly a Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610-powered Eclipse 500 later this year, company founder and CEO Vern Raburn envisions a wide customer base for the very light jet. And with promised low direct operating costs (DOCs) and a price tag of a little over $1 million, the twinjet offers almost limitless possibilities.

For years Raburn has been touting the many uses of the Eclipse 500–from same-day package delivery service to corporate transportation to air-taxi service, and nearly everything in between. But it is the potentially lucrative air-limo concept fueling speculation that demand for these compact jets could be on the order of thousands of aircraft in the next 10 years.

Earlier this year, former American Airlines chairman Robert Crandall and People Express founder Donald Burr announced an air-limo business called Pogo. And Raburn said there are more; he claims there are several Eclipse 500 customers who hold multiple orders just for the purpose of starting an air-limo company.

Dampening this enthusiasm, however, are many detractors who say the idea will literally never fly. Aviation analysis firm The Teal Group is probably the most vocal of the naysayers. One of its main arguments is that if the concept is such a good idea, then why isn’t the sky already filled with pre-owned light business jet air limos? After all, there are plenty of inexpensive pre-owned light jets on the market that could, in theory at least, assume this role.

But Raburn contends it’s not as simple as buying any available light business jet and pressing it into high-utilization air service. The aircraft must meet the mission, he noted.

“When business jets were being designed and built 30 or 40 years ago, no one ever imagined they would still be in service today,” Raburn explained.

He pointed out that these aging aircraft are, well, showing their age: “So much of the existing business jet fleet is having maintainability problems. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, aircraft design wasn’t anything like it is now. Nowadays, aircraft are designed to be maintained easily. This was not so in years past.”

And if the aircraft can’t be easily maintained, Raburn added, then it can’t meet the exacting reliability needed for an air limo. Further, if it isn’t reliable, then its dispatch rate will suffer accordingly, meaning that the aircraft will likely be in the shop more than it is in the sky.

As a baseline, the Eclipse 500 has been designed for high-utilization (1,500 hours annually) and high-cycle use. Raburn said his company has designed every part on the Eclipse 500 to be super reliable: “As examples, we’re using brushless motors, there will be no microswitches, the aircraft doesn’t have a hydraulic system and all of the lighting–inside and out, except strobes–will be LED.”

From a direct operating cost point of view, many of the inexpensive light jets on the block aren’t nearly as fuel efficient as the proposed lot of very light jets. Even if the Eclipse 500’s DOC comes out a little higher than the planned 85 cents per nautical mile, it still beats the DOC of any aircraft on the second-hand market by at least half, the company chief said.

Raburn likened the air-limo concept to the personal computing industry 30 years ago. “Thirty years ago, why would anyone want a PC?” he asked. “Today, however, the question is who doesn’t want one. We have strong data that suggests air limos could very well turn out to follow the same pattern.”

To be truthful, even Raburn isn’t betting his company on the concept, especially since the air-limo concept has yet to be proven. (He wouldn’t say just how many of the firm orders for 1,400 aircraft and options for 700 more are for start-up air-limo companies.)

The big unknown, Raburn concedes, is whether ordinary people will board a small jet, with an interior no larger than that found in a sport-utility vehicle, to fly to their destination. For this answer, only time will tell.