VLJ Backers Take Their Case to Capitol Hill

 - November 9, 2006, 6:07 AM

Three of the major players in the very light jet (VLJ) arena appeared before the Senate aviation subcommittee to address concerns that the new breed of aircraft will present insuperable challenges for the ATC system. Cessna chairman, president and CEO Jack Pelton; Eclipse Aviation president Vern Raburn; and DayJet founder Ed Iacobucci took their case to Capitol Hill. Joining them were two top FAA officials and an aviation consultant.

All did their best to assuage concerns that the nation’s National Airspace System (NAS) will struggle to assimilate a fleet that has been variously estimated to consist of between 5,000 and 8,700 VLJs over the next 20 years. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has often referred to the influx of VLJs as a “mosquito fleet.”

Pelton, who is also chairman of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, called VLJs “an exciting expansion of a GA market,” the existence of which was in doubt in the early 1990s. Based on the forecasts made in the development of Cessna’s own entry into this sector, he said, fears of traffic congestion are unfounded and unwarranted. On September 8, Cessna’s Citation Mustang became the first VLJ to be fully certified by the FAA.

Pelton pointed to his company’s history to give lawmakers an idea of the potential for growth in the VLJ market. He said, “Today, our Citation fleet is the largest business jet fleet in the world, numbering around 4,500 aircraft, and it took us 35 years to put those jets into our customers’ hands,” he said. “Based on this experience, I believe general aviation will see steady and linear, not exponential, growth.”

Nick Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, assured the subcommittee that VLJ entry into the NAS will be a “well controlled and managed process.” He said that the system is in place today to accommodate the entry of new
aircraft–including unmanned aerial vehicles–into the NAS.

In joint testimony, Sabatini and Michael Cirillo, a vice president of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO), told the subcommittee that the FAA has established a cross-organizational group to address the issues of safety and system capacity created by the anticipated introduction of thousands of VLJs within the next 10 years.

This group includes elements from the ATO, Flight Standards Service, Aircraft Evaluation Group and Aircraft Certification Office. It has organized its work under separate committees that focus on pilot training and checking, flight operations, maintenance, inspector training and air traffic.

Training Concerns Unfounded
Raburn testified that among a number of faulty assumptions about VLJs is that they will be flown by inexperienced pilots. “The reality is that the people who are purchasing these airplanes are not just beginning to learn how to fly,” he said. “They are licensed, seasoned pilots who have earned multi-engine and instrument ratings from the FAA.”

He explained that Eclipse has set a “high bar for VLJ training overall” and last year instituted “an unprecedented training partnership” with United Airlines. “The partnership is designed to provide Eclipse pilots with the most advanced flight training available in general aviation,” he said. “The training program will provide a level of professional pilot training normally available only to airline pilots.”

Eclipse is participating in the FAA/Industry Training Standards program, which uses scenario-based training and case studies of previous aviation accidents and incidents to provide a learning environment that more closely resembles day-to-day flight experiences.

Iacobucci, who plans to use a fleet of Eclipse 500s to provide “what we consider to be the world’s first commercial per-seat/on-demand regional air transportation service” between secondary communities from non-airline airports, said that DayJet will typically fly in under-used airspace between 18,000 and 30,000 feet. The missions will be in the 100- to 600-sm range, and the flights will avoid entering Class B airspace.

Iacobucci emphasized that DayJet will be a Part 135-certified operator flying with two pilots. “Our business plan supports this level of personnel,” he said. “We will train our flight crews in a program that is similar to that of a traditional airline.”

DayJet expects to follow the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Twelve-Five rule for security, Iacobucci said, setting a higher standard for an aircraft in this weight class beyond today’s TSA requirements. “Our pilots and maintenance personnel will have 10-year background checks, our parking lots will be monitored, ramps will be fenced and all passengers will be escorted to and from our aircraft.”

Finally, Matthew Andersson, senior aviation consultant for Chicago-based CRA International, said the current debate between the airline industry and the GA private jet sector is an ill-founded one–unproductive, distracting and unnecessary.

A 10,000-hour ATP-rated pilot and a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he argued that various sound bites including “a blip is a blip,” “mosquito fleet” or “pterodactyl airlines” are needlessly antagonistic.

“As for the mosquito fleet,” Andersson said, “I prefer a smart team of peregrine falcons, of fast swallows or a VLJ family of ‘worker bees’ pollinating their environment and experts at making honey.”