Europeans study VLJ impact

 - July 3, 2007, 11:03 AM

A recent Eurocontrol-sponsored VLJ workshop gave the agency and potential operators the opportunity to discuss the impact of the coming class of very light jets (VLJs) on the ATC system. While Eurocontrol suggests that the small jets will tax the system, representatives from the business aviation sector maintain that they will not have a dramatic impact on the system.

Alex Hendriks, deputy director of ATM strategies at Eurocontrol, who chaired the workshop, noted that the agency is preparing for the worst case. VLJs are expected to be one of the fastest growing sectors in aviation. According to some projections, several thousand of them could be flying in Europe by 2020. Statistics released by Eurocontrol last year suggest that VLJs could account for 200 flights a day in 2009 and as many as 1,000 flights a day by 2015.

However, according to representatives of manufacturers Embraer and Cessna and operators at the workshop, the agency’s fears are unfounded. “The doom and gloom prophecy of VLJs darkening the European skies is not likely to happen,” said Patrick Raftery, director of operations for JetBird, a company that is planning to offer point-to-point service using the Embraer Phenom 100. JetBird is the European launch customer for the Embraer Phenom and has ordered 50 Phenom 100s (as well as 50 options converted to the larger Phenom 300). The order is valued at about $280 million.

Brian Humphries, CEO of the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), took a similar view. According to EBAA, VLJs will be successful only if they can deliver significantly reduced costs and reliable service and address safety concerns about avionics equipage and pilot training.

“If [VLJs are] not significantly cheaper than existing small business jets, will passengers accept traveling in cramped cabins, with limited luggage space and no lavatory?” he asked. Finally, Humphries sees only “steady growth rather than an explosion of air-taxi operations in Europe–with perhaps about 50 aircraft deliveries per year–due to the limited number of small airfields with required IFR all-weather capabilities and significantly higher landing, handling and operating costs than in the U.S.”

Safety Considerations
For the ATM agency, VLJs remain an unknown quantity because it is not yet known how many VLJs there will be or where they will fly.

Joe Sultana, Eurocontrol DMEAN (dynamic management of European airspace network) program manager, said, “We know VLJs are different, but how different?” Regardless of how different they are, ATM has to provide them the same service as other airspace users without discrimination.

As a result, Eurocontrol experts are trying to figure out what their average cruising speed will be (Mach 0.62), at which altitudes they will operate (FL330 to FL350), and over what distances (average flight time 75 minutes). The two main areas of concern are flight-level occupancy and the operational profile of VLJs. The agency predicts that VLJs will most probably fly in already populated level bands at speeds approximately 15 percent slower than the rest of the traffic. This will have an impact on airspace design and capacity, and therefore safety.

Other ATC considerations include wake vortex separation during the climb/descent phase and the workload for air traffic controllers, who will have to manage aircraft with disparate speeds en route and in terminal maneuvering areas. And if the VLJs’ range is restricted and they fly at lower levels, what will be the impact on ATC clearances?

Flying at lower speeds than other jets operating in the same airspace and at the same congested airports, VLJs might also present a new safety risk. Furthermore, the agency questions whether these small jets will be equipped with mode-S and 8.33-kHz radios and comply with RVSM and PRnav standards. Another concern is that there is no mandate for VLJs to equip with ACAS (TCAS 2) for which the threshold has been an mtow of 5,700 kg (12,566 pounds). In single-pilot operations, the highest approach standard that an individual can achieve is Category I ILS.

All this means that VLJ pilots will need to have the right training and experience to fly the very light jets.

On-demand charter is nothing new for business aviation, but new business models are emerging to take advantage of the performance and lower operating costs of this new breed of business jet. For these, as for commercial air transport, two-pilot operation will be the norm.

Certification Issues
The coming generation of VLJs also presents some regulatory questions. In fact, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is working on 10 VLJ certification or validation projects. The first one to be certified is the Cessna Mustang. The airplane received FAA type certification in September and EASA type certification in May. European customers have ordered more than 100 Citation Mustangs.

The Eclipse 500 was awarded FAA certification last year, and a production certificate followed a few months later. The European certification process for the Eclipse 500 is ongoing. An EASA spokesperson declined to comment on details of the process, saying only, “We are in good and close cooperation with the manufacturer.” An Eclipse Aviation spokesman commented, “We are on track to receive EASA certification by the end of this year.”

VLJs in Europe are currently certified using Special Conditions under CS-23.
To improve the rulemaking process, the agency is working closely with the FAA to adopt new certification specifications for these aircraft.