Eclipse boss dismisses his EU detractors

 - November 29, 2006, 6:16 AM

Eclipse Aviation founder and CEO Vern Raburn is convinced Europe will be fertile ground for his Eclipse 500 very light jet, in spite of critics who say the airplane will struggle as an air taxi in the restrictive operating environment on this side of the Atlantic.

But Raburn insisted that he doesn’t see anything fundamentally different between flight operations in North America and Europe that would lead him to believe the Eclipse 500 couldn’t succeed as an air taxi here just easily as in the U.S. The languages and attitudes of the people may differ, he said, but the need for point-to-point travel exists on both continents.

Responding to critics who say the Eclipse 500 won’t mix well with airliner traffic in Europe because of its relatively slower speed, Raburn made a couple of points that he said also apply to operations in North America. First, ATC technology will allow aircraft of varying speeds to operate on the same airways, and that trend will continue into the future as the FAA and Eurocontrol continue to modernize their air traffic control systems. And second, even if the Eclipse 500 is forced to fly below airline traffic, the impact on speed and fuel burn will be minimal, he said. Just a week ago, Raburn said he was flying in the Eclipse 500 at FL270 at a true airspeed of 355 knots with exactly the same fuel burn as a much slower twin turboprop.

This year marks Eclipse’s third as an EBACE exhibitor, and Raburn said the buzz surrounding his company has never been more palpable. The excitement stems from the fact that anticipated certification of the airplane is less than two months away.

“We are definitely seeing a huge increase in interest, Raburn said. “We think this week will translate into quite a few sales to European buyers. In fact, we sold some airplanes already this week before the show even started.”

Eclipse currently holds orders for about 140 airplanes placed by European buyers. The figure counts as only a small portion of the total Eclipse order book, now approaching 2,500 aircraft. Part of the reason European buyers may have been reluctant to hand over deposits to this point could have to do with the fact that Eclipse and Raburn have said very little about the company’s strategy here related to pilot training and maintenance.

European pilots will need to travel to the U.S. for initial instruction in the Eclipse 500, at least early on. (Eclipse announced Wednesday that its Eastern European service center partner will be a newly formed company called ETIRC Aviation Europe.)

“As a start-up company, we have to be very, very careful about how we allocate resources, and not just in terms of money,” he said. “There isn’t any way in the world we can legitimately open a service center in Europe for three airplanes or build a training facility for six pilots. It’s a balancing act,” Raburn added.

Once Eclipse 500s start appearing in European skies in greater numbers, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based manufacturer plans to establish maintenance and training centers here, although Raburn said he is unsure at this stage how the overall “network” will be structured. In the U.S. Eclipse plans to have five maintenance centers operating within the next 18 months and a training facility in Colorado.

Raburn said his company will soon create a European version of the JetComplete power-by-the-hour maintenance program available to U.S. customers. He added that the cost should be about the same as the $210 per flight hour in the U.S. plan.