Proponents say VLJs will revolutionize Euro air travel
Eurocontrol plans to launch a so-called Very Light Jet Integration Platform (VIP) to discuss issues relating to the introduction of the new generation of business/personal aircraft. But is the European air traffic management agency overestimating the potential impact VLJs will have on the crowded European airspace or are the concerns warranted?
Chairing a recent workshop in Brussels on the subject, Alex Hendriks, deputy director of ATM Strategies at Eurocontrol, said that, “faced with the legitimate concerns and enthusiasm of many in the industry, Eurocontrol had decided to get prepared for the worst-case scenario if it happens.”
VLJs are expected to be one of the fastest growing sectors in aviation. According to projections, several thousands of them could be flying in Europe by 2020. However, according to representatives of manufacturers Embraer and Cessna and the would-be operators there is little reason to worry.
“The doom and gloom prophecy of VLJs darkening the European skies is not likely to happen,” said Jetbird director of operations Patrick Raftery. Jetbird is the European launch customer of the Embraer Phenom and has ordered 50 Phenom 100 VLJs for use in a new air-taxi service.
However, according to statistics released by Eurocontrol last year, VLJs could account for 200 European flights a day in 2009, and as many as 1,000 flights a day by 2015. An average of 26,000 IFR flights are operated daily in Europe.
According to Eurocontrol, existing business aviation traffic increased by 11 percent last year–nearly twice the rate of growth recorded in 2005. Business aviation accounted for 7.4 percent of all IFR flights.
Be they a replacement for old pistons or turboprops or a niche market, VLJs remain an unknown factor for several reasons. Eurocontrol wants to resolve questions such as how many of them will be in operation, where they will fly and at what altitude. “We know VLJs are different, but how different are they?” reflected Joe Sultana, manager of Eurocontrol’s Dynamic Management of European Airspace Network program.
In any case, ATM service providers will have to give them the same service as they do for other airspace users, without discrimination. Eurocontrol’s guess is that VLJs will most probably fly at already heavily-populated flight levels but at speeds approximately 15 percent slower than the rest of the traffic. This will have an impact on airspace design and capacity.
Will VLJs Equip?
Eurocontrol wants to establish whether these small jets make the grade in terms of current avionics requirements: i.e. mode-S, 8.33 kHz radios, RVSM and PRnav. Another concern is that there is no mandate for VLJs to equip with airborne collision avoidance systems, for which the threshold has been set at 12,540 pounds mtow by regulators.
European Business Aviation Association chief executive Brian Humphries had a more realistic and cautious approach at what could be the potential role of VLJs in Europe. According to EBAA, VLJs will only be successful in Europe if they can deliver significantly reduced costs, to maximize the productivity and efficiency of SMEs and middle managers. Furthermore, they will have to deliver a reliable service, in terms of availability and all-weather operations capability. Finally, they will have to address the safety concerns in terms of avionics equipage and pilot training.
“If not significantly cheaper than existing small business jets, will passengers accept travel in cramped cabins, with limited luggage space and no lavatory?” he asked. Finally, Humphries said he 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.”
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is currently working on 10 VLJ certification programs. The Cessna Citation Mustang has already been certified and the Eclipse 500 is expected to follow before year-end.
Currently, EASA applies special conditions for VLJ certification. However, the European agency is working closely with its U.S. counterparts to adopt new certification specifications for these aircraft.