Something happened last week in Albuquerque, N.M., that may soon affect every business traveler. It was a relatively modest event involving a relatively small jet that may well herald a major revolution in air travel.
The Eclipse 500, the very first of a new category of airplane called Very Light Jets (jets under 10,000 pounds gross weight, with only six seats), won provisional certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Translation: this FAA approval could eventually free the beleaguered, non-Gulfstream-owning road warrior from the gulag of commercial air travel!
OK, that may be a bit overstated, but what the dawn of the VLJ (very light jet) is scheduled to usher in is the beginning of nationwide aerial jet taxi services provided by several companies whose aircraft will be able to swoop in on-demand to a local airport, pick you up, and fly you directly to another local airport of your choosing. By "local airports," by the way, I mean those easy-to-use small fields where you can actually find parking and board your flight within minutes of arriving. (There are thousands around the country.) In other words, an economical and routine way of avoiding major hub airports such as New York's JFK, Chicago's O'Hare, and Atlanta's Hartsfield (as in: "I don't know where I'm going to go when I die, but I do know I'll connect through Atlanta!")
Think about it. No changing planes in enormous terminals.
No two hour-before-departure arrivals at the airport.
And no lost or delayed bags.
The cost of this service? Well, that's the best part: It is expected to be about around the price of a fully refundable coach airline ticket (roughly $1.70 per seat per mile) — a fraction of what it costs to charter a private jet.
What makes VLJs possible are a new generation of very small but ultra-powerful turbofan jet engines (the Eclipse 500's engines, for instance, weigh around 250 pounds but produce 900 pounds of thrust), and the advanced use of lightweight, non-metallic carbon-fiber materials. The new Eclipse is pressurized, able to fly at more than 365 knots, and features a state-of-the-art computerized cockpit with the same all-weather capabilities a Boeing has. It will be able to fly over a thousand miles without refueling, and carry up to five passengers and a pilot with safety levels expected to equal those of the major airlines.
If you happen to be the CEO of a company sufficiently successful to own or lease a business aircraft, you already understand the immense benefits a private jet holds over commercial travel, none more pronounced than time saved. The difference between VLJs and corporate jets, however, is money, and only money — a VLJ can do the same point-to-point job as a Gulfstream, but at one-sixth the expense!
Frankly, airline travel, especially on shorter business trips to smaller communities, is a stressful, inefficient, bloody agony. That's what VLJs can help avoid. As I've detailed before in this column, the only way to truly survive a regular exposure to this system is to realize that you must jump over the commercial airline and TSA hurdles to ride, or be penalized by missed flights, extra nights without a paid hotel, lost bags, and massive increases in stress.