JANUARY 20, 2007
The way you fly is about to change. In the next few years, the skies will start to fill with tiny private jets -- light, low-noise planes working as air taxies that take families to Disneyland or tote executives to Las Vegas for a quick meeting, then back the same day.
Aviation enthusiasts have been predicting this air travel revolution since 2000, when an Albuquerque-based company called Eclipse Aviation announced it was working on an affordable, nonpolluting jet made of aluminum, with two engines the size of mere laundry baskets. The first one was sold this Christmas.
New technology aside, people say the Eclipse 500 -- known as a "Very Light Jet," or VLJ -- will cause a watershed movement in the aviation industry because of its price of $1.5 million, which is a third of what it would cost to buy a more traditional jet. People should start seeing the VLJs during the next couple of years.
What's more, if the VLJ concept takes off, general aviation airports such as Concord's Buchanan Airport and the Livermore Municipal Airport in Alameda County could see major increases in flight activity. Some people are even predicting a complete metamorphosis, where air traffic will no longer be centered above major airports such as San Francisco International, but spread out evenly across the United States and the world via small county-operated airports.
"I believe it will transform the way we live," said Ellen Williams, a local aviation expert who works on such issues as a member of the Concord Chamber of Commerce board. "I think it will do for general aviation what the cell phone has done for the communications industry," Williams said.
She predicts local businesses will quit buying the more expensive 10-seat jets that require in-flight crews and two pilots, opting instead to fly their executives on this six-seat jet, with a single pilot. And eventually, she says, air taxi businesses will pop up, shuttling the public around on what she calls a smaller version of United Airlines or Southwest. "I think this is a lot more imminent than people think," Williams said.
"I think we'll very soon see a two-tiered aviation system where there will be the Uniteds and the Deltas of the world. "And then there will be the convenience traveler who will begin flying through a combination of VLJs and other jets," she said, noting that pricing hasn't come out yet. "If you live in Concord and can fly from Buchanan to a spot half-way across the country, why not?"
Preliminary estimates are that it will cost $1 per mile, said Geoffrey Logan, a Walnut Creek aviation insurance broker.
Keith Freitas, Buchanan's general manager, said there are already plans to expand hangar space to accommodate these and other jets housed locally. Right now, there are 500 jets based at Buchanan, plus a hefty waiting list.
Livermore Municipal Airport also expects increased activity. "With so much corporate activity in the Valley, we're optimistic that businesses will start buying these and operating them out of Livermore," said Leander Hauri, Livermore's airport manager. "We will see -- jets are usually associated with noise but this is a new generation. They're supposed to be much, much quieter than propeller planes."
Eclipse has 2,500 people on its waiting list across the United States and Europe already, including 103 Californians, and there is a year-and-a-half wait. Cessna is working on its own version of the VLJ, as is Honda and a company called Adam Aircraft Industries. According to Honeywell Aerospace, an average of 250 VLJs will be delivered annually during the next decade.
The first VLJ, an Eclipse, was sold to a South Bay man on Dec. 31, and the company is in the midst of a nationwide jet tour that included a stop at the San Jose Jet Center on Wednesday. One of the attendees that day, pilot Gary Cocola, said he wants to upgrade from his Cessna 340. "These things are pretty popular," Cocola said. "I want it outright, not sharing any ownership like some others are talking about, and I'd like to have it now. I've been watching the developments for years."
Buchanan's Freitas said even nonpilots are weighing in, including people who normally oppose increased activity at Buchanan because they worry about their quality of life. "Buchanan will never become an international airport because of land restrictions, but if you ask people who live around it, they're saying they want more advanced technology -- lower emissions, lower levels of noise."
Hal Yeager of the watchdog group People Over Planes says the new jets sound like "a win-win for everyone," noting the craft is 10 times quieter than the average jet, and smoke emissions are almost immeasurable. "But I don't think you're going to see the absolute influx that everyone is talking about," Yeager said. "They just can't make them fast enough."
"We're not in a position where we're necessarily promoting these jets," he added, "but we'd also welcome positive developments for the airport as long as it makes sense for the community." He did have concerns, however, about safety. Often, he said, pilots will jump into high-performance jets after flying smaller propeller planes and find themselves in over their heads. But he was complimentary of Eclipse's in-house pilot training program -- something aircraft manufacturers are starting to institute.
Keith McMahon, president of the Concord Chamber of Commerce, said regardless of what happens, Concord will be ready. The hangar projects at Buchanan are moving slow right now, but once that activity picks up, residents will start to see more jet activity, he said. "And with the Concord Naval Weapons Station and the development happening out there, Concord really could emerge as the major commercial hub in Contra Costa County," he said. "People always forget about Concord, but if this happens, that won't be the case anymore."
The Eclipse 500, the first "very light jet" (or VLJ) to get Federal Aviation Administration certification, costs $1.5 million -- a third the price of traditional high-performance jets. The first Eclipse was sold and delivered to San Jose businessman David Crowe on Dec. 31.
Source: Contra Costa Times