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Monday, October 8, 2007

So, What’s a VLJ?

In the helter skelter world of the National Business Aircraft Association meeting where sensory overload is a permanent condition and participants walk around with expressions that combine the intensity of a marathoner with the vacant stare of someone just hit by a truck, AviationToday’s VLJ Report had only one question for the airframe and engine original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and operator we managed to meet.
Define the VLJ market, we asked. Is it an aircraft? Is it a mission? Is it the number of passengers or the acquisition costs? Is it a matter of stand-up headroom or aircraft weight? Like beauty, a VLJ is clearly in the eye of the beholder or the salesman, as the case may be.
As expected, the answer varied with the manufacturer with some, such as Grob, jumping on the VLJ bandwagon despite being heavier than what the conventional wisdom accepts as a definition at 10,000 pounds. Others, like Cessna and HondaJet, while meeting that definition sought to distance themselves from the VLJ market – a little – clearly more comfortable with focusing their sales efforts on owner/operators rather than the burgeoning number of per-seat, on-demand models. Adam Aircraft, proud of its VLJ title, is also concentrating on the owner/operator.
The half dozen or so individuals who spoke with AviationToday’s VLJReport seemed to focus more on mission and range as well as the role of VLJs in expanding the aviation market beyond its traditional customers.
As our interviews provided too much copy for one report, we will be running the interviews over the next few weeks. We hope to start a dialogue with our readers who can post comments as to what they think the answer should be.

Engine OEMs
Engine OEMs GE Honda Aero Engines and Pratt & Whitney Canada are expecting to do for small jet owners what their companies did the regional airline industry’s turboprops and jets – make them rugged, reliable and maximize ease of maintenance. Both company’s defined the VLJ market as more mission than equipment.
GE Honda Aero Engines President Bill Dwyer sees the attributes of a very light jet as a combination of range, payload and cost; specifically four to seven passengers, with a range of 1,200 to 1,800 miles with twin engines. That would, of course, include both the 2,095-pound thrust on the HondaJet and Spectrum’s Freedom, both powered by his engine. Related Story
“If you look at the different market segments you have the different applications – the owner/operator, the fractional market, charters and air taxis,” he said, echoing nearly every OEM, but predicting that the charter and fractional markets will be very strong. “The charter and fractional market models have been proven. But each mode has their own questions and speculation on what will be successful. A lot will depend on the aircraft ruggedness. Durability is very important and that is the big question for the air taxi industry. From my standpoint all the barriers that have been raised about VLJs are solveable. The big question is how to make it ultra convenient to pay a premium for [passenger’s] time to fly on a VLJ.”
He pointed out everyone was still very bullish on VLJs, predicting 300 deliveries a year at minimum. “This is an entirely new space,” he said. “Turboprop deliveries have been 280 to 300 aircraft per year and VLJs will soon be at that every year.”
As for stand-up headroom, he indicated that a cabin height of four-foot, 10-inches is fine when you are sitting down, and provides the legroom and luxury of bigger jets.
GE’s take is to exploit the market by producing an engine family for different products such as the HondaJet and a 1,600-pound-thrust of the Honda 118. He noted that Honda was currently making 20 million engines a year with durability and high life cycles along with fuel efficiency and, as with others in the manufacturing industry such as Spectrum and Eclipse, lessons are being learned about mass production from of the auto industry and applied with airframes and engines in the aviation industry.
Pratt & Whitney’s Vice President-Business Aviation Claude Lachapelle said the traditional market for business equipment was around 600 aircraft per year for the air taxi market, which will increase to 1,000 per year. He explained that his light engines had achieved considerable market share on at least four aircraft. The PW 615 powers the Cessna Mustang while the 610 is on the Eclipse 500. The 617 powers the Embraer Phenom 100, in a continuation of his company’s successful relationship with the South American manufacturer. Finally, the 615 and 617 will both go on different models of Epic Aviation’s VLJs, which have been undergoing a sales surge this year. See related story, this issue.
Pratt is currently ramping up to provide 1,500 to 2,000 engines per hear to the market. “We didn’t have such an engine 10 years ago,” he said. “This new air taxi concept was not there. But we invested in the engine technology focusing on a simple, low-part-count engine with good economics and good performance. In addition to the owner/operator and air taxi markets, there will be other missions such as training, replacing some of the most expensive aircraft now used for training.”
Lachapelle also sees a market for freight especially in small-package freight services. “There are a lot of applications and as the market matures there will be more, some of which we didn’t even consider when we first developed our engine.”
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