Little jets get the test in Indiana: New aircraft could help small airports shave costs

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A top Indiana economist will study whether an emerging class of aircraft known as “very light jets” could fuel an economic boom, especially in the state’s smaller, more isolated communities.

Morton J. Marcus, director emeritus of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, will gauge the potential impact of VLJs in six communities, including Mount Comfort Airport in Hancock County.

Several aircraft makers next year plan to launch the diminutive jets, which can whisk up to six people as far as 1,500 miles via airports not now accessible to corporate jets needing longer runways.

The planes could be attractive as a moreaffordable corporate aircraft, starting at about $975,000, but also are being touted for air taxi operations.

Key to these micro-jets are technologies such as lightweight composite materials, advanced navigation systems using GPS and small-butpowerful engines with origins in cruise missiles.

VLJs could be flown into airports without towers or ground-based navigation systems and with runways as short as 2,000 to 2,900 feet.

That’s about half the runway length required for many business jets.

“I think every airport in the state is likely to be a beneficiary,” Marcus said of the state’s 117 public-access and 564 privateaccess airports. Some have spent millions of dollars on runway extensions to accommodate business jets.

“What immediately struck me was a major change [opportunity] that exists for smaller communities for economic development.”

Marcus is the economic adviser to the Indiana Small Aircraft Transportation System. INSATS was launched last year as the sixth “SATS” lab funded by a $69 million, five-year federal research and development program managed by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility.

Indiana is among a select group of states in the SATS program, with the Hoosier effort inspired by a campaign to save Smith Field, a small airport in Fort Wayne.

One of the goals is to find a way to more evenly distribute air travel. About 98 percent of air passengers now go through 460 commercial airports, and 70 percent of the total is routed through 30 big hub airports.

The other five SATS labs-in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia-are focused more on aircraft technology. INSATS is looking at the economic development potential VLJs could bring to a state.

Indiana is a good test bed because it has a large number of smaller communities with good infrastructure, such as utilities, but not necessarily interstate or air access.

“There are so many airports in Indiana that are just perfectly suited for this [VLJ],” said Bob Wearley, president of INSATS and former marketing director for Fort Wayne International Airport. Wearley was chief pilot for Howard Hughes’ personal fleet from 1969 to 1978 and previously flew Boeing 747s for Royal Jordanian and Singapore Airlines.

Among the VLJs undergoing federal certification and expected to be sold in late 2006 is the Eclipse 500, by Albuquerque-based Eclipse Aviation.

The E500 seats 6 and is powered by two Pratt & Whitney engines. The tiny, 14-inch-wide turbofans can launch the Eclipse off the ground in just 2,155 feet.

It can cruise at 400 miles per hour up to 41,000 feet-higher than most commercial airliners typically fly.

The E500 will carry a $1.2 million price tag-less than half the cost of the least-expensive new corporate jet. Manufacturers also tout fuel efficiency and low operating costs

More about the economics of VLJs and their potential to create “on-demand” travel for businesses will be discussed April 7 at Purdue University in West Lafayette during a conference sponsored by INSATS and Purdue.

Among those on hand will be Pat Miller, CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., and executives from Stratford, Conn.-based Pogo Jet Inc., which plans to use VLJs as part of an air taxi service starting on the East Coast. Pogo’s principals include former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall and People Express founder Donald Burr.

Skeptics counter that if such a large market exists for VLJ air taxi service, then turboprop aircraft would already darken the skies. Those aircraft already serve smaller airports, albeit flying at slower speeds.

“If there was a market, it would have been catered to a long time ago,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Fairfax, Va., aviation consulting firm The Teal Group.

Aboulafia said the economic boom of the late 1990s resulted in a 350-percent jump in the business jet market, with those at the top end of the economy still using their own business jets or purchasing a fractional interest in a jet, through such fractional companies such as Warren Buffet’s NetJets.

The middle segment of the economy, however, isn’t moving away from scheduled air service to private aviation. “The $800,000-to-$2 million [aircraft] segment is historically a no-man’s land. People either need a real business jet, starting at around $4 million, or they are hobbyists,” Aboulafia added.

Skeptics also say some air taxi firms, despite the promise of the superior economics of VLJs, still would charge more than commercial airlines on some routes.

Marcus said one of the apparent plusses Indiana companies could enjoy with VLJs would be the ability to quickly and directly fly executives to visit clients in remote towns not served by commercial airlines.

A number of Indiana towns have been “languishing” because they have neither interstate highway nor air access, he said.

VLJs also could provide better access to larger airports. “It means you can make connections. You don’t have to drive from Logansport to Chicago,” Marcus said.

For now, Marcus won’t even attempt to quantify how VLJs could spur business in the state. He’s trying to ascertain what would happen to airports and businesses surrounding them if more traffic was pushed through the airports. Besides Mount Comfort, he’s looking at airports in Connersville, Delphi, Frankfort, Logansport and Richmond.

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