““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Who will fly on VLJs? Pundits say: Probably not you!
A couple of years from now, will you be zipping around between meetings on one of the new very light jets? Assuming you already fly privately, the answer is probably no, according to many of the panelists at the recent Business Models for VLJs and Light Jets, a sold-out two-day conference in West Palm Beach, Fla.
That's not to say that the panelists are pessimistic about the prospects for very light jets-on the contrary. At the McGraw-Hill-sponsored event, which drew approximately 160 attendees from around the U.S. and abroad, a positively exuberant mood prevailed. A typical comment came from conference chairman William Garvey, editor in chief of Business & Commercial Aviation: "When I go to a party or have dinner with friends or neighbors and they find out what I do, someone will invariably ask me about 'those new little jets,'" he said. "In my 30 years in the field, I've never seen such a reaction."
So why don't the panelists think you'll be flying in VLJs? Because "we're not stealing customers [from other forms of aviation]," said Ed Iacobucci, president and CEO of DayJet Corp., which is introducing a VLJ air-taxi service with Eclipse 500s in Florida this summer. "We're going after a new market. Ninety percent of our potential customers drive now [to destinations DayJet will service]."
Added South Carolina-based aviation consultant Donald Baldwin, "You're not taking anyone out of a BBJ or a Challenger. You're adding a new customer." Stephan Hanvey, president and CEO of the South Carolina-based air-taxi service SATSair, agreed. "We don't see the VLJ as a substitution for other forms of flying," he said. "It's a replacement for a lot of driving."
In other words, while current readers of this magazine aren't likely to be spending much time in VLJs anytime soon, our future readers-the senior and perhaps even middle managers who report to you-may well do so.
An Evolutionary Creation
The word "revolution" came up often at the conference, but several speakers emphasized that the VLJs themselves do not represent fundamental change. "The biggest misconception is that it's about the airplane," Iacobucci said. "The VLJ is an evolutionary creation. It's basically what an airplane always was-a powerplant, two wings [and a fuselage]-but we're seeing a revolution in business models. The price point and creative models are what will create a revolution.
"I hate when people ask how we'll compete with Pogo Jet or Linear Air," he added, referring to two other companies that plan VLJ air-taxi services. "We're not. We're targeting different segments of a very large market."
Iacobucci and others clearly have high hopes for their ability to tap that market, and they back those hopes with impressive spreadsheets and focus group reports. But they clearly also understand the obstacles they face. "The real challenge is how do you educate the potential customer about the value proposition," said Bill Herp, president and CEO of Concord, Mass.-based Linear Air. (See '
Industry Insider: William Herp')
"Ramping up and getting the message to potential customers are our biggest challenges," agreed Pogo Jet executive vice president Mike Stuart. "We realize there's a significant amount of education needed."
And, said Mike Nichols, vice president of operations for the National Business Aviation Association, "Flight departments understand it's a different level of service and a different customer. The ones I've talked to are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They want to put employees on air-taxis like DayJet before bringing VLJs into their own organizations."
Few panelists seemed concerned about how passengers would react to the size of
the airplanes. "We put focus groups in the Eclipse for 45 minutes," Iacobucci said. "The uniform response was, 'You're right-it's small-but it sure beats the alternatives.' People said if they can fly in it for an hour and save five [hours], it's worth it."
Added Hanvey, "The size of the aircraft isn't the only factor. [Customers will consider] the whole package-the service, the price, the technology."
While the pervasive mood was bullish, the audience was not without its skeptics. "I don't think DayJet will make it," said one industry observer in an off-the-record conversation. "I hope they do and I'm wrong, but I don't think business travelers are going to be comfortable with a flexible flying schedule-they want to know when they're going to go. And DayJet's prices go up as your flexibility goes down. For the customer who doesn't want to give them a big scheduling window, the price may be too high."
Of course, no one really knows yet whether DayJet-or VLJs overall-will fly or flop. After several panelists offered highly upbeat assessments of the very light jet's prospects, an audience member asked them to predict how many of these aircraft will be sold over the next five years. After a silence made it clear that no one was willing to venture a guess, forum chairman Garvey joked, "We're going to have a contest. Whoever gets the right answer wins a prize."
Taking a ride in a VLJ
DayJet, a Boca Raton, Fla. company that is launching its innovative per-seat charter service in the Southeast, recently offered this reporter a preview flight in one of its new Eclipse 500 very light jets.
The airplane has five seats, two for the pilots and three for passengers. Entry is through a split cabin door in front of the left wing. One passenger seat is on the left side of the cabin, just behind the door, and two are on the right side. The forward right seat, which I occupied, was only nine inches behind the copilot's seat. I didn't want to adjust my seat backward, as this would have reduced legroom for the person sitting behind me, although he did have the option of reclining into the baggage area, as does the left-seat passenger.
The seats are solid and comfortable, and the cabin is more spacious than that in a typical small airplane. The interior, by BMW Group DesignworksUSA, is functional and maximizes the space. Passengers who have flown on larger business jets will notice the lack of cupholders. This is on purpose, as most DayJet flights will last an hour or two, and there is no lavatory on board. I did note some poorly installed plastic trim, but DayJet assured me that Eclipse is working on a fix.
Flying in the Eclipse 500 is fun. Its tiny Pratt & Whitney Canada engines are super-quiet and we were able to converse easily without shouting. As we climbed to nearly 20,000 feet, we were rewarded with an outstanding view from large windows and at one point, a fantastic sensation of speed as we zoomed over a layer of clouds at about 260 knots.
My impression was that a DayJet flight will handily beat driving or trying to get somewhere that the airlines don't serve or that involves a stop in Atlanta. A Boca Raton-Gainesville flight could cost $335 to $858, depending on time of day and the passenger's flexibility. (You pay less if you select a wider travel time window.) DayJet users must pay a $250 annual membership fee and must be willing to tolerate one 20-minute stop on each flight for possible pickup or dropoff of another passenger.