By Karen Di Piazza
Each year, for the past 59 years, only one place in the U.S. allows you to connect with leaders of aviation businesses from all over the world, find out about new aviation related products and services, and learn where industry trends are heading. It’s at the National Business Aviation Association’s Annual Meeting & Convention, this year held Oct. 17-19, at the Orange County Convention Center, in Orlando, Fla.
Everyone attending the event found something of interest as exhibitors occupied 5,235 10-by-10-foot booths. With a record-breaking attendance of 33,088 visitors, vendors did well, garnering attention and business.
The NBAA holds public forums at each convention, but this year, it focused much of its resources to promote the forum opposing user fees, now being promoted by the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ lobbying group. The forum’s panel featured leaders from all major aviation associations, who denounced the concept. The message was clear: “user fees are general aviation’s nemesis.” Panel guests declared “war” against the airlines and others promoting the idea.
Attendees at this year’s event expected several very light jet announcements and offerings, which might explain the massive global media turnout. Guests and journalists were eager to hear about the VLJs, and were especially anticipating HondaJet news. As new aircraft announcements and unveilings took place on the convention floor, the HondaJet and Cessna’s CJ4 and XLS+ offerings drew the largest crowds, with more than 350 people vying for standing room.
The buzz–all ears on VLJs and their operators
Honda Aircraft Co. announced that the HondaJet, the company’s standard five-passenger VLJ, is priced at $3.65 million; for years, people have waited to hear its price tag. During the three-day event, Honda took more than 100 orders for its VLJ, styled with the engines mounted high on the wings. The company hasn’t yet announced the final price tag for an air-taxi version that will seat six passengers, nor has it announced where in the U.S. the jets will be manufactured.
The HondaJet will be equipped with a three-display Garmin avionics package, and GE/Honda HF1230 engines will provide power. The VLJ will also have a flushing toilet with a privacy door.
Honda had been eying the aircraft market for more than 40 years and secretly poured millions into R&D before publicly announcing it would join the VLJ fray. The company has announced its marketing agreement with Piper Aircraft Inc.
Cessna Aircraft Co., a Textron subsidiary, claimed 115 jet orders, worth more than $1 billion. Including pre-show agreements, Cessna has booked more than 160 orders for its fourth quarter. Also during the event, the airframer reported the sales of four new single-turboprop Caravans. Cessna announced it’s developing a new large cabin-concept plane, with room for at least nine passengers. The company is currently collecting feedback from potential buyers regarding desired features.
Bell Helicopter, a Textron subsidiary, took orders for 10 commercial helicopters, which included the 429 and 430 models.
Spectrum Aeronautical drew a crowd to its S-33 VLJ display. Inside the jet’s cabin, you
won’t find overhead room cluttered with lights, air ducts or controls; everything is built-in on the sidewalls. The electric-powered seats sit low on the cabin floor and slide back and forth to increase leg and headroom. With exceptionally large windows, the cabin seems larger than it is.
Piper Aircraft unveiled its VLJ, the PiperJet, a six-place, single-turbofan design with a 35,000-foot flight ceiling. Priced at $2.199 million, options include a lav or seventh seat.
Cirrus Design announced that a Williams International FJ33-4A-19 engine will power its single-turbofan. The-jet by Cirrus will have a built-in parachute recovery system, retractable gear and a 25,000-foot flight ceiling.
Ed and Nancy Iacobucci, cofounders of Florida-based DayJet, are the largest stakeholders in the VLJ air-taxi concept. Their company has ordered 239 Eclipse 500s, with options for 70 more, and was hoping to use the VLJs for air-taxi service by the holidays. DayJet will delay service until the first quarter of 2007, as the airframer is behind production schedule. Ed Iacobucci is also looking at other VLJ manufactures; he’s sure his unique per-seat priced operation will succeed.
Start-up Magnum Jet, based in Houston, plans to compete against DayJet, but will sell its air-taxi service based on jet charters, rather than per-seat pricing. Jim Burns, president, ordered 50 Adam Aircraft A700s and 50 Embraer Phenom 100s.
South Carolina-based SATSair currently operates 26 Cirrus SR-22s and plans to operate 100 aircraft in the coming years. Steve Hanvey, president, said using Cirrus’ single-engine pistons proves that jets aren’t necessary to operate an air-taxi service.
Linear Air, based in Lexington, Mass., runs air-taxi services with Cessna’s turboprop Grand Caravans. The company will soon add 30 Eclipse 500s to its charter service, and if all goes well, LA will exercise its option to take delivery of more 500s.
Stratford, Conn.-based Pogo placed a refundable deposit for 75 A700s, but is also looking at Cessna, Spectrum and Embracer VLJs.
With the emerging VLJs, several fractional companies have surfaced, hoping to sell shares in forthcoming small twinjets. California-based Jet-Alliance has about 600 customers wanting to purchase shares in the Eclipse; each share is priced at $95,000. UK-based OurPlane, also selling shares in the 500, is significantly more expensive, at $329,900 per share, plus management fees.
Even with all the hoopla, many people believe that eventually, most VLJs will be owner-flown versus FAR Part 135 operations. VLJ manufacturers don’t seem to mind the skeptics, as long as orders keep coming.