THINK of it as the Model T of business jets. The Cessna Mustang is cheap (a mere GBP 1.5m), standardised (you can choose one of three interior colours and stripes on the side if you want) and will be made in unprecedented numbers (150 a year).
The Mustang, a dinky machine that looks like a shrunken version of the planes that flew tycoons home from Davos last week, is the first of a new breed of small, affordable aircraft that will transform corporate aviation.
Very Light Jets (VLJs), as they are known, will flood into the skies over the next decade. They offer a sharp cut in the cost of private aviation, the rise of new kinds of airlines, and the creation of squadrons of owner-pilots. “This technology will change the way business people travel,” said Peter Leiman, managing director of Blink, a start-up air-taxi company with 45 Mustangs on order.
The first to touch down in Britain was shown to potential clients and owners at Farnborough airport last week. London Executive Aviation (LEA) has bought the first and has nine more coming. It will have seven, with three owned by clients and managed by LEA. “We plan to bring in 10 a year for the next few years,” said Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, chief executive. LEA expects to charge about GBP 3,200 for London-Paris return charters, about GBP 1,000 less than now.
Fancy one of your own? With a sticker price of $ 2.5m (probably $ 3m by the time you get it), the Mustang is much cheaper than a standard small business jet, which costs about $ 8m.
It’s not the cheapest. One rival, the Eclipse, costs $ 1.5m (list price), while the Embraer Phenom, from Brazil, is a shade under $3m. The Adam A700, which its promoters hope will be certified to fly this year, should come in at about $ 2.5m.
If you want a Mustang now, tough luck. Cessna is booked up until late 2011. If you must have one straight away, a trader might sell you his place in the queue – for about $ 300,000.
Thanks to this waiting list, it should be a decent investment. The boom in corporate jet travel (see panel on top right) means that almost all new aircraft hold their value, and some can be sold at a premium after two or three years of use.
But owners face hefty costs for flight crew, air-traffic control, landing fees, maintenance – and fuel. Marget-son-Rushmore said owners who give their aircraft to management companies should not expect to make an overall profit from hiring them out.
Those wanting rock-star style with double beds and champagne bars, should look elsewhere. This is the utilitarian end of corporate aviation. The Mustang has four seats (two facing two) and a cabin that estate agents would call “cosy”. The engines are inches away from the rear passengers’ heads, though the noise is muted. Catering is limited to what you take on board in a hamper, and there is no permanent toilet – just a bucket and curtain. More than three hours inside would be a chore, but that is the extent of the Mustang’s range.
It can fly 1,350 miles (far enough to get from London to Milan but not to Moscow) and cruise at 390mph, but these figures change according to pay-load and cruising height. Pilots say this should be fast enough to use the commercial airways around Europe.
With low prices there is speculation that the wealthy will start to fly themselves to business meetings, rather than use professional pilots. Industry executives are sceptical about this because of the time and training needed to get a licence, and the effort involved on the day.
“There might be people who will want to fly their own planes, but it’s a big commitment,” said Margetson-Rushmore. “I think business people want to focus on the business in hand rather than all the preparation for the flight.” The cheaper Eclipse may appeal most to owner-pilots.
The greatest change may come with the creation of new types of airlines based on the new planes. Two have already set up shop. Blink, founded by two former investment bankers, raised $ 30m, and Jet Bird, created by Irish financier Domhnal Slattery, raised $150m. Blink will fly the Cessna and Jet Bird the Embraer, of which it has 100 coming. Blink plans an air-taxi service, while Jet Bird will be a cross between an air taxi and air-line, with regular services on the most popular routes.
Leiman said he and co-founder Cameron Ogden got the idea for Blink when they saw how cheap the planes would be to buy and run. “They are half the cost and 30% cheaper to run than current jets. That changes the game completely,” he said.
He and Ogden worked on their plan by doing a study for Wal-Mart, the American retailer. “Wal-Mart concluded that the new planes would cut its travel budget by 25% and make it viable to put employees earning just $ 50,000 a year on a private jet.”
He believes that the new planes will come into their own working for big companies to connect secondary cities across Europe. “To go from Montpelier to Limerick and back in a day just isn’t possible on commercial airlines. But these planes make a private flight cost-effective.”
Blink’s first aircraft arrives in May, with services starting shortly after. Eventually, says Leiman, prices will be competitive with British Airways fully flexible business-class fares.
Jet Bird plans to start flights next year. Stefan Vilner, chief executive, said it wanted to be the Ryanair of private-jet travel. It will limit itself to 80 destinations in Europe, with five or six operational hubs between London and Rome.
“This is very much like the early days of low-cost airlines with Ryanair and Easyjet. There is an excitement about being in at the start of something new,” he said.
MAKERS of corporate planes are enjoying a bonanza.
Last year the number of business jets delivered worldwide broke passed 1,000 for the first time. Some analysts believe this is not just another high point in a cycle, but a sign that the industry is shifting to a higher gear.
Honeywell, the American group that makes engines and avionics for many jets, has forecast that over the next decade 1,400 planes a year will be delivered on average – which translates into a market worth GBP 113 billion.
The boom is the result of a combination of circumstances. The weakness of the dollar, in which all corporate jets are priced, has helped affordability, while globalisation means there is a broader base of customers, with Russia and eastern Europe as hotspots.