The Federal Aviation Administration has taken measured steps to prepare for the new generation of Very Light Jets, and a leading government watchdog agency is satisfied that VLJs can be smoothly and safely incorporated into the National Airspace System. But the Government Accountability Office is less clear on what the future holds for VLJs in terms of market and their overall impact on traffic. The GAO late last month delivered that report to House aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The GAO looked at eight different forecasts to determine how many VLJs were projected to reach the market. But those forecasts varied widely, predicting that anywhere between 3,000 to 7,600 VLJs would be delivered over 10 to 20 years. Those forecasts all believed that there would be some level of economic growth during their predicted forecast period.
"We compared Very Light Jet forecasts to more general business jet forecasts and found that there was less consensus among forecasts about the expected number of VLJ deliveries than there was about other aircraft deliveries, which demonstrates the divergence of opinion about Very Light Jet deliveries," GAO said.
The largest area of disagreement between the forecasts, GAO said, was the future of the air taxi market. Some forecasters, such as the Teal Group, predicted little growth in the air taxi market. Others, such as VLJ developer Embraer, believe that the air taxi market alone could spur 2,500 to 3,000 VLJ deliveries by 2016.
GAO also surveyed government, academia, OEMs, operators, associations and insurance companies, which agreed that the air taxi market could significantly affect VLJ demand. "However, several experts did not think air taxi operations will succeed on a large scale and noted that the on-demand business model is nothing new," GAO said. "They argued that if the point-to-point on-demand air taxi business model was so attractive, it could have become popular already using similar existing business jets and propeller aircraft."
Other Factors That Could Propel The VLJ Market
Beyond the air taxi market, GAO pointed to other factors that could propel the VLJ market, including the retirement of a large number of aging aircraft and the growing number of VLJ models that provide potential customers more options. The experts that GAO consulted also pointed to passenger dissatisfaction with other forms of transportation, low purchase price and operating costs of VLJs and access to a larger pool of airports.
"Part of the problem in forecasting the demand for VLJs is the lack of information available to make more accurate predictions," GAO told the House members. "Since Very Light Jet manufacturers have just begun delivering the new aircraft, there is little information about product demand," GAO said. "Forecasters indicated that they based their assumptions about Very Light Jet demand on information about past deliveries of other aircraft in comparable price classes, such as light jets and turboprop airplanes; however, these aircraft do not have exactly the same performance characteristics as Very Light Jets."
The same holds true with predicting the future of the air taxi market. Since the first delivery of a VLJ to an air taxi company didn´t take place until March 2007, there is no past market information to draw upon, GAO said. The delay in getting such aircraft to the market also has made past forecasts unreliable.
While there is some dispute over the future of the market for VLJs, there is little dispute about the ability to integrate VLJs into the NAS, GAO said. FAA has taken a number of steps to ensure a smooth transition, including the development of a government/industry group on VLJs. This group looked at pilot training, inspector training, flight operations, maintenance and air traffic.
Other steps FAA has taken include working with industry associations to bring air taxi operations into the collaborative decision-making process, working with air traffic control centers to prepare them for any unique VLJ issues, establishing a VLJ computer simulation model for controllers, researching the impact on U.S. airports and conducting a wake turbulence study.
FAA´s certification processes and procedures for aircraft, pilots and maintenance will help ensure a safe entrance into the NAS, GAO said. GAO added that these airplanes incorporate advanced navigation technology that also will help safety.
But there are a few concerns, including the potential for recreational pilots with little experience flying jets operating VLJs at higher altitudes than they are used to flying and encountering conditions and situations they may not be equipped to handle. FAA and the industry have collaborated on training programs for VLJs and insurance companies, working with the manufacturers, and have instituted a proficiency index to assess pilot experience and training needs. FAA also believes that the introduction of VLJs will be incremental, which will help with their integration.
Although GAO believes FAA is prepared for the integration of VLJs, the agency was unsure about what the integration would mean for the NAS in the future. Studies and expert opinions vary about whether VLJs will affect air traffic congestion, GAO said. The VLJ impact will depend on the type and location of airports they use, GAO said. "Many experts believed Very Light Jets will travel to small airports such as reliever and general aviation airports, and will have little effect on the capacity and safety of the NAS," GAO said.
If VLJs operate shorter flights and travel at lower altitudes, then they would have little effect on capacity. But if they fly higher and longer, the impact would be felt. VLJs also have slower climb rates and cruise speeds, which could influence their ability to mix in with other aircraft in terminal and en route environments. "FAA and several experts, including experts representing active air traffic controllers, believe that Very Light Jets will increase the complexity of the airspace due to their performance capabilities."