Saturday, August 18, 2007

Attack of the VLJ's

I've been following Eclipse Aviation and its largest customer, the upstart air taxi DayJet, for a long while now. I'd heard that they were getting close to starting up operations and had selected Pensacola (along with Gainesville, Lakeland, Boca Raton, and Tallahassee) as their first five "DayPorts". With prices said to be at or around economy class seats I was definitely intrigued.

For the past few days, myself and some coworkers were doing a course at Pensacola Aviation, the largest FBO at Pensacola Regional. Imagine my surprise when I looked out on to the ramp yesterday and saw a spanky-new DayJet Eclipse 500:

Man, that's purty.

I saw at least one pilot, along with two DayJet representatives and the FAA inspector who was working with them. We introduced ourselves as controllers from the local TRACON and were promptly given a tour of the airplane.

We talked with the FAA inspector for a while, who gave us some good information regarding their performance capabilities. Overall, they're equivalent in performance to the original Cessna Citation (C500) , meaning they're pretty sluggish on the climb and during cruise compared to larger jets. This is pretty much in line with what I've been reading about them. In short, don't expect Citation X performance from a $1.2 million package. They'll still get you where you're going, just about 80 knots slower than an Embraer 145.

On the approach end of things, they have excellent short field performance and can really pull it back. On final, they can slow it down to around 90 knots without a problem. They can also put down and takeoff from runways shorter than 3000 feet. Not an STOL by any means, but they can get into and out of places that a Lear or Gulfstream can't. This could potentially open up jet traffic to a lot of smaller airports that have traditionally been piston-only.

The ticket price is supposed to be between $1 to $3 per mile. When I asked how that is calculated, I was told that it's determined by how small your travelling window is. For instance, if you can depart between 8am and 12pm, you might pay $1 per mile. However, if you absolutely have to be in the air at 8am sharp, you could be paying up to $3 per mile.

How does it compare to a regular airline fare? Let's say I needed to get from Tallahassee to the South Florida area for a meeting at 12 noon, but wanted to be back home later that evening. I just did a search on for flights from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale for September 1st, flying down in the morning and returning in the evening. The cheapest available was a $1105 fare on Delta that routed me through Atlanta, with total round trip flight time of nearly 9 hours. The flight leaves TLH at 7am, and I'd arrive back at TLH at 10:20 that night. I'd get back the same day alright, but I'd be freaking wiped.

In comparison, a direct flight from TLH to Boca Raton airport (about 20 minutes north of FLL) is approximately 329 miles. Let's round it off to 350. I forgot to clarify if the price per mile is one-way or round-trip. According to this article, it's round trip. If it's truly round-trip, it's no contest. $350 vs. $1105. If it's one-way, $700 vs. $1105 is still pretty peachy, especially if the business is footing the bill. For me, one of the biggest differences is the flying time. 3:00 direct round trip vs. 9 hours involving two connections at the world's busiest airport sounds much more pleasant. Couple that with no parking fees, no security lines, and no two mile terminal walks and we've got a winner. Lastly, since your direct flight time is an hour and a half, you can give them a pretty wide departure window.

Overall, I still think that DayJet is going to be on the higher end of the airfare spectrum, especially when compared to low fare carriers like Southwest. However, it makes up for it in terms of convenience and what can be defined as "cool factor". Given the choice between being shoved in Cattle Class on consecutive CRJ and MD-88 flights or spending a couple hundred more to get there and back faster on a private jet, it'd be a tough call. If you're a business traveler with a corporate budget behind you, it'd be a no-brainer.

Cockpit Close-up: They use an AVIO avionics package, designed exclusively for the Eclipse. The vertical PFD layout looks closer to the Avidyne system found on Cirrus aircraft than the ubiquitous Garmin G1000. I wonder why they didn't go with either one of those packages, since they're already being integrated on other VLJ's like the Citation Mustang. The G1000 is everywhere, which would make it easier to transition pilots upgrading from the many other G1000 aircraft.

Riding in Style: Here's the shot of the cabin and its four seats. The inspector mentioned that the ride is very smooth and the seats are very comfortable. You can see the hangers towards the rear for hanging garment bags and coats.

Sticking my hand where it don't belong: I just wanted to give you an idea of how small the engines are on this thing. I've seen hair dryers with bigger fans, LOL. The engines are rated at 900 pounds of thrust each, giving the plane a maximum cruise speed of around 370 knots.

Can someone loan me $1.2 million? These planes are just cool-looking. No, it doesn't have that "Mach .98 while it's still got the chocks on" look of the Citation X, but it's pretty and - most importantly - very affordable. It really makes the leap from "private jet" to "personal jet". From what I hear, they're very easy to fly and very forgiving as far as turbine aircraft go. I just hope the people who become owner-pilots of these things realize the responsibility they're taking on.

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