The fears of very light jets (VLJs) darkening the skies apparently are overblown, at least according to testimony before the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee this week.
"One by one, credible sources from throughout the government and aviation industry are demolishing the airlines' and the FAA's rationalizations for user fees," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The system is not headed for overload, and as verified in the House hearing this week, the existing tax system is perfectly capable of funding air traffic control modernization.
One of the justifications that the FAA and the airlines are using for user fees are the supposed increased demands that VLJs (such as the Eclipse and the Cessna Mustang) will put on the system. Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) calls them the "mosquito fleet" because of the "vastly increased numbers" they'll add to the air traffic control system.
But both FAA and industry experts told the subcommittee that the ATC system could handle the 5,000 VLJ aircraft that some forecasts say will eventually be added to the fleet.
"The system is in place today to accommodate the entry of new aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS)," said Nicholas Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety. "This is nothing new for the FAA. From when FAA's predecessor agency certified the Buhl Airster in 1927, to the introduction of the Boeing 707 and the dawning of the jet age in the late 1950s, the FAA has always been able to successfully assimilate new aircraft into the NAS."
Both Sabatini and Michael Cirillo, vice president, systems operation services for the FAA's Air Traffic Organization, explained to the subcommittee that VLJs would fly at different altitudes and use different airports than airlines. They assured Congress that the FAA could safely integrate additional VLJ traffic into existing traffic flows. Reliever and regional airports had plenty of capacity for the small jets.
And those smaller airports are exactly where the VLJs will go, according to Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn and Cessna CEO Jack Pelton.
"VLJs will neither require nor seek regular access to major hub airports," said Raburn. "VLJ passengers will be time sensitive and convenience-minded, and they will use VLJs precisely to avoid the hassles associated with large hubs."
Pelton agreed. "VLJ operators have a powerful incentive to avoid the traffic congestion and delays found at these airports."
Pelton and Raburn disagreed on the number of VLJs likely to enter the system. While the Eclipse business model depends on hundreds of VLJs being put into service as air taxis, Cessna takes a more conservative view of the market.
Pelton reminded the subcommittee that the Cessna Citation fleet - all models - was the largest in the world, and yet it took some 35 years for the fleet to grow to 5,000 aircraft. He predicted a similar "linear, not exponential" growth in the number of VLJs.
"There is simply no large parking lot full of VLJs poised to soar into America's skies in the coming days and weeks," said Pelton.
September 29, 2006