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'Cheap' microjets take to the skies

A new crop of small, light jets may make air taxi service affordable. Bill Gates is in on the game. Photos: Microjets cleared for takeoff

HAYWARD, Calif.--Eclipse Aviation has what must be a pleasant problem: Too many people want to buy its new and inexpensive jet.

When it comes to high-performance aircraft, of course, inexpensive is a relative term. The Eclipse 500 very light jet, sometimes called a microjet, costs about $1.5 million but boasts the same performance as rivals that can cost two or three times as much to purchase and operate.

Translated, this means a remarkable backlog of orders. At a recent aviation expo at the airport here, a representative said the Albuquerque, N.M.-based company already has orders for 2,400 of the Eclipse 500 jets that won't be filled until August 2008 for deposits placed today.

"We've really identified five primary market segments," said Matt Brown, an Eclipse sales manager. Those include corporations that may not want or be able to afford a more expensive jet, pilot training and air taxi services.

The last category is the most interesting--and the most controversial. The Federal Aviation Administration has predicted that the use of private business jets will triple because of microjets' lower costs. In theory, at least, that could mean more crowded skies and increased delays at larger airports where microjets would share space with commercial carriers.

Even without microjets, delays are on the rise. "In the first quarter of 2005, arrival delays were up 17 percent over the first quarter of 2004, and affected more than 25 percent of all flights," Kenneth Mead, the Transportation Department's inspector general, told a U.S. Senate panel.

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Video: Hey, wanna buy a little jet?
Eclipse Aviation is selling ultralight jets for around $1.5 million. Here, sales manager Matt Brown shows off one of the planes.

Mead warned that microjets such as the Eclipse 500 have the "potential to further crowd dense airspace" and predicted that 4,500 of them will be in use by 2016.

One large user could be DayJet, which said last year that it had already ordered 239 Eclipse 500s with an option to buy 70 more. "This is a transportation system that adapts to your needs," Ed Iacobucci, founder of software maker Citrix Systems and the man behind DayJet, said at the time. "It is not about serving New York to Atlanta. It is more about serving the secondary and tertiary markets with a point-to-point network."

Microjet proponents dismiss concerns about congestion as unfounded, arguing that advances in technology will permit planes to depart airports in quicker succession and saying that small jets can land at general aviation airports that larger planes simply can't.

The Eclipse 500, for instance, is believed to be the first jet to fly into San Carlos Airport located just south of San Francisco, during a test flight in December. San Carlos' runway is 2,600 feet long and the Eclipse requires just 2,155 feet for takeoff and landing in normal sea level conditions--a fraction of what a 757 requires. (The Eclipse 500 is awaiting certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, which the company expects by the end of the second quarter of this year. Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn is a Microsoft alum and Bill Gates is a large investor.)

Eclipse is not alone in trying to find ways to tap the $1.5 million to $3 million market for very light jets, which generally means six to eight seat planes that can fly for about 1,400 miles without refueling, at speeds of 400 to 500 mph.

A production version of Adam Aircraft's A700 microjet made its first flight in February and is expected to cost $2.25 million. Embraer's forthcoming Phenom 100 jet will cost $2.85 million and have a range of 1,160 nautical miles.

Cessna, meanwhile, is testing a six-seat microjet called the Citation Mustang. Delivery is expected by the end of 2006 with a cost of about $2.4 million, and specifications include a cruise speed of 391 mph and a takeoff distance of 3,120 feet.