by By William J. McGee | February 01, 2009
Proponents of "very light jets," or VLJs, tout this new generation of small planes as the greatest advancement in business travel since the Wright Brothers descended on Kitty Hawk. Detractors, meanwhile, claim VLJs are no more viable than hovercrafts. This promises to be the year when we find out which camp is correct.

Many corporations now use corporate jets or small turboprops, either in their own fleets or through the use of charter airlines or fractional jet operators. But VLJs could make such alternatives to commercial airline service even more attractive: They're faster than turboprops, cheaper than corporate jets, and provide low operating costs and easy access into small airports.

And perhaps the industry is ready for a new option. With record load factors, omnipresent security hassles and universal agreement that airfares will rise this year, commercial air travel looks bleak for the corporate market. The 2008 U.S. Business Travel Overview & Cost Forecast, recently published by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association, found that 47 percent of 215 U.S.-based corporate travel buyers surveyed already use alternatives to commercial air travel, "such as corporate jets, charter flights, fractional jet ownership or VLJs."

But the real issue might be timing. A source at the Association of Corporate Travel Executives in Alexandria, Va., does not see widespread enthusiasm for the VLJ concept in the current economic climate: "Actually, managers using corporate jets are looking for outside customers to increase productivity [of the aircraft]. No one we're talking to is switching to VLJs at this point."

A spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based National Business Aviation Association notes, "Businesses are conservative about adopting new aircraft types." Production estimates for the planes have varied widely, he adds, but "from the anecdotal side, you might characterize it as a wait-and-see."

How light is very?
They've gone by several names -- including microjets and personal light jets -- but nailing down an exact definition of a very light jet is somewhat elusive. The NBAA defines VLJs as "jet aircraft weighing 10,000 pounds or less [a distinction from the definition of large aircraft as more than 12,500 pounds, and "light" aircraft as 12,500 pounds or less] that are certificated for single-pilot operations." Also, VLJs usually offer at least some of the following features.

• Advanced cockpit automation such as moving map GPS and multifunction displays;

• Automated engine and systems management; and

• Integrated autoflight, autopilot and flight-guidance systems.

In addition, Diamond Aircraft, a manufacturer headquartered in London, Ontario, categorizes VLJs as offering between two and eight seats, weighing between 5,100 and 9,600 pounds, cruising at between 300 and 500 knots, and costing between $1.4 million and $4.5 million.

VLJs also can make use of airports with runways as short as 3,000 feet, so this offers the potential for operating in facilities unsuitable for larger aircraft. In fact, VLJ proponents claim therein lies the beauty of their business model, since the nation is dotted from end to end with small and under-utilized airfields, many dating from World War II.

The NBAA estimates more than 5,000 general aviation airports in the United States could be served by VLJs.