Light jets gather at Oxford, UK

posted on 12th June 2018

The Very Light Jets Europe conference is now the Light Jets Europe conference, the change of name reflecting the greater maturity of the market and evolving technology. Don Parry was there 

In a typically robust presentation, Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, Chief Executive Officer of London Executive Aviation (LEA), offered the thoughts of an operator. Light jets can certainly offer commercial opportunities for charter operators but you need to understand your target market, fly the jets in a mixed fleet and be an economic realist, he said.

LEA currently operates seven Cessna Citation Mustangs, within an overall fleet that includes mid-size, super mid-size and large-cabin aircraft. The company is also adding the Embraer Phenom 100 light jet to its charter fleet.

He went on to note: “A fleet of light jets alone will be particularly vulnerable to uncontrollable variables, such as interest rates, maintenance costs, exchange rates and fuel pricing, minor fluctuations in which could have a major effect on the low-margin strategy of the business. And a customer’s needs may change from one day to the next. How can you offer a personal service and maintain a long-term relationship with a customer, if you cannot meet those changing needs through a diverse fleet?

“Dependable customer service relies on operating a sustainable business model. Putting all of your eggs in one basket, flying a fleet of light jets alone would be a very brave decision.

“Light jet charter operators cannot expect an easy life of low costs and high profits. We have seen ups, downs and failures in the market, from the start-ups to the established players. But well-managed and hard-working charter operators can undoubtedly turn light jets into a commercial success, as part of a mixed overall fleet. People will remain cost-conscious even when we can finally put the recession behind us and then light jets could really start to thrive”.

There was a time, not so long ago when popular opinion suggested a sky growing “black with VLJs”. This is not going to happen but integration of light jets into controlled airspace is still a major consideration. Alex Hendriks, Principal Advisor to the Principal Director ATM, Eurocontrol, is an established speaker at this forum and has always taken a sympathetic view of the light jet fraternity.

He briefed on the VLJ Integration Platform (VIP) initiative by Eurocontrol, including extensive industry consultation related to the impact on ATC of growing amounts of light jets and very light jets during 2007 through to 2009. VIP concluded that, based on a controller “toolbox” it developed, no adverse ATC capacity issues are to be expected from large numbers of VLJs. However, discussions related to avionic fit (eg TCAS II) and pilot training are still open.

More importantly, Hendriks made the point that, by 2030, Europe’s existing airports could have a capacity shortfall equivalent to around 6,500 flights per day and that as many as 50% of all flights could face delays as a consequence. Perhaps this is where light jets will enjoy a distinct advantage. New generation light jets will be able to avoid much of this congestion, thanks to their ability to use their technology to implement performance-based navigation tools, such as VNAV approaches, enabling them to use smaller airports with an otherwise inadequate, ground-based navigation infrastructure.

The market for light jet sales was covered by Oliver Stone of Business Air International. He began by asking “what is the light jet fleet in Europe”. The answer, apparently, by manufacturer, is: Citation, 758; Beechcraft, 12; Lear, 82; and Embraer, 20.

Future developments will be based on the price versus value equation. In the short term the situation will be dependent upon OEMs’ respective strategy and reaction to any “white tail” problems, though there could be difficulties ahead with larger cabin aircraft priced similarly to the new units. In the long term, the question was posed: “Are the old planes dead?”. The answer suggests that demand may not be, but values may be. It is a good time to buy, if you can convince a bank to fund the project.

As to the future hot sellers, Stone suggested that the Mustang and Phenom 100 have created a market acceptance and introduced viable, new, low cost personal transportation.

Moving on to the role of business airports, James Dillon Godfray, Business Development Director, London Oxford Airport, said that it comes down to supporting regional prosperity. All “regional” airports raise the profile of an area but significantly so with “commercial” scheduled services of interest to the business and leisure traveller. Business aviation alone has limited impact but adds a degree of “kudos and credibility” to the desirability of the area. Businesses like to be close to a regional “business” airport though it is necessary to be wary of over inflating employment statistics relating to business aviation.

In choosing a base there are certain necessary features, though not all small airfield can aspire to the complete range. Initially, the vital decision is location, then service offers including ramp access, accessibility, airspace, ease of use, constraints, capacity, border authority status/protocols, pre-notification, runway length, lighting, nav aids, fire and rescue cover, hours of operation and extension availability. Other considerations include cost of residency, fuel facilities, maintenance, discretion, anonymity, privacy (always important in executive aviation) and security of tenure to ensure future airport development.

The speaker made the point that light jets do not necessarily mean short runway operation. The Mustang needs at least 4,100 ft/1,250m landing distance for a “WET” runway with bare minimum reserves, whilst the Phenom needs at least 4,750 ft/1,372m.

Another popular misconception is that of noise and it was emphasised that the Cessna Encore generates 58.3dBA at take off, that is half as noisy as a Piper PA28 at 68.0dBA, both citing US FAA A-weighted 14 CFR Part 36 @ take-off. This makes the Eclipse 500 significantly quieter than virtually any light piston or turboprop aircraft, with a level of just 54.9dBA.

In summation, James Dillon Godfray stressed: “Stimulating greater business aviation use, be that light jets or otherwise, certainly contributes to raising the profile of regional airport and their perceived value to regional economies but not significantly so. A broad mix of aviation activities has a far more significant boost for the perceived enhancement of regional prosperity.”

Training: inconsistent standards rear their ugly head

Training has been a major subject of interest from the beginning of the VLJ concept. One answer was provided by Capt Peter J Wolfe, Executive Director of PABC (Professional Aviation Board of Certification), who suggested that currently there is a problem of inconsistent standards. Course content and standards vary widely, ATP/ATPLw (written) testing is not required by all programmes, ATP & ATPLw exams are not the same and MPL standards are not yet harmonised with ATPLw exams.

Wolfe insisted that it is necessary to establish pre-employment certification of professional pilots’ standards, in order to establish proof that a pilot has the knowledge required to enter the profession. It is vital to create a common standard for all professional pilot candidates, in the form of Global Professional Pilot Certification. Most importantly, Standards & Certification must be valid, current, comprehensive, fair, secure and audited.

Recent US legislation will require all airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours before they can fly passengers. This is contested by Robert Barnes of Robert Barnes & Associates who posed the question: “Does qualified mean competent, do we need more regulation or simply better training?”

“Better training should be based upon competency, not hours,” said Barnes. Ideally, training should be a process of building professionalism through globally recognised pilot training best practice, which is the aim and intention of the currently, being created International Association of Flight Training Professionals , which is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the identification, recognition and timely communication of demonstrable global pilot training best practices. Barnes emphasised that its members are all flight-training professionals, directly involved in the conduct and/or support of pilot training activities.