Light Fantastic: Flagging Down a Flier

  • Mary Lou Pickel

Vern Raburn’s expectations are nothing if not dramatic. Raburn, CEO of Eclipse Aviation, believes that the Eclipse 500 will create a completely new method of transportation. If his vision comes true, taking a flight in the Eclipse 500 will be as straightforward and inexpensive as hailing a cab for a ride downtown, albeit without a ratty backseat and a reckless driver.

Raburn projects that the operating costs of the Eclipse 500 (and those of competing jets) will be so low—approximately one-quarter the costs of a Cessna Citation CJ1, he says—that companies will place bulk orders for the jets and create an air taxi market. Travelers flying to a common destination would share a plane one way, then, depending on their respective schedules, catch other planes for their return legs. Such a system, says Raburn, would be a less expensive alternative to traditional charter travel because charter customers must often pay for deadhead flights. A network of light jets would utilize the thousands of small airports scattered across the country, and flying directly to such destinations would enable passengers to bypass the time-stealing hub-and-spoke system of commercial airlines. “What air taxis are about is bringing the speed, comfort, safety, and cost of a commercial jet to smaller communities,” says Raburn.

David Wyndham, a partner at the aviation consulting firm of Conklin & de Decker, applauds the idea but gives the system a one-in-four chance of taking off. “These are brand-new aircraft designs,” Wyndham says. “They’d have to work hard to create a new market.” Wyndham estimates that if the Eclipse 500 retains its $950,000 price, the company would have to sell at least 1,000 planes to meet its business model. “In the business jet market, that’s a huge number,” he says.

Raburn has grown accustomed to hearing such skepticism. He insists that air taxis will become a reality because the Eclipse 500’s low operating cost could result in each passenger paying $1.50 per mile. Conversely, Raburn estimates that the average charter flight costs each passenger from $3 to $10 per mile. According to Raburn’s figures, a 200-mile flight in a four-passenger Eclipse 500 air taxi would cost $75 per person. “This is the classic example,” says Raburn, “where new technology is enabling a new product, which is in turn enabling a new market."

See feature article, "Private Travel: Light Fantastic."

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