Skip to comments.Innovation at 350 Knots: New jet could rewrite the rules of commercial air travel.
Posted on 09/06/2002 10:39:17 AM PDT by Ditto
Last Monday, Aug. 26, may go down as a milestone in the airline industry. It's certainly a milestone in the short history of Eclipse Aviation, a startup in Albuquerque, N.M., that, after four years of design and construction, managed to get a test version of its six-passenger jet off the ground. The Eclipse 500 spent an hour in the air, climbing to 9,000 feet and performing some basic maneuvers and system checks before landing.
The Eclipse 500 isn't just any old private jet. There are a lot of those already flying, of course. The Eclipse 500 promises to be so inexpensive that it could permanently alter the business of air travel. Eclipse plans to sell the jet for about $850,000 -- one-fourth the cost of the least expensive jet on the market, the Cessna Citation CJ-1. And it's engineered to be extremely cheap to operate: less than $1 per mile, one-third to one-fifth what it costs to fly other small jets. CEO and founder Vern Raburn envisions that these economics will allow a class of new air limo services to flourish. These services would operate fleets of Eclipse planes out of 10,000 or so municipal and private airports across the country, thus bypassing the clotted traffic at urban hubs. The major airlines, he says, "are doomed, but they don't know it yet." He compares them to "the guys building cars by hand when Ford introduced the Model T."
Following the test flight, I asked Raburn over the phone how it felt to finally see his baby take off. "I was a little busy to even think about it," he replied, though his excuse was legitimate -- he was flying the chase plane behind the Eclipse 500's maiden flight. As recently as a year ago, he was trying to raise $110 million merely to keep the program alive. The first $60 million tranche of that financing, set to close on Sept. 11, 2001, was completed by the skin of its teeth, amazingly. But after the terrorist attacks that morning, 90 percent of the second $50 million tranche, set to close in November 2001, "evaporated," says Raburn. Hat in hand, the well-connected Raburn managed to scrounge up another set of investors by February -- all of them individual angel investors. It helps that Raburn is pals with several billionaires, including Bill Gates, who was the best man at his wedding 16 years ago.
Given the airline industry's turmoil after 9/11 (US Airways is in bankruptcy, United (UAL) is on the brink, and American (AMR) is rethinking its route structure), the debut of Eclipse's plane seems more timely than ever. The problem with the major airlines is that they need to keep their planes fully loaded to eke out the slimmest of profits. With fewer people flying, the airlines are moving toward packing more people onto fewer flights, with longer waits on the ground for connections. "The airline industry will become a Greyhound bus type of world," Raburn predicts. Adding to these hassles are the more stringent security measures that go into effect after Dec. 31 (the new rules call for every piece of checked baggage to be screened, in addition to carry-ons). Simply put, flying is going to become even more stressful than it already is.
Of course, the airlines aren't going to disappear anytime soon, and Raburn's aircraft still has to be approved by the FAA (a 16-month process that just started with Monday's flight). But if the plane does win approval, it could usher in an alternative to the sardine-can air travel we are used to today, at least for business-class fliers. In order to deliver a jet at such a relatively low price, Raburn is rethinking the whole way small airplanes get built. When I visited him at Eclipse's headquarters last June, he took me through the renovated hangar at the Albuquerque airport where the test plane was being assembled. A wing was held within a large vise-like frame that Eclipse had designed. A manufacturing engineer was standing nearby holding a small, spherical laser tracker, which he placed at different points along the wing. The tracker -- a metallic, walnut-size hemisphere with prisms lining the inside -- caught a red laser beam and reflected it back to a sensor on a tripod. With this device, the engineer was comparing the dimensions of the half-finished wing with a computer model and making sure it did not deviate from the design by more than 0.003 inch. The more precisely each part is crafted, the faster Eclipse will be able to speed overall production.
"This airplane could not have been built without Moore's law," Raburn says. The engine also owes its existence to digital wizardry. Its turbofan blades, for instance, can be fabricated from a single piece of aluminum, thanks to advances in extremely precise, computer-controlled cutting tools. This makes it safer and less expensive to manufacture. Other high-end jets sometimes use fan blades made from a single piece of aluminum, but it's never been done on such a small scale for an aircraft engine. In fact, each of the two engines on the Eclipse 500 weighs just 85 pounds, yet delivers almost 800 pounds of thrust (a better thrust-to-weight ratio than any commercial turbofan ever built). Using such a small engine is crucial, since the size of the engine determines the size of the plane, and therefore its cost. Also for reasons of cost, much of the cockpit instrumentation will be digital, doing away with many analog gauges, switches, and dials. And the only hydraulic system in the entire plane is for the rear-wheel brakes. All the other hydraulics -- even the landing gear -- along with their attendant heavy tubing and fluids, will be replaced by electric motors.
Raburn is pioneering some manufacturing techniques as well. For instance, he is getting rid of most of the riveting that joins together the panels of the body and wings. Instead he's using a new process called friction-stir welding. In this technique, a pin rotates at high speeds against an aluminum surface, heating it through friction until the metal becomes almost plasticlike at the seam where the panels are joined. When the seam cools, it fuses into a single piece of metal. The process is faster and stronger than traditional welding, and Eclipse received FAA approval for it this summer. In another hangar, I saw a friction-stir-welded barrel that had undergone testing to see if it could withstand 250,000 cycles of pressurization and depressurization -- more than 12 times the number of takeoffs and landings a typical plane goes through in its lifetime. The barrel had withstood 472,000 pressurization cycles, and was just beginning to show signs of cracking.
If early orders are any indication, Eclipse will need all the help it can get from new technologies to meet demand. The factory will gear up to its full capacity of about 1,500 planes a year by 2007, but Eclipse has already sold every plane it plans to build between 2004 and the second quarter of 2006. That, plus other commitments further into the future, represent well north of $1 billion in orders. Many of the buyers are private pilots, but Raburn estimates that about two-thirds are people who want to set up air limo services. (Buyers have to put down an initial deposit of $100,000.)
Raburn's not out of the woods just yet, though. He figures he still needs another $65 million (on top of the $238 million raised so far) to get through FAA certification and to start production. But if he does make it, we may all be flying in air limos one day.
Not according to the projections I have seen. They predict a cost per seat about the same a full-fair coach. Operating costs are around 60 cents per mile.
I can forsee even the company I work for that is very tight with travel dollars using this as a taxi service. We often send 3 or 4 people (engineers, marketing, sales) to a customer plant site. These places are often out of the way forcing several valuable employees to blow an entire day in airports waiting for flights, making connections at another ariport and then renting a car for sometimes a 100 mile drive to the final destination. With one of these puppies, they can skip the big airports and fly point to point to within a few miles of the final destination arriving in a few hours instead of facing an entire day of travel. The same could be said of vacation travlers. If say they wanted to go from NYC to Myrtle Beach for a few days of golf, they could be there in a couple of hours instead of blowing a day of their vacation at LaGuardia and Atlanta wating for the puddle jumper. Even if the cost is 50% higher than regular air fair, the time savings would be well worth it for millions of people.
I still don't see a big threat that corps are going to go into the airline business themselves in mass, but I can see the airlines using these jets to provide additional services.
We'll see what happens. But keep in mind, they already have a billion dollars in orders. An outfit in Switzerland has over 100 on order that they intend to lease out across Europe. Another start-up in Florida has 50 on order which they plan to use to cater to the tourist industy --- from Disney to Key West in an hour anyone? I think they'll make a lot of money.
Here's a quote that's original with me: "Almost everything stupid we have to do can be traced back to lawyers or the tax code."
Why do you "think" that? Is it just a hunch or do you have something to lead you to that conclusion? You know, people in the private sector can go to jail for 'fooling' investors. (But it is ok for politicians to do that ;`( It's really a serious charge.
A lot of pretty big schools are in pretty out of the way places. A good example would be Texas A&M University,in College Station,or Baylor,in Waco. Both towns are pretty good sized,but not big enough to have a full blown airport,so as the situation stands right now,someone attending college from out of state can't fly home without jumping through some hoops.
Given an aircraft that's cheap enough to operate,flying home for Christmas break and spring break might be a viable option. Or,just start a charter service to popular college kid destinations-Padre Island comes to mind,and maybe even a few of the state parks.
It's not quite the same as the Model T, either. It's not like families would actually own one. It might well put some of the big airlines that are still running out of business if the price of a ticket is the same or lower for the new jet. If it's higher, you'll have that kind of class resentment that early, pre-Model T autos stimulated in those who couldn't afford them. Could it be that trains and busses would be more hurt?
A good example would be the town I live in-there's a fair sized general aviation field,but it isn't served by a major carrier. If I want to fly anywhere right now,I have to drive an hour to the nearest airport,catch a plane,and fly to DFW(I live just south of Austin). Then at DFW,I have to change planes to get on the one that's going closest to where I want to go. Then I have to go through the process in reverse to get back home.
If the model that the Eclipse people are hoping for works out,I'll be able to go to the local airport,hop on the small jet,and land a lot closer to where I want to go. Sounds like a plan to me.
It depends on the configuration but can take as much as 5 passengers + pilot.
Here are some shots of the 6-seat configuration.
It's not quite the same as the Model T, either. It's not like families would actually own one.
No it's not. At $800k each, it's not likely that it will be the Model T. Think of this thing as an air taxi. At 800k, small investors can afford to get into the air taxi business. There is a market for it but the cost of owning and operating small jets has just been too high in the past. The relatively low costs of this concept remove that barrier to entry.
As to pilots all I can say is that they will face the same FAA license rules that the airline pilots have. And for air space, there is plenty of room up there. The congestion comes from having 500-1000 flights a day trying to get in and out of the large hub airports. Too many planes trying to use the same amount of real-estate.