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Me & my aircraft - VLJs provide cut-price option for clients, yet operators must still meet midsize costs
The very light jet sector is considered by many a niche market and has been fraught with controversy since its inception.

The very light jet sector is considered by many a niche market and has been fraught with controversy since its inception. Tim Barber of JetBrokers Europe has questioned whether the sector exists at all: “There is lots of debate as to whether it actually exists, or whether it's just a light jet with a short range. A few people such as Blink are making the VLJ market work for them, and there are plenty of people who have tried it, failed and are getting out of it,” he says.

It can, at times, be troublesome to find a significant profit margin through these means: “When you've got your fixed costs, the costs to your pilots and so on, they are the same for a VLJ as with a larger aircraft with more capacity and it's hard to get a return,” Barber says.

“From an owner's point of view, if you want a relatively low-cost way to get from A to B in a private environment, I can see the immense benefit of that, as long as you're not looking to go too far. Transferring that into the corporate business charter market is more challenging, however.”

As to operators themselves, EBAN initially spoke to GlobeAir ceo Bernhard Fragner, a specialist VLJ operator that is conducting an operation comprised entirely of Citation Mustangs. He confirms how the motivation for clientele to enter this market switched: “The main driver for the decision to jump on this VLJ business was driven by the idea that we might convince new entrants into this service, so maybe convincing people from first class to jump on very light jets on ad hoc charter, and also to maybe open up the product range to the bottom. This was the driver,” he remarks.

“The idea was to come from business class into VLJ but I would say that this didn't actually happen at all. It was only the drop down that ended up happening.”

GlobeAir began operations at a time that was financially fraught: “We started out straight after the crash started in 2008 and we got our AOC. We began operations in September 2008, literally a couple of days after the Lehman brothers story went around the world, so it was a tough first half a year I would say, but we have learnt over the last five years that slowly the aircraft – in our case the Citation Mustang – was accepted by the market more and more, and people were becoming more price conscious, so downgrading was then the slogan of the last five years.”

Fragner is pleased with the economics of the Mustang and currently has 11 in operation. He also affirms that the market is picking up but that this recovery is very much a gradual one: “We are still having to take steady steps. If you look at the movement data and published data from our industry, it is still a declining market, year-on-year it is declining. But the Mustang business and the VLJ business is still growing, so we want to keep adding aircraft step- by-step, and gain more and more market share.

“We think there is still a lot to catch, mainly focusing on the clients coming down from midsize in Europe, this is the biggest group. The cost savings are definitely significant and this is our unique selling point.”

Cameron Ogden of Blink also operates a fleet of Citation Mustangs, and claims that this type was the first VLJ to be certified in Europe. “The Eclipse was at the time unable to certify and the Phenom was some months off,” he says.

Blink operates its VLJs in a pan-European business model, and professes to offer some of the lowest jet prices on the market to a customer base that is broker as well as end-user orientated. It was founded on an air taxi type model, and Blink achieves this through the use of a single type fleet, like the low cost airlines, and receives the benefits and savings associated with this.

Ogden says that despite the savings, the Mustang does not have long range: “The aircraft's main sweet spot is around an hour and 20 minutes, that is the average sector time across all of our flights,” he continues. “But if you take the entirety of the data within CFMU, for European flights, the average flight time is about an hour and 20 minutes. That's why the aircraft is fundamentally at the sweet spot. The average passenger load in Europe is 1.9. The aircraft we operate is the four seater aircraft and that is why I think it has become so popular recently. It's an aircraft that does what it says on the tin.”

Ogden believes that the VLJ market is very much an 'existent' one: “For me there is a clear difference between a larger Citation and a Mustang. There is a difference in price in the charter market and there is a difference in the way the aircraft is maintained in terms of the simplicity. The fact that they put 'very' on the front of it is a way of distinguishing another category. You are getting a different product when you get on a Mustang versus getting on a CJ2. There is obviously similarity between a CJ2 and a Mustang, but it's just slightly shorter.”

According to CMFU data, VLJ activity is up 12 or 13 per cent this year, with Blink perhaps up as much as about 19-20 per cent.

The Citation Mustang is certainly prevalent in the VLJ market, and not exclusively to the operators already cited. The aircraft type is generally regarded as a reliable product from a highly reputable manufacturer. Claus Hable of Wings4Us confirms this, saying that he is satisfied with the maintenance support offered and very impressed with the Mustang's dispatch reliability and operating capability. Hable does, however, feel that the market is practically saturated with this model and for that reason the aircraft is not holding its value. “Too many Mustangs have been placed in the market by Cessna, discounting them heavily,” he says.

Patrick Margetson-Rushmore of London Executive Aviation also operates the Mustang, with his fleet including four of Cessna's very light jets. He is also very satisfied across the board with the product and praises the aircraft's reliability once more. He does, however, remark that he has encountered difficulty on occasions when trying to charter the Mustang as his clients usually prefer to travel in a bigger aircraft. A longer cabin is his most desired upgrade, and the company will in future be able to turn to the Citation M2 to fill this purpose, perhaps leading to less VLJ charter for LEA.

Fragner of GlobeAir would like to see his Mustangs offer more range and payload, but is nonetheless content with their operational ability. He is not a great admirer of the speedbrakes or generators on the aircraft, and desirable upgrades include a G1000 SafeTaxi and a satphone.

Ogden is also satisfied in all areas with his six Mustangs, and believes the simple maintenance programme is the best thing about the aircraft. However, like Fragner, he feels the aircraft can be let down by its payload and range. A desirable upgrade is replacing the PW615 engines for PW617, as seen in the Phenom 100. In his opinion the Mustang aircraft is still the 'best in its class,' bearing in mind the purchase cost.

SaxonAir's Christopher Mace has a company-owned Mustang and also jointly manages another aircraft of this type with Catreus. He says his company has enjoyed very good support from Marshall Aviation Services at Cambridge, but has had issues with manufacturer support when confronted with an AOG situation. Mace is satisfied with the dispatch reliability but says the aircraft type has a few notorious problems not rectified by Cessna and that “these will eventually come around if you operate them long enough.”

He feels the cabin is a little small but says that the passengers quite like it nonetheless, and there is also plenty of baggage space available considering the size of the aircraft. According to Mace the Mustang represents good value, and he says that there is always a place in the market for the entry level jet when dealing with lower passenger numbers. Fuel burn is considered to be minimal, with a low MTOW of less than four tonnes. Mace feels that despite these advantages, the manufacturer has failed to deal 'head on' with several known Mustang faults, and says that a more proactive approach is needed to combat this. SaxonAir has a mixed fleet and Mace says that his Mustangs complement the varying aircraft types which range from turboprops to mid size jets; the entry level VLJ sits in between these categories.

Embraer's Phenom 100 positions itself as the Mustang's direct rival. One operator which flies the type is Flyjet of Poland. Operations executive Pawel Chorzelski says that maintenance support in respect of its Phenom 100 has been 'very accurate' and on time, and after five months of flying the company has enjoyed 100 per cent dispach reliability. Being situated in Poland, the Phenom is very good when compared to a Mustang because of the extra range it offers, especially to Mediterranean sea locations. Chorzelski believes that landing distances are very good, and payload compared with other VLJs is also favourable. The cabin is also well appointed: “We get a roomy cabin with nice interior that most people say is better than a CJ2 while having a much lower price per hour,” says Chorzelski. He adds that the cabin and luggage area size is the best thing about the aircraft but does point out that the lack of a fifth certified seat is a disadvantage. A desired upgrade is to have coffee and hot water in heated tanks, as well as more storage space.

Flyjet says that across the board the Phenom is exceeding its expectations, and that due to the high tail, big cabin and 'big look' the aircraft has more of a light jet than very light jet feel about it.

The height of the aircraft is similar to that of Flyjet's Learjet 60XR and it is equipped with a closed toilet at the back which is said to give more priv-acy than that offered in the Mustang.

Yet not all operators are enthusiastic about the Phenom 100's performance.

Abelag used to operate three Phenom 100s, but the Belgian company no longer runs any of them. Sales manager Luc

Olivier explains the reasons why: “The Phenom is a good aircraft when it comes to the question of reliability; on that front we have nothing bad to say about it. The problem we found is that it was very limited – you have to make your calculations correctly,” he says. “It is entering the market of the CJ1 and CJ2. It's not adding value to that market, it's just competing in it.”

Olivier highlights the challenges faced by operators who fly this type of aircraft, as it must still be flown with two pilots along with the documentation this entails. When all checks have been made, only four passenger seats are available and additionally the Phenom 100 needs a lot of runway length, he says.

Abelag feels that the Mustangs have saturated the bottom end of the charter market. The involvement of brokers in negotiating deals has made margins even narrower, resulting in the bottom end being 'killed off'.

Olivier also remarks that the costs faced by the operator are very similar in a Phenom 100 to those for a larger CJ2: “If you look at the total operating cost of the aircraft and put the CJ2 next to the Phenom 100, there is not a lot of difference at the end of the day. Landing charges are about the same, handling charges are about the same and the cost of the two pilots sitting in front is exactly the same whether they are sitting in the Phenom 100 or the CJ2.

“I think the aircraft is more aimed at the pilot-owner market, but that's a different ball game in Europe compared with the US,” he adds.

There are several operating faults that Olivier feels Embraer needs to rectify: “The runway length is one of the problems, the braking system is a delicate area, and also if you start using the Phenom 100 for a lot of charter flying, the interior of the aircraft is very nice, but it is very delicate. It's beautiful to have a lovely big luggage bay at the back, but you do need to make your calculations correctly with that aircraft if you do not want to run into trouble.

“I'm not sure that commercially they are the best thing you can buy.”

Another aircraft which sits in the VLJ category is the Eclipse, and EBAN spoke at length with Eclipse owner-operator Kobus Dicks of Meadow Meats, Cape Town, about his opinions on its performance and suitability: “We signed the agreement for the Eclipse in January, and then they had to fly a pilot over. The aircraft was in South Africa already from an Air Force defence show in October last year,” Dicks explains.

“I saw it and initially I didn't really show much interest. In January I looked at it again and we signed the agreement on condition that they would send someone from the States to South Africa, because nobody had a rating on it. That was probably middle of February. I went to the States in March to do my training at Simcom in Orlando, and then they sent a pilot with me in April.”

Despite the lengthy process to get the project off the ground, Meadow Meats has not looked back since: “The performance has been unbelievable. Honestly it is much better than we expected. We are normally maximum three up, we climb to 37,000 ft directly. The cruise is 360 knots and burns 380-400 lbs of fuel, which is less than the King Air 90 did. It's an absolute pleasure, it really is, I'm very happy with it.

Meadow Meats operated the King Air 90 and Dicks had never flown in a private business jet before. “Its closest competitor is probably the Mustang, but this aircraft is 10 to 20 knots faster, with much lower fuel burn. It goes into short strips – to me it's absolutely the perfect aircraft. There is obviously the limitation that we can't go on to a grass surface, which is where I'd often like to land, but there is a huge saving for us on fuel and maintenance compared to a King Air 90.

“Last summer the maximum we had was 27,000 ft with the King Air 90 and at this height you were just stuck in the weather continuously. With the Eclipse we can fly above the weather, 3,000-4,000 ft above it. This aircraft is comfortable at 37,000,” he adds.

The aircraft is well suited to transporting Meadow Meats staff from base to base: “I live in Cape Town and we have four abbatoir branches spread across the country. The furthest one is 730 miles from Cape Town, and the closest is 510. So it's a proper distance. Flying back to Cape Town at night, this aircraft is about an hour quicker than the King Air was. Previously it had been a long trip, three and a half hours, especially after a hard day. The Eclipse flies to Cape Town in two and a half hours, and the other way you can do it in about one hour 55, to two hours. It's a massive saving.”

Along with its base to base capability, the Eclipse is especially well adapted to flying into Dicks' Cape Town headquarters: “This is definitely a single pilot aircraft. It's an easy aircraft to fly and it's got a beautiful system. Going in to Cape Town this time of year it's always raining and low cloud, but this is such a joy to fly. It is also very safe – I can't think of many aircraft that are safer than this. The single engine performance is unbelievable. Dicks believes that the aircraft is well suited to the region for businessmen: “I definitely believe there is a market for quite a few of them. And they come in cheap too, compared with a Mustang or Phenom 100. Your only other option is a TBM 850, but that is a lot slower and still a single engine.”

Dicks doesn't envisage any reason to change: “I really wouldn't invest in another aircraft. I don't need to. I don't need anything bigger and I'm not going to fly cheaper in any other aircraft. I've probably got another 15 years of flying left in me, and I don't see why this aircraft can't last that.”

It seems that although VLJs did not achieve their anticipated market, customers that have dropped down find using these aircraft an economically sound, viable option. Positioned between light jets and turboprops, especially in the case of owner-operators like Kobus Dicks, they are ideally suited to their function. It remains to be seen whether or not new entrants into the business aviation sector will find their way in via VLJs, with some staff at Eclipse forecasting that personal, private travel is where the industry is headed. Yet even if this does not materialise, the appeal of the very light jet is widespread, the state of the market is healthy, and a return to the stability pre-2008 seems more of an achievable reality than in the past couple of years.

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