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"NASA aims to launch system of 'micro jets' to supplant big jetliners"
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- Subject: CAA: GA News, "NASA aims to launch system of 'micro jets' to supplant big jetliners"
- From: "Stephen Irwin" <stepheni@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 27 Dec 2002 07:15:37 -0800
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Thursday, December 26, 2002
NASA aims to launch system of 'micro jets' to supplant big jetliners
By Ken Kaye
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Within the next few years, you may be able to avoid big airport hassles
by taking tiny jets from one small airfield to another.
The cost would be close to that of a coach seat.
If NASA has its way, thousands of jet-propelled taxicabs will be used to
ease the overburdened airline hub system and take advantage of about
5,000 smaller, slower airports.
The agency best known for sending space shuttles into orbit has embarked
on a $69 million, five-year program to launch what is officially called
the Small Aircraft Transportation System, or SATS.
At the heart of the program: dainty jets designed to hold about as many
occupants as a sport-utility vehicle. A typical cabin would have two
pilot seats, four club seats and a lavatory in the back.
Their tiny jet engines would be technological marvels, fuel efficient
yet powerful enough to propel a plane to speeds up to 400 mph and
altitudes of 41,000 feet.
"We want to demonstrate that it makes sense to think of small aircraft
as an alternative to scheduled commercial airlines for trips between 200
and 1,000 miles," said Keith Henry, spokesman for NASA Langley Research
Center in Virginia.
For instance, if you wanted to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta, you
might board a little jet, operated by an air taxi company, at Fort
Lauderdale Executive Airport and land at the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
Even though the small jets would be slower than airliners, the overall
savings could amount to hours, considering the time it takes to check
in, clear security, wait at the gate, wait to deplane and claim luggage
at big airports.
Many air taxi companies already offer service to off-the-beaten-path
airports -- but in larger corporate jets for a price generally hundreds
more than an airline ticket.
"Technologies are emerging that can enable a revolution in the cost of
speed," said Bruce Holmes, director of NASA's Airspace Systems Office.
NASA decided to tackle the project because one of its main functions,
outside of space travel, is trying to improve aviation safety and
unravel problems in the air travel network.
NASA officials said the system might be particularly successful in
Florida, which has 129 general aviation and commercial airports,
including 14 between Miami and West Palm Beach alone.
"We actually have an abundance of airspace. What we do not have is a
plan to utilize that airspace, those airports, and the runways that are
vastly underutilized," Holmes said.
Stuart Klaskin, a Miami-based aviation consultant, said the "micro jets"
would be "great for the businessman in Tallahassee who needs to go not
only to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, but also Daytona and Key West in the
Despite NASA's optimism, the Small Aircraft Transportation System
already has drawn much skepticism from other segments of the aviation
and transportation industries.
The Transportation Research Board, a government-funded arm of the
National Research Council, found several flaws including doubts about
affordability, sufficient demand, lack of technology to allow the jets
to use many small rural airports, funding to upgrade those airports and
objections to additional noise and traffic from neighbors of those
There also could be huge safety problems, injecting the national
airspace system with thousands of additional aircraft.
And there could be equally grave security problems, with people boarding
the planes at quiet airports that provide little scrutiny, the board
Just the same, Holmes, the NASA director, says airplanes, cars and even
steam engines at one time were pooh-poohed.
"The Small Aircraft Transportation System is conceived to respond to
future demand for mobility, specifically, the demand that will not be
satisfied by existing modes," he said.
Under NASA's plan, the jets would be highly automated, able to safely
fly into smaller airports that don't always have the same instrument
equipment as larger ones.
The jets would be able to slip onto runways as short as 2,500 feet,
while most of today's corporate jets need twice that length.
Ready to take off
About 10 companies are either in the process of developing the small
jets or contemplating it.
Safire Aircraft Co. of West Palm Beach has designed the Safire S-26, a
six-seat jet that would cruise at 390 mph. Price: Slightly more than $1
Camilo Salomon, Safire's chief executive officer, says planes will be
test flown by early 2004 and on the market by January 2006. He said
eventually Safire hopes to produce four planes per day, or 1,100 per
"The concept is very simple, the design is very simple," he said.
Eclipse Aviation Corp., based in Albuquerque, N.M., is developing a
six-seat jet that will cost $837,500 and fly 1,300 miles at a cruising
speed of 400 mph.
The company, which hopes to have the plane on the market in 2004, says
more than 1,350 already have been ordered.
"This will be a dramatic departure from today's commercial airline
system, which forces 70 percent of all air travelers to pass through 29
increasingly crowded hub airports," said Vern Raburn, president and CEO
of Eclipse Aviation.
Adams Aircraft Industries of Englewood, Colo., is developing a six-seat,
twinjet plane that should be available by late 2004. Price: $1.9
Even Honda Motor Co. is getting into the act, developing a four-to-five
passenger jet powered by engines that would use 20 percent less fuel
than existing ones. The cost would be between $2 million and $3 million.
To give some idea of just how small these jets are, the Safire S-26
would weigh 5,900 pounds, or nearly half of a 10,600-pound Cessna
Citation CJ1, one of the smallest, most affordable business jets on
The jets are being purchased by air taxi and charter companies that hope
to cash in on a new phase of air travel, according to the manufacturers,
who declined to name customers.
The Federal Aviation Administration still must certify each model of the
small planes. If companies start winning that approval within the next
year, the small jets might be carrying their first passengers by 2004,
The small jets are not expected to hurt the major U.S. carriers, which
already expect to see a 12 percent drop in passenger traffic, from 670
million in 2001 to 600.3 million passengers this year. By 2010, the FAA
predicts nearly 800 million passengers will board U.S. airliners.
For now, most major airlines aren't concerned with the small aircraft
system because they're more worried about just surviving, officials
Said aviation consultant Klaskin: "The vision of most airline managers
is two to three years ahead, so this is off the horizon for them."
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