Turboprop Singles vs Very Light Jets

Aviation International News » June 2005
October 11, 2006, 10:04 AM

With very light jets (VLJs) expected to enter service by this time next year, turboprop singles are now meeting the contender face-to-face in the marketplace. It was bound to happen, given that the two different classes of airplane have similar range capabilities, cabin volume and acquisition costs.

In the regional airline industry, turboprop twins and regional jets fought a similar battle in the 1990s–and the RJ won, hands down. While turboprops still carry fare-paying passengers in the U.S. and are enjoying a modest resurgence overseas, these aircraft are few and far between. Instead, many regional routes are now served by the RJ, which passengers generally perceive as safer and more modern.

But the dynamics of business aviation are much different from those of the regional airlines, so it shouldn’t be assumed that turboprops will fade entirely from the business aviation fleet. However, it is safe to assume that VLJs will give turboprop singles a run for their money.

Very light jets are defined as jet aircraft with a mtow of less than 10,000 pounds and approved for single-pilot operations. VLJs also have advanced cockpit automation, such as moving-map GPS and multifunction displays; automated engine and systems management; and integrated autoflight, autopilot and flight-guidance systems. Current-production and in-development turboprop singles also have many of these systems.

This article will compare only certified or in-development aircraft with publicly released certification estimates, which eliminates fringe aircraft such as the Safire Jet in the VLJ category and the Farnborough F1 in the turboprop single category, among others. To keep the playing field level, all the aircraft compared in the article are pressurized, thereby excluding the Grob G140TP and Vulcanair VF600W turboprop singles.

In the very light jet group are the Adam A700; Cessna Citation Mustang; Eclipse 500; Embraer VLJ; Epic Jet; Eviation EV-20 Vantage; Avocet ProJet; Excel Jet Sport-Jet; and Diamond D-Jet, with the last two being jet singles. On the turboprop single list are the Epic LT; Grob G160; Ibis Ae270 Spirit; Extra EA-500; Pilatus PC-12; Piper Meridian; and Socata TBM 700C2, the last four aircraft of which have already been certified.

VLJ Frenzy or Hype?

The VLJ phenomenon started in the late 1990s when Vern Raburn, a former Microsoft executive, announced that his company, Eclipse Aviation, would build a VLJ for $850,000 a copy. He had a vision of a low-cost jet, the Eclipse 500, with an aggressive annual production rate of more than 1,000 aircraft–three times the number of business jets delivered in 2003 by all OEMs. While the price tag has crossed north of $1 million since then, the Eclipse 500 is still the lowest-cost very light twinjet on the market.

There’s been a lot of hoopla surrounding the VLJs since Eclipse’s initial announcement, and for good reason. J. Mesinger Jet Sales president Jay Mesinger explains, “[Very light jets are] the new category of jet aircraft being produced by as many as six players. To those who are designing and building them and to those who are caught up in the chatter aboutthe aircraft, it is no less than a Wright brothers moment. This is about the phenomenon–the mini groundswell of a new category of aircraft. It is really interesting to me to see what a great number of people and market segments are touched by this type of introduction.”

According to General Aero president and former NBAA president Jack Olcott, “Most VLJ designs are expected to operate safely from runways of no longer than 3,000 feet, therefore bringing the virtues of business jets to an increasing number of rural locations throughout our nation. These new machines, which will be powered by small and highly efficient jet engines, are expected to have lower costsof ownership and operation than today’s turbine aircraft.”

“There is a lot of anticipation related to the very light jets,” adds current NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “The idea that you are bringing down the price of a business jet by the order of magnitude that the very light jet manufacturers are talking about will undoubtedly bring new customers into the market. Also, any time you see new aircraft enter the market, there are entrepreneurs who find new ways to use those airplanes.”

So it’s clear that VLJs portend a new era in personal and business air travel, but to what extent? Unfortunately, market forecasts put pins all over the map, mainly because it’s a new market and there are no historical data upon which to base predictions.

Rolls-Royce predicts that manufacturers will deliver some 8,000 “microjets” by 2023, while Inflight Management Development Centre’s forecast shows manu- facturers will produce a mere 847 VLJs between this year and 2013. However, Forecast International envisions 3,476 of the small jets being manufactured by 2014, and the FAA believes 4,500 VLJs will be produced by 2016.

Uses for the VLJs include air-limo and fractional operations, same-day cargo delivery, supplemental aircraft for flight departments, air ambulance and turboprop/ light piston twin replacements, in addition to various other missions.

Cessna estimates that the turboprop/ piston twin step-up market alone amounts to 14,000 airplanes, while Adam Aircraft believes that number is closer to 20,000. Mesinger told AIN that he thinks VLJs will replace aging turboprops at a rate of about 300 aircraft per year into the foreseeable future.

The air-limo market is a wild card in the VLJ forecasts since these types of operation will either flourish or go bust. Ask any business aviation analyst to give his take on how many VLJs will be delivered to air-limo operators, and each one will yield a different answer. There really is no consensus, but there is much hope that air limos will take hold and become a major application for these small jets.

So how many VLJs will really be delivered over the next couple of decades? Take your best guess, because it’s probably just as accurate as any of the forecasts from the analysts. (In fact, one forecaster with tongue in cheek encourages readers of its forecast to “make up their own numbers” if they don’t like what is presented.)

Whither Turboprops?

Industry observers believe that turboprops will survive the VLJ invasion, though deliveries of both single- and multi-engine turboprops are expected to remain flat during the next decade and then slow to a trickle. According to the latest FAA forecast released in March, about 100 GA turboprops will be delivered annually until 2014, after which only half as many are expected to be shipped each year.

Overall, the FAA estimates that the GA turboprop fleet will grow from 7,300 aircraft last year to 8,400 in 2016. This is in stark contrast to the overall business jet fleet, which the agency believes will nearly double from 8,425 aircraft last year to 15,900 in 2016, with VLJ deliveries accounting for a large portion ofthe expansion.

What this means is that the six manufacturers of turboprop singles will compete for this anemic market with the manufacturers of current-production GA turboprop twins, namely the Piaggio Avanti and Raytheon Beech King Air series (not surprisingly, there are currently no new turboprop twins under development). In effect, eight manufacturers will be vying for the estimated 100 annual turboprop deliveries from next year through 2014, and thereafter they’ll be battling for half that.

Mesinger believes that the availability issue will buoy the turboprop market for the next couple of years. “At the moment, there are no VLJs in the market, so customers will need to wait at least a year before they get their VLJ, assuming they have an early aircraft delivery position,” he said. “But those placing VLJ orders only now will need to wait until 2008 or 2009 for their aircraft. And if they currently own a piston twin, then a turboprop single would be a good aircraft in which to make the transition to the faster speeds of a VLJ.

“The pre-owned market comes into play here as well. Someone who can only marginally afford a VLJ might opt for a used turboprop single, which is readily available in today’s marketplace. If there aren’t any new VLJs in the market, then there certainly aren’t any pre-owned ones either.”

But Mesinger believes the picture will change drastically two or three years from now, as VLJs will be in service and backlogs will be reduced. “If you truly had the choice of a turboprop single or a VLJ– meaning they were both readily available in the marketplace–then it would be compelling for buyers to choose the VLJ,” he notes. “The VLJ has ‘sex appeal,’ whereas the turboprop single doesn’t. If you put an Eclipse 500 next to a turboprop single on the ramp and ask the passengers which aircraft they want to get in to, they’ll most definitely get into the Eclipse.”

This speaks to passengers’ turboprop aversion, which has been largely responsible for the regional jet boom in the U.S. While turboprop aversion can’t be measured, Continental Airlines maintains that when it replaces a twin turboprop with a regional jet on a route, it sees an almost instant 40-percent increase in passenger loads on that route.

One Engine or Two?

It’s true that single-engine turboprops have amassed a slightly better safety record than turboprop twins. According to Boca Raton, Fla.-based Robert E. Breiling Associates, the historic accident rate for turboprop singles is 2.14 accidents per 100,000 hours, while their twin counterparts come in at 2.24 accidents per 100,000 hours.

Despite this record, flight departments typically opt for two turboprop engines rather than one. It’s a given that corporate flight departments will insist on as much redundancy as possible in an aircraft, whether it’s engines, systems or avionics. The more the better, so long as the added weight doesn’t degrade aircraft performance too much.

Here the twin-engine VLJs have a distinct advantage over the jet and turboprop singles. Simply, no flight department would buy a single-engine turbine over a twinjet, especially when their costs are in the same range.

In addition, the safety record is clearly in the twinjet’s favor, even when models such as the CitationJet, which have a high number of single-pilot operators, are factored in to the equation. The CJ’s accident rate over the past five years is 1.31 accidents per 100,000 hours, and its sibling, the Citation 500, has an accident rate of 1.17 per 100,000 hours, Breiling said. Breiling data shows that during the same period the entire business jet fleet has logged an accident rate of only .51 per 100,000 hours.

This means that insurance rates for the VLJs could very well be lower than those for the turboprop singles. Despite the recent chatter that insurers will be reluctant to insure VLJs, NBAA reports that several insurers have made commitments to cover VLJs.

In November, AIG Aviation agreed to underwrite hull and liability insurance for the Eclipse 500 jet on behalf of the member insurance companies of AIG. Additionally, insurance broker Willis Global Aviation is providing preliminary rate projections for the Eclipse 500 owner-pilot market. AIG Aviation and Willis Global Aviation have joined underwriter Global Aerospace, which has also stepped up to the plate to insure Eclipse 500s.

According to Conklin & de Decker, insurance costs for the Eclipse 500 would total $35,921 a year, which includes hull and admitted and legal liability coverage. The hull insurance rate is 0.45 percent, with an insured hull value of a little less than $1.1 million. Conklin estimates that the Adam A700 will cost $41,920 a year to insure, with a hull insurance rate of 0.52 percent on a hull value of $2.1 million.

To put those numbers in perspective, consider other Conklin figures that show a Piper Meridian costs $44,686 per year to insure, while coverage for a PC-12 would be $50,328 annually. The hull insurance rate for the Meridian is 1.86 percent on a hull value of $1.81 million, while the PC-12 is 0.93 percent on a hull value of $3.175 million. According to Conklin & de Decker, rates for other turboprop singles fall between those of the PC-12 and Meridian.

VLJ Training Makes the Difference

The VLJs generally fare better than the turboprops in the insurance realm because of increased FAA scrutiny of VLJ training. NBAA recently released training guidelines for VLJ operators, and insurers are likely to use some version of them as a basis for issuing coverage.

In fact, it was Eclipse’s training program that attracted AIG to offer insurance to Eclipse 500 customers. “AIG Aviation is confident in the Eclipse 500 and the pilot-training program developed by Eclipse Aviation’s management team,” said William Lovett, vice president of AIG Aviation. “Quality training will be a critical element to a successful future for VLJs. AIG Aviation has recognized that the successful completion of the Eclipse 500 type rating and mentor program is the prerequisite to insurability.”

“Willis has been working closely with aviation market underwriters and Eclipse personnel to develop hull and liability premiums that reflect the unique approach to training that Eclipse has established,” echoed Joe Trotti, CEO of Willis Global Aviation North America.

Eclipse has partnered with United Airlines to develop and deliver the comprehensive Eclipse 500 training program curriculum, which extends from prep training through type-rating transition course to mentor pilot and recurrent training. Prerequisites are a private pilot certificate with instrument and multi-engine ratings.

All pilots will receive an initial flight skills assessment at the United Flight Training Center in Denver that will evaluate the pilot’s current skill level. If necessary, the pilot will also complete supplemental training. In addition, pilots will complete upset recovery training in Eclipse Aviation’s L-39 Albatros and high-altitude physiology training to learn the effects of hypoxia.

Upon completion of a week-long type rating transition course, the customer will either receive the type-rating certificate or enter the mentor program. The number of hours to be flown with a mentor pilot will vary, but all pilots with no prior jet experience will be required to fly with a mentor initially. Those who can’t ultimately pass the type-rating course will have their aircraft deposit refunded and Eclipse will cancel the order.

Other VLJ manufacturers have indicated that they will follow a similar stringent training model to keep insurance costs down. However, no manufacturer of any turboprop single has made any such commitment publicly.

Direct Comparisons

Using data supplied by Conklin & de Decker for the Eclipse 500 and Adam A700 very light jets and the Pilatus PC-12, Extra EA-500, Grob G160, Piper Meridian, Ibis Ae270 Spirit and Socata TBM 700C2 turboprop singles allows for a level-playing-field comparison. Conklin’s numbers are more representative of real-world operating costs than the respective aircraft manufacturers’ assessments of these costs. (Data was not available from Conklin for the Mustang, Epic Jet, Embraer VLJ, ProJet, D-Jet, Sport-Jet or EV-20 Vantage.)

AIN then used this data to compute three indices: economic–direct operating costs (DOCs) per nautical mile; comfort– cabin volume divided by maximum passenger seats; and performance–range times speed divided by the takeoff distance. All are industry-standard formulas.

The average aircraft in this group has DOCs of $1.55 per nautical mile (economic index), a comfort index of 37.5 cu ft per passenger, a 199.4 performance index and a price of $2.14 million. The optimum aircraft would have lower-than-average economic index and acquisition cost, and higher- than-average comfort and performance indices.

It should come as no surprise that none of the compared aircraft met all these optimum conditions. Aircraft designs are always trade-offs, so the perfect aircraft remains elusive.

That said, the Eclipse 500 meets three of these optimum conditions, and its comfort index comes in just 5.5 points lower than the average–close but no cigar. However, it’s the closest in the group to an optimum aircraft.

The Eclipse 500 and Meridian tied for the lowest DOCs per nautical mile ($1.29), while the PC-12 came in highest at $1.94 per nautical mile. However, the PC-12 can carry four more passengers than either the Eclipse or Meridian.

If you’re looking for cabin comfort, the A700, Extra EA-500 and PC-12 are all very close, though the EA-500 has the highest comfort index at 50.4 cu ft per passenger. Interestingly, the smallest cabin index didn’t belong to the Eclipse 500, but instead to the Meridian, which had an index of 24 cu ft per passenger.

Those who prefer overall good performance would want to choose the PC-12–its performance index is the best of any aircraft compared, thanks to its excellent 1,250-foot takeoff distance. The two other above-average performers are the Eclipse 500 and Grob G160.

Price-wise, it’s hard to beat the acquisition cost of the Eclipse 500 at $1.295 million (in 2000 dollars). The $2.1 million A700 also came in below the group average of $2.14 million, as did the $1.545 million EA-500 and $1.81 million Meridian.

Conclusions

Once VLJs enter the market and the swelled backlogs begin to subside, turboprop singles will begin to lose market appeal. However, in some circumstances turboprops offer a better solution for an operator–the aircraft must still fit the mission, even in the age of VLJs.

The turboprops, with their slightly longer legs, are better suited for longer-range missions, if passengers don’t mind flying longer at slower-than-VLJ speeds. As mentioned, turboprops will act as a bridge aircraft for owner-pilots who are flying high-performance piston aircraft and wish to purchase a VLJ in the future.

But for most flight departments, there is no option other than a twinjet, due to safety, insurance and redundancy concerns. However, since VLJs have such small cabins, it’s unlikely that existing flight departments will use VLJs as replacements for their larger, longer-range aircraft. Instead they are likely to be added to expand the role of the flight department by carrying non-executive employees.

For companies currently without a flight depart-ment, the VLJs will offer a cost-effective, capable and truly entry-level aircraft. Currently, entry-level aircraft such as the Citation CJ1 and Raytheon Beech Premier I carry price tags exceeding $4.5 million. With the emergence of $1 million to approximately $2 million VLJs, it’ll be interesting to see just how many companies are willing to take the bait and set up a new flight department. Get ready for a fascinating ride.

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