The Light Jet Age
Coming soon to an airstrip near you: superlight jets starting at around a million bucks. But which planes will fly? STUART F. BROWN checks out the new breed of small wonders.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – HEAR THE TURBINES WHINE AS YOU PUNCH THROUGH THE clouds! In thrust we trust! Until now, taking ownership of a jet was a pleasure reserved for an upper-crust crowd with at least several million dollars to spend. But 2006 is poised to usher in a whole new Jet Age. Three manufacturers--Cessna, Adam Aircraft, and Eclipse Aviation--have developed an entirely new class of hot little planes known as very light jets, or VLJs. And all three hope to have their jets on the market in 2006. A fourth member of the growing VLJ flock is expected in 2008 from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.

These small jets won't just get you there faster than noisy propeller planes--they'll also fly at higher altitudes, where the trip is much smoother. And at $1.4 million to $2.4 million, they'll be significantly cheaper than any jets now on the market. (The least expensive business jets you can buy, such as the Beechcraft Premier or Cessna Citation CJ1+, sell for $4 million to $5 million.) Right now the only places you'll see VLJs are in flight tests over New Mexico, Colorado, or Kansas. The FAA won't sign off on production and sale of a new aircraft until it has seen the prototypes put through an excruciating ground-test regime, where they try to break the wings, and through a progressively more demanding series of flight tests. Adam, Cessna, and Eclipse are hoping that the FAA will be satisfied with them sometime in 2006.

But even though you can't yet fly, you can buy. Together, the prospective VLJ makers say they have about 3,000 firm orders and options on their books, with Eclipse alone claiming some 2,300 (though analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group research firm notes that business-jet orders notoriously lack transparency, and that the backlogs could be smaller). At the recent National Business Aviation Association convention in Orlando, however, customers weren't hard to find. Retired American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, for instance, has taken options on 75 AdamJet A700s for the VLJ air-taxi company he's putting together, and was on the show floor kicking little jet tires. For anyone with jet envy, here's a look at the players.

•Eclipse 500: The six-seat 500 is the smallest aircraft in this group and will be the cheapest business jet ever sold. To drive the price down, startup Eclipse has invested in advanced metalworking technology and is banking on high production volumes. The plane has side-mounted control sticks, like an Airbus or an F-16, and a cheerful interior designed by BMW DesignWorks USA. But analyst Aboulafia reserves special scorn for Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn's belief that he can sell planes at Wal-Mart prices by building four per week, a production pace probably not seen since World War II. "I don't know which is more bloated, the production expectations or the demand expectations," says Aboulafia.

•AdamJet A700: The spacy-looking A700 is derived from a design originally drawn by famed aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan, builder of the SpaceShipOne rocket ship. Maker Adam Aircraft, another startup, uses its twin-boom design to give the eight-seat A700 a roomy cabin that isn't pinched at the back. The A700 is the only jet in this group built from carbon-fiber composite material, which can produce structures stronger and lighter than aluminum. But as for the Eclipse, there's still some skepticism about the Adam. Engineers warn that many new planes end up weighing more and burning more fuel than hoped, and that the design and manufacturing inexperience of the VLJ startups will make it harder for them to meet their performance goals.

•Cessna Citation Mustang: With the introduction of the six-seat Mustang, Cessna rounds out the bottom end of its nine-model Citation business-jet lineup. The Mustang should appeal to customers who are willing to pay more because they appreciate Cessna's long history and the company's well-established service and technical-support network--which the startups will have to build from scratch. Money aside, the Mustang could be your safest bet.

•Embraer Phenom 100: The Brazilian company is a respected maker of regional jets but is about two years behind its rivals. With more cabin width and height than the other VLJs, the $2.75 million Phenom 100 promises a comfy passenger experience. Embraer also made use of BMW's interior-design services, but opted for a cabin with a sleek modernist look, befitting even the most jaded jet setter.

Cheat Sheet

Based on company claims, here's how the jets stack up.