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Bargain Basement Jets?

Imagine a world where grabbing a flight is as easy as hailing a cab. One entrepreneur says he can deliver. But will his dream fly?
Jim Mueller
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

Vern Raburn swears up and down he'll sell you a new jet for $950,000.

The dream is a good one. Close your eyes and see a future where closer-to-ordinary citizens can buy private jets at a quarter the cost of what they'd pay today, a perfect world where taking a flight would mean showing up at the airport and grabbing an air taxi that drops you right where you're going, bypassing hubs. It's been the stuff of Popular Science dreams for decades, and Raburn says it's right around the corner.

That is, once he gets an engine that will start consistently and if he can overcome an atmosphere of aviation regulation that makes the business plan of his Albuquerque-based Eclipse Aviation just a pipe dream, according to some aircraft industry observers.

Raburn's Eclipse 500 is a sharp airplane; nobody's disputing that point. He's essentially created an affordable, aluminum-skin throwback for dreamers, a six-passenger twin jet long on swagger, loaded with retro charisma. It's the kind of plane you could see Sean Connery as James Bond in, nipping out of somewhere inside Uzbekistan.

And it does exist in some form.

John Travolta expressed interest in buying one. Raburn says Eclipse Aviation holds deposits from more than 2,100 other true believers -- for the most part private pilots who've passed on the $3 million to $4 million price tag for comparable models by other builders. They find the bargain price of Eclipse most seductive, and Raburn appreciates their confidence. But even so, weekend fliers aren't his primary target. Raburn envisions a new market as yet untapped. He sees air-taxi operators and large corporations as fleet purchasers of the Eclipse 500, five years out. In Raburn's scenario, business commuters of the future will look beyond the 600 or so airports offering scheduled airline flights. Instead, they'll be slipping through the 9,400 smaller municipal airfields that dot the country -- preferably in an Eclipse.

Raburn wants business fliers to use the country's network of sleepy regional airports. Skip the Dulles security hassles, all the stewing in multiple lines clogged with nattering tourists.

Just raise your right arm and flag down the closest air taxi.

"I use Torrance [California] to Bakersfield as a typical air-taxi flight that people might appreciate," Raburn conjectures. "That's a seven-hour drive in heavy freeway traffic, but 20 minutes by Eclipse. It's a short trip -- and that's my point. Most business trips are short trips. About 44 percent of all airline passengers travel less than 400 miles."

So leave when you like and make better use of your company's time by traveling through the local airport. No sitting around for 90 minutes, waiting on the runway at O'Hare for clearance to take off for Omaha. The Eclipse air taxi pulling out of nearby Palwaukee Airport will let you sidestep security and scheduling snafus. On the other end you put in your face time and the Eclipse has you airborne again, whisking home by cocktail hour. In Raburn's perfect world, air-taxi operators will pop up across the country with fleets of Eclipse 500 jets providing affordable short-hop service on demand.

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