- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., is testing a program to use small jets for a public taxi service between the nation's roughly 5,400 small, public-use airports.
The "micro jets" would charge rates similar to those for business-class seats but provide the convenience of personalized service. Each would carry four to six passengers.
Passengers would have to call a carrier and give directions on when and where they want to be picked up, as well as their destination.
"The idea is kind of a jet taxi," said Kathy Barnstorff, NASA Langley spokeswoman.
"Our researchers definitely believe this is doable," Mrs. Barnstorff said. "We're beginning to see technologies that could make this happen."
Manassas Regional Airport is one of the test sites. Others are in Blacksburg, Danville and Newport News, all in Virginia. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is using a Cirrus SR22 turboprop to test the automated flight systems.
Charter jet services already are available between regional airports but typically at prices only the wealthiest can afford.
NASA believes the jet taxis could be successful in the Washington area and in Florida, which have large numbers of regional airports and private airplanes.
Before the jets start flying commercially, improvements in manufacturing would be required to cut their retail costs to about the same as those for high-priced luxury cars, NASA officials said. Currently, an inexpensive one would cost about $1 million. Similar private jets commonly cost about $4 million.
In addition, global positioning satellite systems and cockpit display technology would have to be refined to create a "highway-in-the-sky map," Mrs. Barnstorff said.
Small airports that now are accessible only when pilots can see them out their windows could be located on computer-generated maps in cockpits. In addition, satellite navigation systems could automate approaches and landings.
If engineers can prove the "Small Aircraft Transportation System" (SATS) financially viable, NASA expects private companies to take it over. The five-year program, which started in October 2001, is operating on a $69 million budget.
The jet taxis would have club seats, a cockpit for a pilot and a copilot, and a bathroom in the back. They would cruise about 400 mph at altitudes up to 41,000 feet, usually for trips from 200 to 1,000 miles. Passengers would need to use regular airliners for longer trips.
Although the micro-jets would be about 200 mph slower than the airliners, the direct flight paths and convenience of flying between regional airports could make them a faster and more viable option. They could land on 2,500 foot runways, compared with runways at least twice that long for regular airline jets.
"You could cut down on that doorstep-to-destination time," Mrs. Barnstorff said.
NASA is trying to develop a "proof of concept demonstration" by October 2005 to show that the program is a practical transportation alternative.
However, some airline industry analysts say NASA's projected time frame is too optimistic.
"Infrastructure is just such a complicated issue," said Darryl Jenkins, director of George Washington University's Aviation Institute. "To get the real good infrastructure we want, the truth is it's still some years down the road."
Security issues also must be resolved for such a system, he said.
"I'm sure with 9/11, some of these things slipped further into the future," Mr. Jenkins said.
The National Research Council's Transportation Research Board raised similar concerns in a recent report on the SATS program. It said the cost to passengers, funding to upgrade airports, unproven demand, and hazards of thousands of additional aircraft crowding the skies create obstacles that could be insurmountable.
Aircraft manufacturers are, nonetheless, producing new generations of jets hoping to cash in on the market for personalized air travel.
Among them is Eclipse Aviation Corp. of Albuquerque, N.M., which has developed a six-seat jet costing $837,000 that can cruise at 400 mph for 1,300-mile flights.
Keith Henry, public affairs deputy director for NASA Langley, said that prices are likely to drop as automobile manufacturing companies start making airplanes adopting the cost efficiencies they use for cars.
"They are taking the same sort of approach that they take to their automotive business, where they take a very long-term vision," Mr. Henry said.
Honda Motor Co. is developing a four-to-five seat jet with engines that use 20 percent less fuel than competing models. Toyota Motor Corp. also plans to manufacture low-cost jets.
Even if jet taxis become commonplace, Mr. Henry said large airlines do not need to worry about competition.
"The system, as good as it is and hard as they try, will not be able to keep up with demand," he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the number of U.S. airline passengers will increase to 800 million by 2010, up from the expected 600 million this year.
"The big airlines will continue to make adjustments," Mr. Henry said. "We're not out to replace them; we're trying to supplement them."

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