Magic-Carpet Rides

Veteran Pilot Vern Raburn has a plan to save us from the nightmare that is modern air travel-the lines, the endless delays, the crowded cabins. His company, Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque, is manufacturing the most inexpensive business jet ever: a six-seat bird called the Eclipse 500. Hailed as the nation´s first real air taxi, one that could shuttle customers between America´s 5,400 small (read: uncrowded) airports, the jet costs just $1.5 million. Raburn´s biggest customer, DayJet, will begin its regional taxi service with 12 of its 309 Eclipse planes in Florida next month, with flights that cost $1 to $3 a mile. We caught up with Raburn at his factory in New Mexico.

** Q: You´ve undercut your closest competitor, Cessna, by about $3 million. Can you build and sell enough airplanes to make money?**

A: Our break-even point is just 525 aircraft a year. Think of all the people who travel but are consigned to commercial planes. Companies could own 10 Eclipses for the cost one gold-standard business. Ultimately, this is a pain reliever, and people tend to want solutions to painful problems.

Q: Cost aside, what makes the Eclipse 500 different from other business jets?

A: For one thing, we use a modern manufacturing process, which eliminates the need for most of the rivets by bonding pieces of the aircraft together. Plus, our digital instrument panel is really clean-it prioritizes information for you.

Q: So it´s easy to fly?

A: Absolutely. To start the engines, you simply turn the switch to â€start.†It´s an automatic process, so you don´t have to prime anything, play with the throttles, or toggle switches. We put a lot of pilots in there who´ve never flown a jet, and in five or 10 minutes they´re saying, â€That´s all there is to it?†It also handles gracefully because it´s easy to manipulate.

Q: And what about the passenger experience? The cabin looks, well, petite.

A: It´s not nearly as small inside as it seems from the outside. We worked hard to get more headroom and shoulder room. It´s the closest thing we’ve got to the magic carpet. At 35,000 feet, it´s just you and your friends or spouse, not you and 273 of your best friends.

Q: What´s next for aviation?

A: A radical cost decrease. If Eclipse is starting a trend in aviation, its new design and manufacturing should help the price of an aircraft go down, not up. Take Pratt & Whitney. It usually takes 50 to 75 hours to build a standard