10 FEBRUARY 2007, Page 39

Rich boys' toys

Neil Collins is leaving on a private jet plane Ah, the glamour of the private jet. Others may struggle in the misery and chaos that big airports promise nowadays, but here's your own personal captain, welcoming you on board, to whisk you away from a convenient little airfield without fuss. Ah, the expense of the private jet. You can almost see your money burning as the engines turn.

Only those for whom £1 million is a rounding error can seriously contemplate using these rich boys' toys. Well, not for much longer, it seems. Welcome to the era of the VU. You can now buy a tithe of your own Very Light Jet for just £100,000, and if running costs of £800 an hour sound quite steep, it's about the same per mile as a London taxi (and, some might say, rather better value). Lest you worry that at that price the passengers must pedal hard on takeoff, the Eclipse 500 has just won its full certificate of airworthiness from the Federal Aviation Authority in America, and by the time the first model arrives here next year, it will comply with the British rules too. Oh, and the running costs include two pilots (and two jet engines, for those who worry about such things) to whisk you and your chums at 370 knots to lunch in Nice, or wherever you fancy within a thousand miles of home.

Well, that's what it says on the tin. Considering that it's half the price of any other jet on the market, it's no surprise to find others trying to knock it out of the sky. They mutter that it's cramped to the point of claustrophobia, that it won't fly very far if the passengers are fat, and that it's going to be frightfully expensive to maintain. A plane this small and light, they add, will get chucked about something rotten in poor weather and low altitude, so you risk seeing your Nice lunch again.

Better, they say, to spend $3 million and get something more substantial. They may be right, but most of us can still spot the difference between $1.5 million and $3 million, and while we might prefer to travel in a cabin where we can almost stand up, we may not quite have the dosh to go that far.

The Eclipse promises a revolution. The man behind it, Vern Raburn, made a fortune at Microsoft but, like so many before him, was hopelessly in love with big boys' flying toys. Planemaking, he decided, is not much more than a glorified cottage industry, with every manufacturer making everything, or demanding unique specifications from subcontractors. Five years ago Rabum set out to make a Model T Ford of the air, using standard components wherever he could, and manufacturing techniques from the IT industry. The result sells for $1 5 million, or half the price of its nearest rivals.

Everyone needs a little luck, and his was the response of governments worldwide to 9/11. From being merely inconvenient, airport procedures have now become aggressively offensive. As you shuffle forward to the ritual humiliation of the security check, it matters not whether you've paid one pound or a thousand for your ticket; the slightest suggestion of complaint at the behaviour of the goons with the metal detectors, and you're off the plane. With your Eclipse 500, there are only three people in the queue with you, and none is likely to be • carrying a bomb.

2, The other planemakers have worked this out and are a; on Vern's tail. Cessna, Piper =,-; and — intriguingly • Honda are all developing Vils of their own, and as the skies darken with the little buzzers, the price is more likely to fall than rise. Of course, it's absurd to compare the in-air experience with turning left to your seat in a big jet. The cabin is cramped and there's no loo, but since you're going to be there for only about as long as it takes to reach the departure gate at Heathrow, even the most incontinent chief executive will probably be able to cope.

There is no pouting young air hostess to cater for your every whim, either. Some might say this is an advantage. The wife of an American billionaire explains that the guests on her husband's executive jet have to help themselves if they want food or drink; she has barred air hostesses after too many of her friends saw their husbands flying off with them.

This is unlikely to be a problem for the very latest in private jet travel, the Javelin, which is essentially a civilian version of the two-seater Hawk jet trainer, so it doesn't hang about. There's hardly room for a laptop on your lap, let alone an air hostess, but it will get you there fast. Quite whether you'd be able to face lunch after you touch down is another matter, but that's part of the price of mini-jet-set travel.

www.ainouring.corn www.eclipseaviation.corn www.onecharterco.uk