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April 7, 2008

Focus: Very light jets becoming the taxi of the skies

NORTH ANDOVER — People traveling to the Merrimack Valley from other parts of the country will soon have the option of bypassing Logan International Airport.

Very light jets (VLTs) are coming to Lawrence Municipal Airport. Formerly known as microjets, VLTs are a smaller version of business jets, seat between four and eight people, and run on a smaller, quieter engine.

"I would say give it six months, you'll start to see them in Lawrence," said Arthur Allen, a Byfield resident and acting chairman of Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission.

The upside to VLTs is that they are cheaper and more efficient than larger, multimillion dollar jets that can run on demand like a taxi service. They can also get people to their destination faster because they have more options on where to land.

A VLT typically needs only a 2,000-foot runway to land — Lawrence Airport's longest runway is 5,000 feet, said Michael Miller, manager of Lawrence Municipal Airport.

"You're not going to need the 7,500- or 8,000-foot runway anymore," he said.

Allen noted VLTs are also more efficient because they fly at lower altitudes and burn less fuel.

VLTs also carry light loads and have small engines, so they're quiet, which is key because many municipal airports are surrounded by homes, and Lawrence is no exception.

A downside of the VLT: only a few models have lavatories.

Lawrence Municipal Airport charges a landing fee, which varies by weight, so the airport will make money off VLTs, Miller said.

VLTs cost about $1.2 million apiece, Allen said. They are already flying out of Hanscom Field in Bedford.

Companies can pool resources to buy one and split the maintenance, people can buy into a timeshare to get a jet, or people can just buy a seat on a jet, Allen said.

The Lawrence, Fitchburg and Westfield-Barnes airports will become "commuter hubs," Allen said.

VLTs' buyers will be people who normally would have owned a larger, more expensive aircraft, Miller said.

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