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Honda, Toyota Shift Gears and Consider Taking to the Skies

The Japanese automakers are testing low-cost plane prototypes that could challenge other manufacturers of general aviation aircraft.

March 08, 2004|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

In the state that gave birth to powered flight, engineers for Honda Motor Co. have been quietly developing a small jet airplane that could alter the general aviation landscape.

Operating out of a small airstrip in Greensboro, N.C., Japan's second-largest auto manufacturer has begun test flying the HondaJet. It's a prototype of a six-passenger jet that marks a major leap forward in Honda's decades-long ambition to build a highly efficient, low-cost aircraft.

Meanwhile, Honda's archrival and Japan's largest automaker, Toyota Motor Corp., has been secretly test flying a propeller-driven, four-passenger plane over the Mojave Desert.

Both companies are intensely competitive and secretive, and haven't allowed many outsiders to see their aircraft. Toyota won't discuss its plans for its plane.

"We're still in the feasibility stage. We have nothing more to say," said Diana DeJoseph, a spokeswoman for Toyota, which has its Aviation Business Development Office in Torrance.

At Honda, spokesman Jeffrey Smith said that for now, "this is a pure research and development program. We don't have a commercial plan" for the HondaJet.

Analysts and aviation experts say both automakers have far greater ambitions than they have let on, and that's ruffling the staid general aviation industry. Half a dozen start-up firms are attempting to develop low-cost airplanes too.

Getting into the market is notoriously difficult. Since the 1960s, only one all-new company, Brazil's Embraer, has been created and succeeded in delivering more than one jet a month, according to aerospace research firm Teal Group.

Yet the Japanese automakers, flush with billions of dollars in cash, have the financial resources and engineering prowess that could make them formidable players in aviation, industry officials and analysts said.

The U.S. is the biggest market for general aviation aircraft, accounting for about 80% of the nearly $10 billion in sales annually. More than 2,100 private planes and business jets were sold in the U.S. last year.

"We're more concerned with them because they have the resources," said Marilyn Richwine, spokeswoman for Textron Inc.'s Cessna Aircraft Co., the nation's largest maker of private airplanes and business jets. Honda and Toyota "may be more of a viable competitor than some of the others, if they decide to get serious about it."

Honda reportedly first tested its new engine on a Cessna Citation jet before building its own aircraft. The HondaJet has a similar shape as a Citation, but the engines are mounted atop each wing. That innovative design -- most business jets have engines mounted to the fuselage toward the rear of the plane -- frees up more cabin space.

Honda began its test flights in December, just days before the centennial anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Honda declined to talk about the prospective market for its jet. But analysts speculate that the company is intrigued with the idea of creating a network of so-called air taxis with Honda-built jets. Under the air taxi concept, the planes would be priced at about $1 million -- about one-fourth the cost of the cheapest business jets today.

Last year, Honda's chief engineer on the project, in a 17-page report presented at an aviation meeting, said the plane would have a range of about 1,300 miles and a cruising speed of about 485 mph, or only 60 mph slower than the fastest business jets. But the HondaJet would use 40% less fuel, the engineer, Michimasa Fujino, wrote.

Analysts said the cost of a seat on an air taxi flight could be close to that of a first-class seat on a commercial airliner. The service would be aimed at business travelers seeking to bypass major airports by flying directly to regional airports.

"The whole air taxi business has only gotten traction in the last six months to a year," said Jon B. Kutler, president of Quarterdeck Investment Partners Inc., an investment bank for aerospace ventures. "It became a more viable concept post Sept. 11 when it just became much more difficult to fly commercially."

For its part, Toyota has been testing a single-engine propeller plane.

Kutler said Toyota has long had ambitions of building airplanes that would be as simple to operate as driving a car, while costing significantly less than current private planes.

Toyota has been working with legendary designer Burt Rutan, who has built pioneering aircraft such as the Voyager, which flew around the world on one tank of fuel.

Last fall, a magazine published by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. reported that Toyota was scaling back its own development effort and was talking to Raytheon Corp. about a joint venture. Toyota declined to comment about the report.

Honda, which began as a maker of motorcycles in the 1940s, has diversified and now makes everything from lawnmowers to generators, watercraft, snow blowers, outboard motors and water pumps. And it appears to be stepping up its efforts to enter the aircraft business.

Last month, Honda's chief executive, Takeo Fukui, signed an agreement with General Electric Corp., the nation's largest jet engine maker, to co-produce and market the new Honda-developed engine for light business jets.

"This is a great step forward for Honda to enter the aviation business, which has been a dream of the company since its creation," Fukui said as he signed the engine agreement.

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