Now one decade old, BBJ inspires new ideas

 - September 13, 2006, 6:23 AM

Hard to believe perhaps, but 10 years have passed since Boeing entered the executive aircraft market by unveiling a dedicated corporate 737 variant, the Boeing Business Jet (BBJ). In the decade since that launch, military, airline and fractional-ownership operators have joined traditional corporate customers in answering the knock of the U.S. manufacturer’s salesmen.

The basic BBJ is a 6,000 nm-range, CFM56-7B-powered derivative of the 737-700 high-gross- weight jetliner allied with the stronger landing gear and wing of the 737-800, with provision for additional underfloor fuel tanks provided by Delaware-based PATS. Launched in July 1996, the BBJ first flew in September 1998, two months after rollout and just ahead of formal U.S. and European Joint Aviation Authorities airworthiness approval for the 737-700.

Better-than-expected initial market response and first deliveries in late 1998 were clouded, however, when Australian golfer Greg Norman–a launch customer featured in BBJ advertisements under a seven-year Boeing contract–canceled his order. Boeing also had to shuffle output because of delayed approval for auxiliary fuel tanks following flight-management system software problems.

Before long, demand for a bigger cabin led to the 1999 launch of the 737-800-based BBJ2, with Boeing marketers already aspiring to larger jetliner variants
in “everything from BBJ3 to BBJ10,” according to Manfred Schindler, international sales vice president at the time.

A BBJ with an executive interior and “blended winglets” made its first public appearance at the 2000 Farnborough Air Show. Boeing chairman Phil Condit, BBJ founding president Borge Boeskov–a former head of commercial-airplane new-product strategy, who had developed the aircraft program for Condit and General Electric boss Jack Welch–and others flew in aboard the manufacturer’s in-house aircraft. Cabin layout included two full bathrooms, bedrooms, office, meeting/dining room, lounge and crew-rest facilities; 10 others were already in service.

Early orders for the BBJ far outpaced the company’s public suggestions. “Preliminary estimates were in the neighborhood of six to eight per year, [but sales have] been about three times that amount,” said Boeskov in 2000. “The global economy, management by teams [and the] emergence of new communications tools all pointed to the need for a larger, longer-range platform. The time was just right.”

In 2004 Boeing abandoned a planned 7,000-nm-range, 757-based “BBJ3.” It has subsequently adopted that epithet for a 737-900ER corporate variant, and current studies include a convertible 737-700-based BBJ C.

BBJ marketing director Chuck Colburn cites a number of offbeat applications, including Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, and Swiss use of Geneva-based operator Privat-Air’s BBJs for scheduled transatlantic business-class service in 46-passenger, 55-inch-pitch layout. He notes that Ford Motor Company used two UK-based, 109-seat BBJs for European corporate shuttle operations.

The Air National Guard reconfigured Ford’s BBJs and uses them on behalf of the U.S. government, which operates other examples for military transport. A BBJ was also the platform for Australia’s Wedgetail 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control program.

A variety of unusual items equip one (unidentified) aircraft, according to Colburn. The aircraft, possibly one of the original Boeing in-house machines, was fitted with two Murphy beds that retract into the sidewall to reveal a settee; two showers (using five U.S. gallons of continuously re-circulated, filtered and purified water); three 42-inch plasma video screens; unshaded and uncurtained “dimmable” windows; 120-U.S. gallon water tank; and an exercise bicycle. In 1998, Boeing said the BBJ would be “the only aircraft to offer defibrillators as standard equipment.”

Typical BBJ annual utilization is 560 hours/250 flights, with average sectors taking 2.5 hours. Average flight times for the high-cycle (3,300 flights) and high-time (20,000 hours) BBJs are 1.1 hours and 7.15 hours, respectively.

BBJ operating statistics include a longest flight of 6,854 nm in 14 hours, 12 minutes (from Seattle to Jeddah). Off-the-beaten- path airfield operations include demos at 11,621-foot-elevation Lhasa, Tibet, and onto the 4,500-foot runway at Taupo, New Zealand.

Winglets on the BBJ
Colburn said introducing winglets posed an engineering challenge. He conceded that perceived sex appeal–and the accompanying customer demand–played a large part in their development for the aircraft. Winglets, he told AIN, were fitted “not necessarily for performance benefits, but because ‘all business jets have winglets’ and [customers] wanted that distinctive appearance.”

He said the challenge was convincing Boeing engineers to support winglet certification efforts. “True aerodynamicists know that adding a winglet is less efficient than increasing span, and [Boeing has] historically resisted the practicality of adding winglets. [The] opinion was that increased structural and winglet weight would offset any performance benefit.”

Boeskov’s main concern was that the winglets have no adverse effects. He knew that Aviation Partners had applied “blended winglets” to other designs. Aviation Partners president and CEO Joe Clark convinced him the technology could be used on the BBJ. To prove and certify the concept, the BBJ official persuaded Wolfgang Kurth, managing director of Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, to provide an undelivered 737-800 for engineering development.

Production winglets cut fuel burn by 4.5 percent, boosted climb performance, raised optimum altitudes and lowered noise levels. Hapag-Lloyd became the first airline customer for the winglets, which are provided as standard BBJ equipment by joint venture company Aviation Partners Boeing.

The rest, as they say, is history: 86 winglet-equipped BBJs are now flying, with seven more in completion. Possible application of the Boeing Business Jet “brand” to a 717 variant or to a new supersonic design (discussed jointly with Sukhoi) in the late 1990s did not proceed, but today BBJ officials are marketing the whole range of aircraft. “The 787 and 747-8 form part of our overall offer of VIP versions of all current Boeing models,” said BBJ president Steve Hill.

Indeed, the first passenger 747-8 order quietly posted on Boeing’s Web site in June could apply to a VIP variant, possibly for a Gulf customer.