Eight months in, RVSM approvals slow to a trickle

 - October 23, 2006, 10:19 AM

More than eight months after the start of reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) in North America, about 70 percent of U.S.-registered business aircraft are approved for RVSM operations, and only four models have achieved 100-percent fleet compliance, according to data provided by technical consulting firm CSSI.

The fully compliant business jets are the Gulfstream G100, Learjet 45 and Cessna Citation CJ2 and Citation X. As might be expected, newer business jets–those manufactured within the last 10 years–generally have a higher level of compliance with RVSM requirements than older airplanes.

According to CSSI, models that are 95 percent or more compliant include the G200, several newer Citation models, all Bombardier Challengers and Globals (except the just-introduced Global 5000), all Falcons (except the 10 and 20) and several Learjets, including the 31.

Business jets with fleet compliance of 60 percent or lower include the Citation I and I/SP, Global 5000, Falcon 10 and 20, Hawker 125-1 through -600, JetStar I/II, Learjet 24/25/28/29, Mitsubishi Diamond and Sabreliner 75/80. The Piaggio Avanti, with 82 percent of the fleet compliant, is by far the leader among turboprops, CSSI reported. Based in Washington, D.C., the company provides the FAA with a variety of engineering and technical services, one of them being the record-keeping of RVSM-compliance data.

When domestic RVSM rules took effect on January 20, slightly more than two-thirds of U.S.-registered business jets had been approved to fly in the restricted airspace, according to CSSI. With the deadline several months in the past, and compliance up to only 70.54 percent as of the last audit released a month or so ago,  it is clear that RVSM approvals have slowed significantly. Pilots of non-RVSM jets have been requesting ATC transitions through RVSM airspace (spanning FL290 to FL410 inclusive) to cruise on top. Business jets that cannot easily climb above RVSM airspace have been forced to fly at FL270 and lower, where increased fuel burns have raised operating costs and eroded range.

Many Still Waiting

The reasons many operators have decided not to undergo avionics upgrades to meet RVSM specifications vary, but typically they are tied to the steep cost of such equipment, generally tens of thousands of dollars but, in some cases, hundreds of thousands. Prices have come down from levels of a few years ago, however, as more avionics makers have begun selling RVSM gear.

Bill Arsenault, vice president for Mid-Canada Mod Center, a Toronto upgrade facility, said that in talking with operators it is clear that many are holding off on RVSM because they are planning to sell their aircraft and move up to a compliant model or are waiting for an opportune time to perform the needed installations and approvals.

“In looking at why many have not made the move, we understand that some operators are in the midst of an aircraft change or upgrade,” Arsenault said. “Still others have been looking to incorporate RVSM into a larger revitalization or cabin overhaul. Then there are a number of folks who simply missed the deadline by not getting in line early enough.”

As demand on the pre-owned aircraft market rises, however, operators of older models who have not gained RVSM approval appear to be preparing for the day they will have to call the local installation shop to get the airplane on the schedule.

In general, aircraft that are not RVSM compliant are commanding many thousands of dollars less than similar aircraft that have undergone upgrades, in many cases making the cost-benefit pendulum swing strongly in favor of having the work done, according to pre-owned market analyst Bryan Comstock, co-founder  of aircraft broker Jeteffect.

“The airplanes that don’t have RVSM tend to stagnate on the open market,” Comstock said. He said he has seen prices discounted by at least as much as the cost of the RVSM upgrade and often by far more to compensate for the inconvenience of the buyer having to pay to have the work performed. “It’s a given that you’d have to discount the price of a non-compliant airplane at least as much as the cost of the upgrade, but even then non-RVSM airplanes are having a harder time selling,” he said.

Comstock related the story of a client who was trying to offload a non-RVSM CitationJet. Because the aircraft was only one of two non-RVSM airplanes available for sale out of a pool of about 30, it wasn’t attracting suitors, even at a reduced price. The owner finally decided to bring the airplane into the shop and complete the necessary installations and paperwork for the FAA approval. After the owner had the letter of authorization from the FAA in hand, Comstock said, this previously unwanted CitationJet sold in days.

In force for the last several years on most major flight routes, RVSM is a procedure that allows controllers to reduce the vertical separation between aircraft from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet at altitudes between 29,000 and 41,000 feet. Experts contend the reduction in spacing increases capacity and saves money by allowing more airplanes to fly preferred altitudes and routes. Since its implementation in North America, controller operational errors have declined by 28 percent in RVSM airspace, according to the FAA, which added that airlines are reporting “significant fuel cost savings” because airplanes are flying at more efficient altitudes. The FAA has estimated U.S. airlines will save $5.3 billion in fuel in the next decade because of RVSM.

Whether business jet operators are realizing similar fuel savings as a result of the tighter spacing is unclear at this stage, but the good news for operators of non-RVSM airplanes is that there are more options for having RVSM work done today than in the past. Also, the early headaches related to local FSDO officials’ not always having a clear understanding of the RVSM approval process appear to have largely disappeared. Instead of the horror stories that seemed to be the norm in the run-up to implementation of domestic RVSM, today operators are generally reporting positive experiences.

After taking over a flight department that had a Citation carrying RVSM-certified equipment but not an approved manual, one operator said it took less than three weeks, start to finish, to obtain FSDO approval.

“We called Cessna support to see if they could help,” the flight department manager said. “A week later we had our manual. I inserted the training records for the pilots, and some maintenance information, and 12 days later I had our approval letter and we were on our way!”