Clearing skies greet European convention

 - April 2, 2007, 10:43 AM

The economy is emerging from the soup not with the sudden clarity of a westbound flight through the shattered remnants of a cold front, but more as if it were groping its way through the patchy passing of a stubborn warm front. Against this backdrop, business aviation met in Geneva, Switzerland, and dared to hope that the improvement is durable enough to mark a sustained upswing in the economic cycle.

The European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) in late May certainly did not rival NBAA gatherings of years past in terms of new airplane projects announced, but Dassault chose the Geneva convention to unveil its new Falcon 900DX. Replacing the 900C, the new trijet is positioned between the 2000EX twin and the 900EX. And the convention crowd was the largest yet in the four-year history of the event, with the organizers claiming 6,487 attendees (up by 8.4 percent over last year) and 247 exhibitors occupying 728 booth spaces measuring 10 feet by 10 feet. With no exhibitor vacancies on opening day, EBACE has grown by 56 percent since it first began in 2001. On the static ramp this year, just 30 seconds’ walk from the exhibit hall at the Palexpo center on Geneva Airport, three dozen turbine business aircraft were open for inspection by attendees.

Transatlantic politics also factored in the gathering–organized by NBAA of the U.S. and the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA)– specifically the ways in which the two regions forge and interpret the rules governing fractional and charter operations.

At the opening general session on May 25, hosted by EBAA chairman and soon-to-be chief executive Brian Humphries and NBAA interim president Don Baldwin, regulatory and environmental issues dominated the agenda. Both executives voiced their concerns about security- and congestion-inspired access issues.

Keynote speaker Patrick Goudou, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), told the assembly that “relationships are key to ensuring the highest level of safety worldwide,” a pledge that the non-European airplane-manufacturer leaders seated in the front rows were surely hoping means simplified certification of their products in the years ahead. As of last September, EASA replaced the Joint Aviation Authorities as Europe’s certification authority, with a mandate to develop and enforce European Union regulations covering the airworthiness and environmental compatibility of aerospace products. “EASA is no longer a dream, or nightmare, depending on your perspective,” said Goudou.

EASA’s authority will extend next to air operations and flight crew licensing, and ultimately, said Goudou, it could encompass airports and ATC.

“JAA operated on consensus [leaving matters open to national interpretation]; EASA operates on [European Union] law,” Goudou noted.

On the agency’s flight plan are the following waypoints: manage growth (it now has 50 employees, a roster Goudou expects will double by year-end); move headquarters to Cologne, Germany; develop a rulemaking program; expand to flight crew licensing and air operations; develop a fees and charges system for implementation by year-end; develop an inspection program; and develop a strategy for “total systems approach.”

Environmental Initiatives

Europe is the crucible for tougher environmental regulations, and although the worldwide fleet of 24,000 turbine business airplanes is responsible for less than 2 percent of all aviation emissions, it is not escaping scrutiny. “While that number might not sound significant,” warned Roger Gardner, head of air quality and environmental technology at Britain’s Department for Transport, “your community would do well to be sensitized to environmental impact. Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle, every segment of aviation has to own up to its responsibilities.”

Aviation finds itself increasingly at odds with society’s striving for a better quality of life, noted Gardner. “While society ranks a better environment above its desire for more travel, we are delivering the opposite,” with travel growth outstripping environmental improvements.

New standards for nitrous oxide emissions will be 12-percent stricter for new engines by 2008, and European authorities agree to review the standards for further tightening in due course. Auxiliary power units will not escape attention either, Gardner warned. The “cruise certification regime” is also under closer scrutiny.

Gardner expressed concern that ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) now has a “slimmed-down environmental structure and lots to do.” The organization has a history of slow progress, and Gardner predicted it will become slower still with adoption of a holistic approach to the issues. “We are concerned that the ICAO process is almost exhausted in its effectiveness, and we might need to consider a European solution alongside ICAO’s work,” said Gardner.

While recognizing business aviation’s high standards of cleanliness and quietness, Gardner exhorted the segment to strive to improve. “Environmental programs warrant your close attention,” he concluded.

‘I’m from Eurocontrol, I’m Here To Help You’

“We appreciate that the key requirements of business aviation are speed and flexibility,” opening words that warmed the audience toward Bo Redeborn, director of ATM strategies for Eurocontrol. Redeborn then made the soul-searching admission that ATC has been a factor in three accidents this decade: ground collisions at Paris Charles de Gaulle (2000) and Milan Linate (2001, and involving a business jet) and the night midair crash on the Swiss-German border in summer 2002 involving a Boeing 757 freighter and a Tupolev Tu-154 filled with schoolchildren. He added that Eurocontrol launched a strategic safety action plan earlier this year.

New technical advances currently under investigation include the continuous descent approach (as opposed to the current stepped approach), which promises to cut noise and emissions; and the approach with vertical guidance (APV), which can allow direct approaches in locations where they are not possible using classic navaids.

Redeborn said that 2003 was the busiest year on record for Eurocontrol territory, with 8.467 million flights, but he noted that delays were down by 20 percent over 2002, averaging 1.7 minutes per flight. On user charges, Redeborn reported that Eurocontrol is preparing rules for implementation of a new, modernized charging system, to be published later this year.

The increased operational efficiencies wrought by RVSM will cut fuel consumption by between 1.6 and 2.3 percent, according to Redeborn, saving 310,000 tons of fuel annually and cutting nitrous-oxide emissions by as much as 5 percent in the upper altitudes.

Leveling the Playing Field

Regulation of fractional-ownership operations remains a prickly issue for Europeans. They are concerned that, while the rules governing the safety of frax ops are not in question, the legal framework defining the competitive environment stands to give American providers an advantage if they are allowed to provide intra-European operations in the private (Part 91) category rather than the commercial category.
Said one European industry association, “It would be inequitable for U.S.-based fractional operators to be allowed to conduct intra-European operations in the private category while their European counterparts have to satisfy the requirements of commercial flights.”

Complicating the issue are the absence of a European definition of fractional operations and no European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) or EU regulation of private operations. European operators also see an inequality in the freedom of U.S. on-demand charter operators to gain unlimited access to Europe (with an individual permit), while they, the Europeans, are restricted to no more than six flights per year to the U.S.

Against this contentious backdrop, NBAA senior vice president of operations Robert Blouin told EBACE delegates that the real work on ironing out imbalances between U.S. and European regulatory regimes was set to start as soon as the convention wrapped up. The “real work” is an outreach process intended to ensure that every facet of the industry is represented in the process of harmonizing regulations–and on a global, rather than just transatlantic, basis.

Barry Valentine, senior vice president of international affairs with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, listed a score or more of nuanced terms spanning the spectrum of ownership and operating combinations from scheduled airline to owner-operated aircraft. Many of them are clearly private, others incontrovertibly commercial. On the contentious issue of the fractionals, Valentine drew a distinction between fractional ownership, in which the customers acquire a piece of the airplane and associated responsibilities, and fractional transportation, in which they acquire only a fixed amount of operational time. That, he suggested, could be a starting point for the discussions to come.

Mark Wilson, chief executive of the UK General Aviation Manufacturers and Traders Association (GAMTA), is leading the EBAA working group that is looking at how European regulations can catch up with Part 91 Subpart K of the FARs. Subpart K was developed specifically to cover the fractionals and imposes less onerous obligations than the airline-oriented Part 1 of Europe’s Joint Aviation Regulations–Operations (JAR-OPS 1).

The ECAC, which consists of the continent’s national transport ministers, has formed a task force to consider the regulation of European fractional operators. This in turn, Wilson said, has served as the catalyst for broader discussions on the protection of general aviation in its widest sense.

The main issues, Wilson said, are the worldwide protection of the rights of private general aviation aircraft; the lack of a regulatory framework covering fractionally owned aircraft outside the FARs; inequalities in the economic treatment of commercial business aviation; and definitions of the various segments. Security is another area of concern, he said, but one that will have to be resolved in a different debate.

NBAA and EBAA have formed an international working group on business aircraft operations (IWG-BAO), and Wilson outlined its ambitious program of work. The first step is to agree on its membership. The first phase, scheduled for completion in November, will then work on definitions of aircraft and operations, review all existing rules and identify the best practical options for harmonization.

The task in the second phase will be to develop a framework to correct deficiencies and omissions in the existing regulations. The aim is to produce a final report by the end of next May, and, the framers hope, in time for the next EBACE.

“Business aviation works best when it has the greatest freedom of operation,” Wilson concluded. The industry needs to work together to recognize the issues and present a joint action plan. “Otherwise the authorities won’t recognize it and the desired changes won’t happen,” he said.

Static Display Notables

Notable in the static display at EBACE this year were a Cessna Sovereign (now fully certified by the FAA) making its first appearance outside the U.S. Billing the Sovereign as the first clean-sheet midsize business jet in 20 years, Cessna set up shop in Geneva confident that the new jet’s 3,040-nm range with four passengers and short-field capabilities make it the ideal business airplane for Europe. “The Sovereign is ideally suited to European operators’ needs,” said senior vice president of sales and marketing Roger Whyte. “Its impressive range allows it to complete missions from Geneva to anywhere in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East with ease.” Flight testing has established a max speed of Mach 0.80 and a shortest-in-class takeoff distance of 3,694 feet.

Bombardier brought a Learjet 40 and 45XR, Challenger 300 and Global Express, and, inspired by the retirement of Concorde last October, word of Transatlantic Express, a flat-fee transatlantic charter plan using Global Express ultra-long-range business jets.
A flat fee of $150,000 (flat as long as the flight time does not exceed nine hours) will take the customer and up to nine associates at Mach 0.89 from almost any suitable airport in Western Europe to any suitable airport on the eastern U.S. seaboard.

Bombardier Flexjet Europe managing director Judith Moreton said, “From June on we will have a fleet of 10 Global Expresses standing by to fly you to the U.S. more than 30 minutes faster than any other large business jet. You get greater choice of departure and arrival points–we have access to six airports in the London area, three in Paris and six in greater New York. You can stay for up to two nights as well; any longer and we negotiate. We will provide a complimentary limo service at both ends, a fast track through security and immigration formalities and serve freshly prepared meals chosen by you and served at your convenience. There are no positioning charges and, although the service is aimed primarily at our European customers, we will be able to fly round-trips from the U.S. as well.”

Also responding to the void left by the retirement of the SST, PrivatAir and Geneva-based Design Investment unveiled what they claim is the first airline-offerable concept for a successor to Concorde and traditional first-class service: a 16-seat interior for a single-aisle twin-engine airliner (ACJ or BBJ) that could be operated on transatlantic round trips for an estimated $16,000 per passenger.

With a G450, G200 and G100 parked on the ramp, Gulfstream, while upbeat about its market prospects overall, sounded uncertainties about the Middle East market. Events in the Middle East, especially those involving Israel and Palestine, make it “impossible” to plan for the future in the region, according to Gulfstream president Bryan Moss. However, he insisted that if customers there are ready to move into corporate aviation, they are still just as likely to buy a U.S.-built Gulfst

And while speaking of Middle Eastern operators, Moss noted that the company’s maintenance center at London Luton Airport is proving increasingly popular with existing business jet owners in that region, as well as in Europe. The center has recently received approval from the Kingdom of Bahrain’s civil aviation authority to maintain GIIs and GVs registered in the state. In February, the United Arab Emirates’ civil aviation authority granted approval for the center to maintain GIVs and G300s. Honeywell also recognized it as an authorized service center for its TFE-series turbofans, and last year the center received FAA and UK CAA approval to service GVs. The Luton center will soon double its hangar space, from 28,000 sq ft to 56,000 sq ft, after leasing an adjacent hangar.

The British product support base–the only Gulfstream-owned facility beyond U.S. shores–recently won a maintenance training Diamond Award from the FAA, making it the first facility outside the U.S. to earn the accolade.

Boeing Business Jets had the company BBJ demonstrator on the ramp at EBACE, and officials were happy to report that sales of the top-end business aircraft are on the upswing after a prolonged downturn. Boeing Business Jets president Lee Monson said deals are in the works for four BBJs (two of them BBJ2s), all destined for delivery next year, and, in what he believes to be a first for a business-jet builder, the company recently wrapped up a demonstration tour for government officials in China.

“We have seen a dramatic upturn in demand in the last eight to 12 months after experiencing a real lull,” said Monson. The company sees the upturn as an indication that the economic down cycle of the last three years has probably reversed course. Of the 75 aircraft sold so far, 64 are BBJs and 11 are BBJ2s. The BBJ3, a proposed bizliner version of the 757, is officially and permanently shelved, Monson said, partly because 757 production is ending and partly because demand for a business jet version of the narrowbody never materialized, despite what would have been a considerably longer fuselage and a range of likely 7,000 nm. Although the BBJ and BBJ3 would have shared the same cabin cross section, the 757 derivative would have required additional support equipment (such as a baggage loader) for routine operations.

The BBJ demonstrator on show at EBACE was making its first public appearance and is one of formerly two BBJs in Boeing’s flight department. It features an interior that is, shall we say, not to everyone’s taste, and the airplane with the more conventional interior was sold. The BBJ on the EBACE ramp was often used by Boeing CEO Phil Condit until his abrupt departure from the company last year in the wake of an ethics scandal. Weighing 17,000 pounds and costing $22 million, the interior was apparently intended to evoke an old English study, complete with “bookshelves” (actually ledges on bulkheads presenting nothing more than fake book spines, some “authored” by Condit), wooden beams and leather chairs.

A more enduring claim to fame for this particular BBJ will be its milestone nonstop flight from Boeing’s newly adopted hometown of Chicago to Geneva for EBACE, during which it became the first business jet to cross the North Atlantic using FANS (future air navigation system) technology to communicate with ATC. Flying with an upgraded Smiths flight management computer, the BBJ pilots sent and received short text messages rather than talking with controllers on the radio.

Of course, there are people for whom even a BBJ2 is woefully inadequate in the size stakes. For them, Airbus is mulling offering a VIP A380 “within the next couple of years,” according to Richard Gaona, v-p of the European consortium’s executive and private aircraft activities. Just like his airline sales counterparts in Airbus, Gaona said he is looking forward to replacing the 747-400. The target market for executive A380s surely has to be the smallest market niche ever pursued in aviation, narrower even than B-2 stealth bombers and maybe even space shuttles. Airbus senior v-p of business development and customer affairs Edouard Ullmo noted, “We are talking about 600 square meters of cabin [6,458 sq ft]. The completion could well be more expensive than the aircraft [which currently sells to airlines for about $275 million a copy].”

More immediately, Gaona put the overall 10-year market for government and head-of-state aircraft at about 100, of which he expected his company to capture a major share with aircraft ranging from the Airbus Corporate Jetliner (ACJ) up through the entire product range.

Embraer showed a Legacy sporting an all-new interior divided into three areas that allow a number of configuration choices depending on specific customer requirements. With a redesigned valance panel and remodeled arm ledges that make movement around the cabin easier, the new interior also has a larger galley to serve hot or cold meals for up to 13 passengers, a roomier rear lavatory and an optional forward lavatory.

The Brazilian manufacturer said the new flexible interior design makes customization both faster and more cost-effective, adding to recent aerodynamic and fuel system improvements as well as the introduction of uprated Rolls-Royce AE3007 engines that give the aircraft 3,250-nm range with eight passengers and resulted at the beginning of this year in Brazilian and U.S. authorization to operate at airports with elevations up to 8,500 feet.

According to Luiz Fuchs, Embraer senior v-p for European, African and Middle East markets, 14 of the 36 Legacys delivered so far are operating in Europe and the Middle East. Of the 10 countries that joined the European Union at the beginning of May, he cited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary as the best upcoming prospects for Legacy sales. Embraer is currently producing about one-and-a-half Legacys per month, either the 16/19-seat Executive or 30/37-seat Shuttle models.

The Lighter Side

The VLJ (very light jet) contingent was represented at EBACE by Eclipse, which chose the venue to take the wraps off its pilot training curriculum; and by Safire, whose chairman shared his thoughts on just what constitutes the right size for this new category of jet.

Eclipse hired a v-p of safety early in the development of the Eclipse 500, in the form of Don Taylor, whose duty as a former United 747-400 captain doesn’t begin to tell the story of his flying experience. Eclipse founder and CEO Vern Raburn took the wraps off Taylor’s project, a curriculum that the company is confident will satisfy the FAA, the insurance companies and the professional pilots who do not relish sharing the flight levels with pilots they fear will be underqualified.

Miguel Correa, chairman of Safire Aircraft, dismissed the Eclipse 500 as falling below the size threshold that passengers for air-limo service will accept, and therefore appealing more to owner-pilots. “When people are paying to fly in airplanes, you cannot go below a certain size–our size,” he told AIN. “Our competition is the Cessna Citation Mustang.” Asked how much money his program has consumed thus far, Correa volunteered no more than “very little. We will announce the figure after the first flight.” Asked how much money he expects Safire will need to spend to get the airplane type-certified by the stated goal of mid-2006 and deliveries under way, Correa said he is looking at a total of $60 million. [Shortly after this interview, Safire suspended operations until it closes an expected financing deal with Swiss investors–Ed.]

To put this figure in perspective, competitor Eclipse Aviation has announced it expects to spend about $325 million (funding for which it says is already fully secured) to get the Eclipse 500 type certified and deliveries under way.

Nothing incites a bout of competition-bashing like a market that is beginning to gel, as the aviation world witnessed 10 years ago with the concurrent development of the Gulfstream V and Global Express. The closer the two projects got to first flight (1995 for the GV) and, later, to certification, the more heated the rhetoric became–a tradition that has also lived on with gusto in the prize fights between Boeing and Airbus over the years.

The jostling of the VLJ contenders has now moved beyond the initial stage (“hang together or we’ll surely all hang together”), in which the aspirants, intent on asserting the validity of the VLJ concept, were more apt to knock the established airplane builders than each other. Now that the concept has gained acceptance, segment in-fighting appears to be the tactic in vogue.

AvCraft announced a breakthrough sale at EBACE when Bookajet ordered seven Envoy Executive jets and took options on six more. The UK executive charter operator will fly the aircraft on behalf of Club Airways, the private membership service offering scheduled flights in business jets. Deliveries of the aircraft, which are derived from the 31-seat Dornier 328JET, are set to begin in August, with a second delivery in November and four more next year. Bookajet CEO Warren Seymour expects to exercise the options in 2006. List price for an Envoy Executive is $14.5 million, but neither party has disclosed the exact value of this order.

Each year EBACE honors “individuals who have made a significant contribution to the development of business aviation in Europe” with its European Business Aviation Awards. This year, kudos went to Fernand François, CEO of EBAA since 1993 (and due to retire at year-end), and Jean-François Georges, former president and CEO of Dassault Falcon Jet and Dassault Aviation’s senior vice president of civil aircraft, who retired late last year after almost 40 years with the famed French manufacturer. He began his time at Dassault in 1964 as a flight-test engineer. Both men played major roles in the promotion, acceptance and growth of business aviation in Europe.