Executive conversions breathe new life into aging CRJ200s

 - November 28, 2007, 10:27 AM

In an industry faced with escalating prices and increasingly long lead times for aircraft deliveries, Project Phoenix has joined a growing number of companies offering a program to convert Canadair CRJ200 regional jets into executive aircraft.

The Montreal-based start-up expects to offer a less expensive and more immediately available large-cabin business jet. The price for the converted airplane is about $17.9 million, and the company expects to deliver the finished product within 10 months of purchase.

A new aircraft in that cabin size category–a Global XRS from Bombardier or a Gulfstream G550–would typically cost more than $47 million (completed), and the earliest available production slots are well into the next decade.

Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be Bombardier’s Challenger 850 and Embraer’s Legacy 600, both of which have a comparable cabin and range and sell for roughly $29 million and $25 million, respectively. But slots for these aircraft are also in short supply. The earliest Challenger 850 slot is in 2010 and the first available Legacy 600 slot is in mid-2009.

Project Phoenix is a partner in the program with Aerospace Concepts of Montreal and Action Aviation of the UK. Aerospace Concepts and Project Phoenix will handle sourcing and maintenance and manage the completion process, while Action Aviation will focus on marketing and sale of the aircraft, dubbed the CRJ-Phoenix.

The actual completion work on the aircraft will be out-sourced to independent centers. The CRJ-Phoenix is expected to have a max range (with auxiliary fuel tanks) of 3,000 nm. According to Project Phoenix president Mike Cappucitti, the company already has two signed letters of intent and is in talks with some 30 potential customers. The initial market focus will be on Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Completion Alternatives

Despite the splash the Phoenix conversion made at the Dubai Airshow, the company is not the first to recognize the business aviation market potential of the Canadair regional jet.

In September, Fokker Services, an interiors specialist in the Netherlands, delivered a larger CRJ700 for executive use. The three-zone cabin is configured to carry 21 passengers. In its regional airline form, the CRJ700 carries 75 passengers, approximately 25 more than the CRJ200. Woensdrecht-based Fokker Services is soliciting more CRJ conversion work and has a similar program to refurbish the larger Fokker 100 regional jet for a business or private aircraft role.

Also in the business is Indianapolis Jet Center, which delivered its first executive-configured CRJ200, to a Chinese customer, this fall.

Canadian interiors specialist Flying Colours is adding 30,000 sq ft to its facilities in Peterborough, Ontario, partly in response to growing demand for large-cabin business jets. It delivered a CRJ200 to an Indian customer earlier this year. According to president John Gillespie, the company has three CRJ200s currently in the hangar. A fourth CRJ200 is scheduled to arrive this month, with another to follow next month.

Flying Colours has been selected by Project Phoenix as the completion and refurbishment center of choice to do CRJ200 interiors and expects to receive the first CRJ-Phoenix early next year.

Tailwind Capital is also in the CRJ200 business. The Redmond, Wash.-based aircraft leasing and remarketing firm has five airplanes already in the completion process at the facilities of Georgetown, Del. completion and refurbishment specialist PATS Aircraft. The interior of the first airplane, configured for up to 15 passengers, includes sleep accommodations for four passengers. “We expect to be delivering airplanes at the rate of one every six weeks starting in April 2008,” said Tailwind president Joel Hussey. The Tailwind executive airplane in a standard configuration is priced at $19.95 million, including auxiliary fuel tanks that give it a max range of 3,000 nm.

Indianapolis Jet Center president and CEO Randy Keeker noted that the interest is also driving up the cost. “A year or so ago you could get a relatively low-time airplane for about $7 million. Now, for a CRJ in similar condition, the price is probably between $8 million and $9 million.” Keeker also noted that “relatively low-time” in the airline world is about 16,000 hours. He also pointed out that while it may be possible to get a CRJ200 that’s just been put out of service by an airline and has perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 hours, the price is probably going to be in the $11 million to $12 million range.

And the price for CRJ200s is not likely to come down. Even as demand is increasing, the supply of CRJ200 airliners is dwindling. According to a source at Bombardier, there are only about 30 airplanes currently available.

Meanwhile, said Keeker, “I’ve never seen such interest in that airplane as an
executive platform.”