Shifting trends blur lines between bizjet categories

 - March 31, 2008, 11:41 AM

Very light jet. Super-midsize. Ultra-long-range. Bizliner. These are just some of the colorful names that marketers, analysts and aviation journalists have dreamed up in an attempt to pigeon hole a variety of business jets into more or less clear-cut market niches. But who gets to decide which category best suits a specific aircraft model? And where do the cutoffs lie?

Marketers, of course, tend to emphasize a product’s best attributes, perhaps explaining why we have “very light jets” and not “small slow jets.” Analysts and market forecasters must be able to compare like models, and so they’re more likely to focus on groupings by selling price than range or cabin size. Journalists strive for accuracy and simplicity, but with so much fragmentation in the market and a blurring of the traditional lines, classifying the crop of available business jets has become harder than ever.

There are many ways to categorize a modern business jet. Price, weight, cabin size, range and balanced field length are just a few, and all of these are important to the discussion. Speed might be considered another trait, but until supersonic business jets join the fray we’ll leave that one off the table. Obviously no single attribute will be the most important to every buyer. Some will choose range over cabin size, others will consider price the major deciding factor and still others will demand that the airplane have a shower and sleeping quarters or be able to take off and land on relatively short runways. Business jets serve so many roles for so many people and organizations that it’s becoming almost impossible to say which combination of characteristics is most important.

Perhaps that helps explain why business jet makers are offering models to fill seemingly every conceivable market segment. Consider the available choices 10 years ago compared with today. Where the Gulfstream IV and V used to suffice, now we have the G300, G450, G500, G550 and, as the world learned last month, the G650. Likewise, where buyers once had the Hawker 800XP, today Hawker Beechcraft sells the Hawker 750, 850XP and 900XP–all are essentially the same airplane, just with different range profiles and prices. Dassault Falcon has split the 900 and 2000 into DX and EX models, again differentiating the models by range and price, while Cessna has become the purveyor of the CJ1, CJ2, CJ3 and CJ4 (in addition to six other Citation models). Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, meanwhile, is fast expanding from a stable that includes just one certified business jet, the Legacy 600, to a full family of products spanning six models. It’s enough to make a buyer’s head spin.

So just what are the generally accepted categories into which all of these business jets are expected to neatly slot? Each magazine will have its own definitions, but for AIN the categories over the last few years have included very light jets such as the Eclipse 500 on the bottom rung, light jets such as the CJ2 and CJ3 next, midsize jets including the Learjet 45 after that, followed by super-midsize, large (or sometimes ultra-long-range) and finally bizliners. The categories aren’t perfect because they use disparate criteria (or leave out certain criteria) and they fail to tidily incorporate aircraft models that are becoming increasingly harder to define.

Take Grob’s composite SPn as an example. By cabin volume the airplane lands smack dab in the middle of the midsize category, but by weight it is clearly a light jet. Increasing use of composites in business jet construction will only blur the lines further, experts say. The new Learjet 85, for example, will have a cabin volume of 657 cu ft, putting it well within the range of a super-midsize jet, but its mtow is expected to be closer to that of a typical midsize airplane. So which category will it wind up in?

Further complicating matters is the situation created by Embraer, the Brazilian builder of narrowbody airliners that more recently has shifted much of its attention to the red-hot market for business jets. During February’s Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, Hyundai offered Americans a sneak peek of its new Genesis sedan, a luxury car that is the size of an $88,000 Mercedes S class and, according to the TV ads, comes with a V8 and luxury amenities yet will sell for around $35,000. Embraer is doing much the same thing in business aviation. The cabin of the Legacy 600 is only slightly smaller than that of a Gulfstream G450 (1,420 cu ft versus 1,513 cu ft), but the Brazilian jet sells for about half the price. For buyers who consider dollars the most important factor in the purchasing equation, Hyundai cars and Embraer business jets are hard to beat.

Of course, there are other factors to consider, beyond even the raw numbers. Gulfstream has been ranked number one in product support by this magazine for the last several years. Gulfstream business jets are assembled in America. And there is a certain cachet in telling your tennis partner you own a G450 (or if you’re a pilot, that you fly a G450) that just doesn’t hold the same sway as saying your airplane was built in São José dos Campos, Brazil. That’s not to say Embraer builds bad airplanes; the truth is quite the contrary, in fact. But in this world, fact and perception are rarely one in the same.

What’s in a Name?
So the question that begs to be answered is, how should the industry be categorizing the current selection of business jets, as well as those that are nearing the certification finish line? In its annual market forecast, Honeywell splits aircraft into segments defined by price, max takeoff weight, cabin size and range. Its categories include very light jets, light and light-medium jets, medium and medium-large jets, large jets, long-range and ultra-long-range jets and bizliners. On the low end it puts airplanes like the Eclipse 500 and Cirrus jet into the personal jet category, but it does not include this segment in its market outlook–at least not yet.

The Teal Group, an aerospace market research firm based in Fairfax, Va., traditionally has segmented business jets into classes based solely on published prices, but as manufacturers add derivative models and seek to more closely manage their pricing strategies, easy classification is no longer possible. “It used to be you’d have this cluster of airplanes in the $11 million to $14 million range, and then you’d have a cluster in the $18 million to $22 million range,” noted Teal chief analyst Richard Aboulafia, “but now everybody is producing derivatives up and down the ladder, so you have all these models within a million dollars of the next one. It’s virtually impossible to make a cutoff.”

To determine where specific business jet models fit in its list of categories, Honeywell forecasters work closely with the Transportation Research Board, a private non-profit group that draws expertise from the government, industry and scientific communities. The Board’s classifications of business aircraft are based primarily on weight, which generally provides consistent clustering of airplanes, according to Charles Park, director of market research for Honeywell. “Weight is a good place to start,” he said. “We generally find that the maximum takeoff weight of an airplane correlates with other attributes, such as range, size and price. This isn’t always the case, but it’s generally a good measure.”

But if weight is so important to the equation, why are many business jets categorized by cabin size, as is the case with super-midsize and large-cabin airplanes? Anyone who has been to a static display at an NBAA Convention or EBACE in Geneva can answer that. When potential buyers climb aboard an airplane, the first thing they do is plunk down in a seat and imagine what it would be like to spend several quality hours in that particular cabin. Cabin size and comfort aren’t the only factors that go into the purchasing decision, of course, but they are often near the top of the list and, as is the case with weight, interior volume correlates well with other attributes such as price and range.

Park agreed that cabin volume is an important attribute, and said it will become even more so as additional composite-construction airplanes enter production. Honeywell forecasters, in fact, would tend to put a light, composite airplane that has a large cabin in the higher category even though it might technically meet the definition for the lower weight group, he said. Likewise, the fly-by-wire Falcon 7X is lighter than other airplanes it competes with, but Honeywell puts it into the higher category because of its cabin size and range. “Unfortunately, like most things in life this isn’t cookie-cutter work,” he said. “A bit of art and judgment goes into everything we do.”

The chart that accompanies this article groups a variety of business jets primarily by cabin volume, but also broken out further by max takeoff weight. The list starts with personal jets on the low end (airplanes such as the Diamond D-Jet and currently moribund ATG Javelin) and progresses through the following categories: compact/VLJ, compact/light, small/light, midsize, super-midsize, large, large/heavy and bizliners. The classifications and break points were chosen by AIN editors after analyzing all current-production, out-of-production and known future business jets and defining category cutoffs for each.

Personal and compact jets include volume for the entire interior, including the cockpit, since these airplanes normally do not include forward bulkheads and usually can accommodate a passenger in the front right seat. Cabin size for larger airplanes is calculated by determining overall volume from the forward bulkhead to the rear wall, not including the baggage area.

The cabin volume cutoffs for each category have been defined by AIN editors this way: Personal jets have less than 150 cu ft of total interior volume; compact jets have between 150 and 219 cu ft of interior volume; small jets have between 220 and 359 cu ft of cabin volume (from the forward bulkhead to the rear wall, including the lavatory if it has a belted seat); midsize between 360 cu ft and 599 cu ft; super-midsize between 600 cu ft and 999 cu ft; large between 1,000 cu ft and 1,499 cu ft; and large/heavy (or ultra-long-range) between 1,500 cu ft and 2,500 cu ft. Bizliners are defined as airplanes originally certified for air transport duty.

'Business Jets by Category' Chart PDF