Unwilling to wait for new jets, buyers opt for CRJ conversions

 - June 2, 2008, 8:33 AM

With the backlog for new business jets extending years into the future in some cases, and with used large-cabin aircraft prices soaring, several enterprises are offering an expedient alternative through executive conversions of Canadair CRJ200 regional jets. The 50-seat (in its commercial configuration) jetliner was first introduced in 1992 as a replacement for regional turboprops. Most of the executive conversions call for passenger accommodations of less than half that number, which would put them firmly in the large-cabin category, one that has seen dramatic growth and declining used inventory.

Given these conditions, many feel the time is ripe for CRJ refurbishments.

“What’s driving it is it ends up being a great platform for conversions into the corporate market because it has about 30 percent more volume than a GIV, it has the exact same cabin in height, width and length as a Global XRS and it gives you that size cabin for basically Challenger 604 operating cost,” said Allyn Caruso, CEO of Portland-based Maine Aviation, which is currently involved in the conversion of four of the aircraft and has completion slots for another five.

Of the four under way, three have been sold, according to Caruso, who notes a major selling point is the near-instant gratification. “We have one left out of the first batch, and I don’t believe that one will be around long because it’s the only airplane that will deliver this year,” he said.

One of the latest players in the executive CRJ market–a consortium consisting of Quebec-based Aerospace Concepts, in partnership with Project Phoenix and the UK’s Action Aviation–made a splash at November’s Dubai airshow, when plans were announced for a multiple aircraft conversion program. The group obtained its first CRJ200–a 20,000-hour aircraft formerly operated by now defunct Independence Air–and announced Ritz Pacific as its launch customer. The aircraft was recently ferried to Skyservice at Toronto Pearson Airport to begin two months of maintenance and upgrades before being sent to completions specialist Flying Colours, which recently unveiled expansion plans to accommodate the burgeoning CRJ conversion market.

Peterborough, Ontario-based Flying Colours is a preferred completions provider for Bombardier and has developed an “ExecLiner” CRJ modification package that includes an STC for additional fuel tanks that can give the aircraft 3,000 nm range.

The company–which is also handling the conversion work for Maine Aviation– will deliver its first ExecLiner to Indian fractional provider Club One Air this month. It has three additional CRJ200s in various stages of completion and claims firm orders for 10 CRJ ExecLiner conversions in addition to the completions work it will do on the derivative CRJ Phoenix. “The response has been all over the map, obviously North America, but I would say at least 50 percent or more is overseas,” said Flying Colours sales director Sean Gillespie. “It’s the niche thing right now so we are looking to take advantage of it.”

Fellow Canadian company Mjet has also recently begun work on a CRJ conversion of its own. The Montreal-based Elisen subsidiary is transforming a 2002 CRJ200 with 10,696 flight hours into a 15-passenger executive transport that will be operated for charter by Corpac Canada. The conversion will feature the recently introduced Elisen Elite Auxiliary Fuel System 500, which will provide an additional 4,500 pounds of fuel. Mjet expects to make its first conversion delivery in January.

Another company looking to make a major splash in the CRJ pool is Redmond, Wash.-based Tailwind Capital, which has already scooped up nine low-time CRJ200s from bankrupt commercial carriers Comair and Independence. Conversion of the aircraft into CRJ Executive Jets is being conducted by PATS Aircraft in Georgetown, Del., the OEM provider of the auxiliary fuel system for the Challenger 850. “From a value perspective, we’re offering our airplanes, fully converted with auxiliary fuel tanks and basically the same operating characteristics as the Challenger 850, at just over $19 million apiece,” said Tailwind managing director Joel Hussey.

The company had expected to hand off its first CRJ Executive Jet–to be managed in the Netherlands by Solidair–last month but has experienced what Hussey describes as “teething pains.” According to Hussey, the certification process for the aircraft was complicated by Tailwind’s seeking simultaneous FAA and EASA approval. While Tailwind had hoped to have this first of the five CRJs currently undergoing conversion ready in time for display at EBACE, current plans call for it to be delivered just after the show.

In contrast to other operations, Tailwind purchased its nine aircraft–all with fewer than 14,000 hours logged–outright and is converting them on speculation, rather than first seeking a customer. “We realistically believe that this is going to become a long-term program rather than a one-shot deal,” said Hussey. “The critical issue is being able to acquire the feedstock that is not only low time but also the right entry point.”