EBACE Convention News

Refurbished CRJs offer large-cabin alternatives

 - May 6, 2009, 7:37 AM

Scheduled delivery of the first Project Phoenix CRJ conversion this month marks the introduction of the latest corporate variation of the Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet Series 200 family. Similar versions of the small jetliner–often with auxiliary fuel tanks installed to permit transcontinental flights carrying reasonable loads–have been developed by several companies that see the seasoned airframe and powerplants and multiple-redundancy systems as the basis for an executive workhorse.

The Canadian manufacturer made its first foray in this direction in the mid-1990s with its Special Edition, based on the original CRJ airframe, but discontinued the development to concentrate on demand for the basic aircraft. Now it has come full circle since the CRJ itself was a commercial variant of the original Canadair Challenger 600 corporate jet.

Leading the CRJ conversion market is Canada’s Flying Colours (Booth No. 491), which claims to have delivered more of the executive models than anyone else and is working on at least six more airframes. Competitors in the CRJ-conversion market include MJET, Tailwind Aviation, Chatham Aviation and Field Aviation. In addition to the CRJs, other regional jets such as the Dornier 328Jet and Fokker 70 and 100 have been modified for executive use.

A major stimulus to such programs has been the growing backlog of and rising prices for new business jets, as well as increasing availability of used airframes withdrawn from service because of high fuel costs and decreased demand. Converted RJs are seen as likely popular platforms in a recession because they offer enhanced value for money compared with, for example, a new Bombardier Global 5000. Also, the addition of auxiliary fuel tanks, of which at least two systems have been approved, allows them to offer a range of up to 3,000 nm.

Flying Colours has been involved in multiple regional jet conversion projects, having completed its own ExecLiner conversion and performed similar work under contract for two other programs. The ExecLiner program arose after the company completed a CRJ100 conversion for Indian fractional ownership operator Club One Air.

As of last month, Flying Colours had completed five corporate CRJ conversions and had six more in the shop, including the first Project Phoenix CRJ, which was scheduled to fly shortly. It owns STCs covering ExecLiner long-range tanks and cabin interiors. In fact, the design of about half of all its CRJ conversions, including that of the Project Phoenix, adds a forward lavatory. Sales and marketing manager Eric Gillespie told EBACE Convention News that the company hopes to complete another three aircraft next year: two for Maine Aviation without long-range tanks to be marketed as the CRJ200 Grand Luxury Series and a second Phoenix CRJ.

Two of the five completed aircraft are Renaissance Series CRJs that it converted for Jet Corp before it acquired that St. Louis company, and another is in the shop. In fact, the regional jet conversions have been so popular that Flying Colours has expanded its facility also adding a 65,000-sq-ft hangar set to open this year.

Another company previously reported to be interested in entering the market for corporate CRJ variants, Zurich-based ExecuJet Aviation (Booth No. 354), said it has no acquisition plans, although it offers to help anyone seeking to place an aircraft for management. “If a manufacturer [or] converter is selling CRJ conversions, we would be pleased to assist,” said group sales executive director Andrew Hoy.

However, he warned that the initial market for such aircraft may become diluted as second-hand dedicated aircraft become available. “The market is turbulent and the price of low-hour Challenger 850s has come down toward the original offer price of converted aircraft, although it is now stabilizing,” he said.

Another firm with its hat in the conversion ring, Montreal-based MJET delivered the first of an initial batch of three CRJ conversions in March, all for Alberta’s Avmax Group (formerly known as Corpac). Two of the aircraft will be 18-seat corporate shuttles, while the other will be a long-range, 15-passenger executive model with an auxiliary fuel system.

Comlux Completions USA, the former Indianapolis Jet Center and now part of Comlux Group (Booth No. 1569), reconfigured one CRJ200 last year, for corporate use in China and reportedly is negotiating with further potential customers.

As with some other CRJ-conversion programs, Dubai-based Project Phoenix seeks and sells aircraft for which the conversion and completion work is outsourced to Flying Colours. With the first example scheduled for delivery to Ritz Pacific this month, the company has been endeavoring to move forward with a second aircraft, this one ordered by an Egyptian actor and film producer and intended for European and Middle East operations. It has identified a stored airframe that is available until the end of this month, but sales vice president Mike Creed recently told EBACE Convention News that it did not have a finalized agreement for the acquisition.

Meanwhile, he said alternative aircraft are available from among some 30 CRJs that have been identified as potential candidates for conversion. Project Phoenix hopes to secure at least two more orders this year and a further six by 2012, according to Creed, who joined the company from Action Aviation, which represented it in Russia and the Middle East before it recently brought sales in house.

The company reports a 3,100-nm range for the Phoenix CRJ, but concedes that this will depend on final weight of the converted aircraft. It also claims the aircraft offers a “very high” specification version of the 15-seat first example, which sports sophisticated cabin management and in-flight entertainment systems. The first aircraft is U.S. registered, but will be based in Hong Kong and operated by Macau’s Jet Asia. Creed said that the first conversion, overseen by Aerospace Concepts, has gone “very well.”

Tailwind Capital and Global Principal Finance used last year’s EBACE show to launch their CRJ200 conversion, dubbed Tailwind Aviation Hemisphere 200XR, in cooperation with completion house PATS Aircraft. The latter developed the Challenger 850 fuel system and offers an approved CRJ auxiliary fuel system. Tailwind has acquired up to nine CRJ200s from U.S. regional carriers, the first of which was for Dutch operator Solid-Air.

A smaller RJ that has already penetrated the corporate-aircraft market is the Dornier 328Jet, overseen since the German manufacturer’s demise by 328 Support Services (Booth No. 893), which “inherited” 15 executive, 19-seat corporate shuttle, or “quick-change” aircraft–dubbed Envoy 3s–already in service when it was set up in January 2006. Three Envoy 3s are among four converted used aircraft currently available from the company.

Since then it has undertaken seven completions, conversions or modifications involving different cabin layouts ranging from six to 19 seats, including with long-range fuel tanks and that can be reconfigured for medevac operations. Four more conversions are expected this year. Head of sales Ray Mosses told EBACE Convention News that the 328Jet is becoming a real alternative because it offers “the same cabin size as a Challenger, but at only one third of [the] cost.”

Fokker Services (Booth No. 639) offers conversions of Fokker F28, 70 and 100 regional jets, as well as CRJs, for private and government customers such as the Argentinean and Netherlands governments and the Dutch royal family. Modifications can include a defense system that warns of missile approach and can dispense chaff or flares. Six executive Fokker 100s are in service and two more can have a quick-change 50-passenger corporate interior installed.