NBAA Convention News

Prices and usage are down as charter market feels the pinch

 - October 14, 2009, 5:57 AM

When is a business jet not a business jet?–When it has been developed into a regional jet that has been converted into a corporate jet. Some of those conversions, such as that of the Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet Series 200 (CRJ200), itself based on the CL-600 Challenger business jet, have enjoyed mixed fortunes.

The CRJ’s airframe, engines and multiple- redundancy systems are seen as a good platform for a corporate workhorse, with several proposed conversions being offered, usually with optional auxiliary fuel tanks to increase range with reasonable loads. The most successful almost has production-line status, while others have been one-off conversions and yet more are brokered packages that outsource the work to specialists.

Bombardier saw such potential in the mid-1990s with the CRJ-based Special Edition before that program was shelved so the manufacturer could concentrate on regional jet production. Now, since CRJ200 production has ceased, Bombardier has developed the Challenger 850 corporate shuttle, which entered service in 2006 and offers up to 2,770-nm range. The original CRJ was a stretched, commercial aircraft variant of the Challenger, which was developed from Bill Lear’s 1974 LearStar 600 concept.

Factors in the developing CRJ-conversion market have been the growing backlog (and lead time) for new large business jets and increasing availability of used CRJ airframes parked because of decreased airline traffic and higher fuel prices. Converted CRJs are seen as offering better value than new jets.

Ontario-based Flying Colours (Booth No. 4893) claims to have converted the most CRJs: six delivered and five more in the works. Sales and marketing manager Eric Gillespie reported continuing strong interest in its CRJ ExecLiner “despite the economic climate.”

He added that business slowed at the end of last year before recently improving. “We have seen several potential deals take longer to put together as the availability of credit shrank, but in the past few months a positive shift in the credit market has allowed previous contracts to come back together and new customers have emerged,” he said.

Flying Colours is currently completing four CRJ ExecLiners (including two for U.S. sales agent Maine Aviation), with a fifth airframe earmarked as the second Phoenix CRJ. Gillespie expects to complete two conversions by year-end.

Also in Canada, Montreal Jet (MJet) confirmed that the market has suffered from the banking crisis and shortage of credit. “There is still interest, and we’re talking to a lot of people,” said MJet president Stéphane Durand, who believes potential customers may be waiting for an MJet long-range fuel system to be certified.

The company also has found interest in the larger CRJ700 for corporate conversion. The higher floor of the bigger aircraft would provide more space for additional fuel tanks. MJet has proposed an initial conversion, but said the greater challenge is to find available airframes. “It is easy to get a CRJ200,” said Durand, adding that availability might improve next year.

MJet delivered its second corporate-shuttle CRJ in May and aims to finish a VIP conversion before the end of this year, with auxiliary tanks developed by parent company Elisen to hold an additional 4,500 pounds of fuel for a 3,000-nm range. Durand said the desired range required the cabin interior to be significantly lighter, achieved by careful internal-structure design and materials selection.

Dubai-based broker Project Phoenix said lower used aircraft prices allow it to acquire aircraft for conversion more easily. Company president Mike Cappuccitti said this saving can be passed on to customers “without compromising specification or quality.”

The first corporate CRJ brokered by Project Phoenix was delivered in August and flown to Macau, where it is managed and operated by Jet Asia for owner Ritz Pacific. Two 2007 Dubai airshow launch commitments covered delivery of two aircraft before last December, but did not reach fruition. The first Phoenix CRJ, which flew first in June this year, had by September completed several flights with no noteworthy snags, according to Cappuccitti.

“Feedback has been very positive,” he said, the delivery having stimulated increased interest. “We have a good, growing prospect list but converting interest to closure is proving difficult–a sign of continuing economic nervousness. Nevertheless, we are confident of another couple of sales at least before year-end.”