If you want to see the inside of a really big business jet–one that’s the size of an airliner–at the NBAA 2013 static display at Henderson Executive Airport, you may encounter a silk rope draped across the handrails at the bottom of the passenger stairs. A professionally attired man or woman standing by the rope will explain that the aircraft is being shown and then politely suggest, “Please come back later.” Later could take a long time.
While an aviation department manager, chief pilot and maintenance chief are off somewhere examining acquisition and operational costs, performance capability, aircraft systems and maintenance support, a company CEO or high-net-worth individual and spouse will be taking a leisurely tour through the airplane’s elegantly appointed cabin. Although cabins are obviously important to all bizjet users, they are particularly important to the buyers of the big jets.
“Individual Airbus Corporate Jet buyers consider the airplane both as a tool–a way for him or her to be more productive–and also as an extension of their lifestyles,” explained David Velupillai, ACJ’s marketing director, to AIN. “They are looking to take into the air the kind of space, comfort and elegance that they have in their homes and offices.”
Steve Taylor, president of Boeing Business Jets, echoed Velupillai. “Each buyer has his or her own priorities and preferences when it comes to purchasing business jets. For the BBJ buyers, it is typically the very large cabin space and comfort, along with the ability to custom design that space to meet their personal and business requirements.”
Boeing and Airbus are today the main manufacturers of “bizliners,” those business jets that are derived from airliners. So both OEMs primarily build aircraft that must fly 10 to 12 hours per day almost every day of the year and can operate worldwide. That’s about 3,500 to 4,200 hours per year (figuring two weeks for heavy maintenance). A business jet typically flies about one-tenth as many hours per year.
“Reliability is also huge,” the chief pilot of a BBJ owner on the West Coast told AIN. “The ability to have dedicated parts of the airplane [located] anywhere is very important,” he said, adding that, during the six years he’s been flying it, he’s never had mechanical problems with his company’s BBJ on any trip.
So it is not surprising that Airbus and Boeing also promote the reliability, lower cost of parts and the ability to find a maintenance facility almost anywhere in the world as other reasons buyers choose ACJs and BBJs.
The First Bizliners
Although configuring airliners with executive and VIP interiors goes back to the 1930s, Boeing was first out with a dedicated airliner/business jet model, the BBJ, which created a new, bigger category of business aircraft. Based on the single-aisle 737-700 with strengthened wings and landing gear from the larger and heavier 737-800, the BBJ (sometimes called the BBJ1) also sports Aviation Partners Boeing “blended winglets,” a first for a jet bigger than a Gulfstream III. (Aviation Partners Boeing is a joint venture of Boeing and winglet manufacturer Aviation Partners, created to outfit Boeing jets with blended winglet technology.) Boeing launched its BBJ program in 1996 and displayed a fully completed Boeing Business Jet,including executive interior and the now-ubiquitous (on Boeing aircraft) Aviation Partners winglets, at the 2000 Farnborough Air Show in England.
Both Boeing and Airbus divide their bizliner sales among governments (30 percent), corporations (10 to 15 percent) and private individuals (about 60 percent and typically billionaires), said Richard Gaona, president and CEO of Comlux The Aviation Group, which operates five ACJs and one 767 BBJ. Governments and corporations “like these planes mainly because they can accommodate large delegations,” he said. “The third group looks mainly to have a VIP interior, and their aircraft is more a flying apartment.” He added that most private owners “also have a traditional business jet, for trips when they fly alone or with four to six passengers.”
While the largest, “traditional” business jets–the Gulfstream G650 and Bombardier Global Express–provide about 2,200 cu ft of cabin volume, the Airbus Corporate Jets provide from 5,300 (in the ACJ 318) to 8,547 cu ft (ACJ321). Boeing’s BBJs offer from 5,390 (BBJ1) to 7,290 cu ft (BBJ3). Brazil’s Embraer also offers its Lineage 1000 in the big jet category, although with a 4,000-cu-ft cabin it falls between the biggest traditional bizjets and the smallest of the bizliners, all of which are derived from single-aisle airliners.
Size Is Relative
“Smallest” in this context is relative. In a two-class United Airlines 737-700 or A319, for example, you’ll struggle for elbowroom among 120 other passengers. The largest bizliners, which are derived from twin-aisle airliners, are huge by comparison: the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8 offer, respectively, 525 and 467 seats (in three classes). VVIP versions of these jumbo jets appeal to an elite customer base, such as royal families with substantial entourages. The U.S. president, for example, travels on one of two highly modified Boeing 747-200Bs, which can carry 366 passengers in three classes.
Still, 5,300 cu ft of cabin space in the BBJ1 and ACJ319 gives a lot of room for eight to 18 passengers to experience a really comfortable ride. It’s easy to understand why cabin comfort is a high priority for anyone who can travel in a business jet of this size.
“Elegant” and “classy” are common descriptors of ACJ and BBJ interiors, which typically include a meeting/dining area, a stateroom/bedroom with a master lavatory and maybe a shower, full galley, another lav for other passengers and crew and an enclosed, closet-size crew-rest seat. “The size of the cabin and having a layout that has dedicated sections where you can work or relax without converting part of the airplane in flight [such as seats to beds, as one does in a “traditional” business jet] are significant for someone who can make that choice,” said the chief pilot for the West Coast BBJ owner.
One bizliner interior AIN examined included a galley with a center-island, a high-definition entertainment system with three 46-inch and 42-inch monitors, and a private stateroom with king-size bed, private lavatory and shower.
The CEO of a Fortune 500 company, which bought one of the early BBJs, “likes to do his work and then retire to his cabin where he feels like he’s at home,” said his chief pilot. “He can sleep in comfort in his own bed and arrive in the Middle East fully rested and ready to do business.”
“More and more prestigious designers are hired to give a unique touch to the cabin,” Comlux’s Gaona said. These bespoke assignments might include greatly reduced noise levels, coordinated designs of crystal, porcelain, silverware, cushions and throws and dedicated storage for the owner’s watch collection.
Yet, addressing the needs and desires of owners while adhering to the requirements of certification authorities is not easy. “The reality of cabin interior design may not strictly follow the adage, ‘form follows function,’” explained Elisabeth Harvey in a promotional book about the Jet Aviation Design Studio, which she heads. “[It] is more likely to be functional form follows adaptation to limitations.”
The usual bizliner crew comprises two pilots (three for long international flights) and one or two flight attendants. The West Coast company’s BBJ is, for example, fitted with 19 seats, but mostly carries only four passengers in the cabin and no flight attendant. “They are people who like to take care of themselves,” the chief pilot said.
The Fortune 500 company’s BBJ also typically flies with three to four passengers, although sometimes as many as 15; it carries two aircraft mechanics, who double as flight attendants, according this company’s chief pilot. If a leg will take more than 15 hours, then three pilots will make the flight.
Range matters, too, of course, but often not the ultra-long-legs of the biggest Gulfstream and Bombardier jets. “The cabin is so comfortable that passengers don’t mind making fuel stop, if their trip requires it,” Velupillai claimed, and the chief pilots confirmed this. Indeed, Boeing found early on that most BBJ buyers did not opt to take all the optional extra fuel tanks that would give the aircraft extended range, because the range was not needed and the tanks took up baggage compartment space that was needed. Apparently, high-net-worth owners do a lot of shopping when traveling. Returning home with antique furniture, framed art and Persian carpets is not a problem for the bizliner traveler.
Advice for Bizliner Buyers
Buying a new bizliner takes time. If you ordered one today from Boeing or Airbus, it could take more a year before you took delivery of the “green” aircraft.
“Interior completions typically take nine to 12 months,” said BBJ’s Taylor. “Prices vary significantly, based on the completion center and the complexity of the interior; recent ones were in the ballpark of $20 million to $30 million.” There have been many examples of interiors costing much, much more.
“To me, a buyer looking for a BBJ or ACJ would probably be someone coming out of a G550 or a Global,” said the West Coast BBJ chief pilot. “This person would have to be willing to trade some speed and altitude capability for more living space. He would have also have to accept about a 25- to 30-percent increase in the cost structure. The upside is that no matter where you go in the world, you can find someone who can work on a Boeing or Airbus. And you have that big cabin. After taking a flight on an acquaintance’s BBJ, [my owner] was convinced that the BBJ was the airplane we should pursue.”
The chief pilot for a Fortune 500 company said, “The biggest headache any operator has are the cabin amenities. People who buy these jets expect everything in the cabin to work all of the time. Usually it does, but you can’t expect in-flight Internet over the entire globe yet. It just isn’t there.”
Over the last decade total combined deliveries of new bizliners from Airbus and Boeing, including all those derived from single- and twin-aisle airliners, peaked at 24 in 2006, hit a low point in 2008 with 17 (while some buyers postponed their deliveries), hit a new peak of 27 in 2010 and leveled off in 2011 and 2012, with, respectively, 18 and 21.