This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
When Jonathan Bousfield, the CEO of Acropolis Aviation, signed his company on as the launch customer for the Airbus ACJ320neo five years ago at EBACE, like everyone he had no idea what the world would look like when it was scheduled to enter service in 2020. But given the current Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent chilling effect on air travel, the aircraft that is intended to be the last word in private VVIP charter has had a somewhat inauspicious debut. “We managed to get two revenue trips in before the world shut down,” Bousfield told AIN. “The airplane was just picking up a head of steam and then the current crisis hit.”
A boutique charter provider based at the UK’s Farnborough Airport, Acropolis operates only one aircraft at a time, and that factored in its decision to be the launch customer when Airbus decided to offer the ACJ320neo. “Our current 319ceo was coming up on 10 years and at 10 years we always envisaged swapping that out, so we spoke to all the manufacturers, including slightly smaller traditional business jets." In the end, based on its positive experience with the ACJ319, which is currently on the market, Acropolis decided to go with the larger, improved ACJ320.
The fuel efficiency from the new CFM LEAP-1A engines coupled with the Sharklet wingtip extensions gives the operator an additional 2.5 hours of endurance over its previous aircraft, according to Bousfield, making nonstop flights to places such as Seattle (the destination of its first revenue flight) possible. “City-pairs we can do out to the West Coast [US], we couldn’t even imagine with our 319ceo.”
Thus far, the longest leg flown by the aircraft was 11 hours and 39 minutes. “When we spec'd the cabin, obviously the range that it gave us, we put in a crew rest area at the front of the cabin,” said Bousfield. “We’ve got two bunks on the other side of the entrance aisle so we can heavy crew the airplane to basically do the maximum range.”
Along with better fuel efficiency, the engines run much more quietly than previous powerplants, leading to other benefits. “I can’t stress how quiet this airplane is,” Bousfield elaborated. “Inside we didn’t have to put so much weight in the airplane on the soundproofing to get some incredible noise levels, down to under 47dBs in the bedroom.” In the cabin, that permits regular conversation to be conducted from one side of the aircraft to the other.
In addition to the quiet cabin, Airbus and Acropolis were very concerned with passenger comfort and to that end made several environmental improvements in the design process. The ACJ320neo, through its low cabin altitude modification, operates at a constant 6,400-foot cabin altitude, and Acropolis opted to have a cabin humidification system installed, with crew and passengers alike reporting feeling better at the conclusion of long flights as a result. The inclusion of the system, along with an onboard shower in the master suite and dishwasher in the galley, prompted Acropolis to request the installation of a second, larger tank in the hold, giving the aircraft a total capacity of 511 liters (135 gallons) of fresh water.
ACJ president Benoit Defforge said Airbus recently signed a contract with European systems manufacturer CTT to develop a more advanced, more efficient humidification system. “Some of our customers want to reduce as much as possible the volume of water to increase the range for maximum, so having less water consumption is important,” he said, adding the system should be available by the end of 2020.
Defforge told AIN that seven ACJneos (both 319 and 320) have been delivered thus far, the most recent to Comlux at the end of May, and the second aircraft is due to finish completion and enter service shortly. He noted that the next available slot in the program is in third-quarter 2021. “It is roughly 12 to 15 months in between the purchase agreement and the delivery, and then you have 10 months for the cabin, so that means you can get an ACJ within less than 24 months, which is competitive, even compared to most of the traditional large business jets.”
The Acropolis aircraft, which can seat 19 and sleep 17, spent more than a year at AMAC’s Basel, Switzerland completions facility. The operator was heavily involved during the entire design process, even building a mock-up of its planned galley at its Farnborough hangar. The finished design included an induction range for versatility in food preparation. “You’ve got this low cabin altitude, let’s serve the best food that we can on board because food and wine taste better,” Bousfield said.
In the cockpit, other additions include dual heads-up displays, which became an option midway through the design process, and the Honeywell IntuVue RDR-4000 V2 weather radar, which has been well received by the operator. “We found it amazing,” said Bousfield, “Just the information we got flying through weather was tremendous.”
Despite the challenges faced by the aviation industry, Defforge noted stability in the ACJ program “It is interesting to note that despite the crisis at the time being, the figures on our side are quite robust, and the resilience of our customers is good because we’ve had no cancellations or requests for postponement,” he said. “We have no speculative orders, no white tail manufacturing,”
As for the first ACJ320neo, Acropolis can only wait for a hoped-for resumption of long-range private charter demand in the second half of 2020. “None of us has a crystal ball, but I think it will be a slow year,” said Bousfield, adding his company is taking the downturn in stride. “When we come out the other side in the new normal, I’m very confident that we’ve got the newest VVIP airplane on the market, that we see will become very busy again.”