Estimates vary, but The Boyd Group consultancy, which has kept its finger on the weakening pulse of the 50-seat market – and delivered its dire outlook for well over a decade – believes that by 2017 “most 50-seat and smaller jets will be out of the airline system along with some of the current mission applications that were made possible when a gallon of Jet A [fuel] cost less than a bottle of Two-Buck-Chuck [wine], and maintenance costs were a lot less”.
Underscoring the aircraft type’s march to commercial extinction Delta Air Lines announced this summer that it would reduce the number of 50-seat regional jets in its network from nearly 350 aircraft to 125 or fewer in the coming years. The US major subsequently shuttered its regional subsidiary Comair.
But one man’s proverbial trash is another man’s treasure. In the airline world, the operating costs of 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets may be prohibitive, “but in the corporate world, the operating costs are less than a Gulfstream IV, but you still have the same cabin size”, says Sean Gillespie, executive VP of sales and marketing at Flying Colours, a family-owned company in Peterborough, Ontario that, together with its sister facility in St Louis, Missouri, is giving CRJ200s a new lease on life.
By gutting the CRJ200, and stripping away the standard high-density seating interior, Flying Colours is able to transform the aircraft into a luxuriously appointed executive jet equipped with a certified auxiliary fuel system that offers maximized performance and better range. Whilst the metamorphoses from CRJ200 to ‘CRJ ExecLiner’ does not ensure you’ll get the same range as, say, the Bombardier Global Express, “you have the same cabin volume so you can charter it, which appeals to a lot of charter operators”, says Gillespie, the son of Flying Colours founder, president and CEO John Gillespie.
Notwithstanding market fluctuations, a converted CRJ ExecLiner generally costs about one-half of what a buyer would pay for a new Bombardier Challenger 850, which is a derivative – and essentially considered the business jet equivalent – of the CRJ200. The cost “is usually the appeal”, says Gillespie. “You’re getting relatively the same thing.”
Gillespie should know. Flying Colours is a preferred completions centre for new “green” Challenger 850s. “In 2008, the conversion world started to slow down a bit because the price of the Challenger 850 came down, so people were like, ‘why would I buy a used CRJ when I can buy a new Challenger 850’. But now it’s coming back to where it was in 2006. It’s not back there totally by any means, but the new Challenger 850 price is going up and the interest in the conversion has come all the way back. Now I just can’t keep up with the used CRJ market and the new Challenger 850 market is so busy. “
Some customers still favour a new aircraft. “Chinese clients right now, all they want is new; they don’t want a used aeroplane,” says Gillespie, explaining that the “pre-owned world is just starting in Asia” as many operators “have the financial whereabouts to not worry about” sourcing less expensive business jet alternatives.
“But maybe someone who has had aeroplanes before in the corporate world, and knows everything is built strong, will deal with it [a used aircraft],” he says. “Even if you put a Challenger 850 and a CRJ conversion on the ramp here you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s the same thing, but one might have 20,000 hours on it versus 10-hours [out of the factory] new.”
Customers for the CRJ ExecLiner – and the Challenger 850 interior – span the globe. And the projects “are getting larger in size”, says VP corporate development and interior design Kate Gillespie Ahrens, Sean’s sister.
Earlier this year, Flying Colours began work on its most ambitious CRJ200 conversion to date. Working with the private operator’s designer, Harry Schnaper, who has been featured in the Architectural Digest’s top 100 of the world’s best designers, as well as Flying Colours’ engineering team, Gillespie Ahrens will ensure a number of “firsts” are incorporated into the aircraft before it is handed back in the spring of next year.
A clean sheet design shower will be included in the aft lavatory and will be the first time a CRJ conversion has had one installed. The aft cabin will be equipped with a customised pivoting bed enabling passengers to position the bed against the wall when not in use.
The forward aircraft cabin will feature six electric seats. Manufactured in cooperation with AST Seating, these seats boast options for recline, vertical adjustment, and leg rests, and include a memory pre-set option along with electric heating, massage features and controllable lumbar support options.
The inflight communications and entertainment system has been custom-designed in conjunction with Esoteric, producers of the SkyPad, a touch-screen control system and will enable users to browse all on-board media, control the IFE (including 7,500 films) and adjust the lights, blinds and temperature in the cabin via an Apple iPad.
A connectivity pipe to the cabin, courtesy of ViaSat’s Ku-band satellite solution, will support inflight high-speed Internet, whilst a TrueNorth Avionics telephony system will provide five dedicated phone lines and the ability to project presentations on all monitors at each seat.
To remove cigar smoke, galley smells and ensure clean cabin are at all times an integrated smoke extraction system has been custom-designed by Flying Colours. The aircraft is expected to be finished in the spring of 2013.
These sorts of personal touches are becoming more and more popular for business jet operators. In the last year, Flying Colours has observed that “people want to be a little bit more personal with their aircraft and put their [own] touches on it”, says Gillespie Ahrens.
Just how personalised can Flying Colours get? “As long as it passes burn certification and complies with our engineering, we can pretty much do anything. We’re a custom completions centre. And people view us as that. We have a very good reputation of being able to proceed with different requirements, so we haven’t really said ‘no’ to too much unless the customer doesn’t want to wait for engineering,” says Gillespie Ahrens.
Flying Colours has build up a portfolio six different floor plans for the CRJ ExecLiner and the green Challenger 850 “and within that there is probably at least 90 options you can do, whether the guy wants a vacuum waste system or he wants to be able to control everything with his iPad or he wants Internet or he wants stone floors”.
Indeed, slick new stone flooring from Austrian firm LIST components and furniture GmbH has been eliciting quite a bit of excitement amongst business jet operators.
The product is 100% granite veneer so its weight is “very comparable to carpet”, says Gillespie Ahrens. “They can mill the granite down to 1.2mm thick and they put it on floating, interlocking plates so when you’re coming down [for landing] and decompression and everything, it totally melds together; you don’t notice the movement.”
Stone flooring is generally being used for aircraft entryways, as well as forward and aft lavatories “but you can have it anywhere”, notes Gillespie Ahrens. Flying Colours is even looking at using it with heated floors (for some very exacting customers no doubt). “LIST can do custom logos in the floor; they can do any kind of pattern. It’s beautiful. It’s a nice product. I’d love to put it into every plane,” she adds.
Is there any interest in environmentally friendly interiors? “Our vendors are getting better in that respect,” says Gillespie Ahrens. She notes, however, that “you have to be careful about a lot of things that don’t pass burn [certification] in the green world. We’re doing more testing.”
On the inflight connectivity front, Sean Gillespie has observed an increased appetite for bandwidth. In addition to provide ViaSat’s Ku Internet solution, Flying Colours installs Inmarsat SwiftBroadband (SBB)-supported connectivity systems from Aircell and TrueNorth. “The [SBB] speed is not going to be high speed,” he says, adding that Flying Colours is excited about new aggregation technology for SBB that is coming to market.
“In aviation, one day you’ll have Internet as fast as down here,” he predicts.
Meanwhile, the future looks bright for Flying Colours, which says the 70-seat CRJ700 is likely to be the next commercial regional jet platform it transforms into an executive jet. Sean Gillespie says people like the idea of getting something “that little bit bigger” than the CRJ200.
The timing is ripe. Referencing the CRJ700’s future, the Boyd Group consultancy suggests: “Watch for economics to catch up with these airliners in the next five years, too. Great airplanes. But in shifting them to dual-class configuration, as most carriers are doing, they effectively lose ten ‘sale-able’ seats. In typical 6/60 configurations, the six first class seats tend to be used for freebie upgrades, not direct sales. Ergo, the 70-seaters are now 60-seaters in terms of revenue potential. The larger CRJ900/1000s have the economics to be long-term and important players, however.”