EVA caught up with Benoit Defforge, ACJ President, in effusive mood as he talked about his passion for aviation and belief in the ACJ TwoTwenty’s ability to open up the US market
Benoit Defforge, ACJ President, messaged from Dallas to delay our interview by 15 minutes because, ironically, his Uber driver had lost their way. The irony became clear later in our conversation, since Defforge is very clear of the direction in which he and ACJ are going…
Airbus Corporate Jets – ACJ – has enjoyed unprecedented success over the past two years, recording record sales regardless of the pandemic. It’s an achievement Defforge was keen to discuss but with a little clear time in his schedule, EVA first took the opportunity to learn more about the man himself and the passion he brings to ACJ.
“I was excited by aviation at a young age,” he says. “I liked to draw aircraft, starting with Concorde, which first flew in 1969, when I was five years old. Later, I was passionate about the sea and the air, but the freedom of flight, the additional dimension of the air, really caught my imagination and I became an aerospace engineer.
“After my degree, I was very quickly attracted by making connections with other people and moved into the business and services side of aviation. During the 1990s I had a chance to work for Falcon outfitting. I moved to Airbus in 2003, and when it decided to create its own outfitting centre in 2007, I put my name on the table and was internally nominated as CEO of what was then called the Airbus Corporate Jet Centre (ACJC). We created an outfitting centre from two hangars and 100 experienced people, although they were always the most important element.
“Our success meant ACJC grew in importance and Airbus decided to create the separate ACJ business unit. It brought everyone involved in business aviation across Airbus into one organisation. I’d been pushing very hard for the unit’s creation because we needed a dedicated solution to an important niche market that’s very different to the airlines. And that’s not only because we work with private and government customers, it’s also about the way the aeroplane is used.”
Corporate, business, VVIP and government customers use their aircraft less than the airlines, so although the basic A320neo and ACJ320neo platforms are quite similar, the former could easily fly 4,000 hours or more per year, while the latter is typically more likely to spend 500 to 1,000 hours airborne. That means a different service and support offer is required, while the Airbus Corporate Jet is also likely to have modifications including long range fuel tanks, reduced cabin altitude and, of course, a VIP cabin. Government aircraft may even feature a hybrid cabin, secure communications and other systems.
There is also the customer relationship. Defforge says: “When we deliver an aircraft, we begin a relationship. The intimacy between the customer and our product is important – they need to trust the brand and in order to do that they must trust the team. Trust has to be built. You can’t create a marketing slide saying you’re entering this market and then make it happen. It took us a long time to reach where we are and the positive feedback we have on sales and customer support is the best gift you can receive as the leader of a business like this.”
Leading any aviation enterprise through the Covid pandemic has meant facing challenges and showing resilience, and Defforge and ACJ have done both. Looking back on the period 2020-21, he says: “We sold 16 aircraft and had a market share of 100% in our segment. Even though 2020 was hard, we still had a good year. Some governments realised they were ill-equipped to face a situation like a global pandemic, and we completed deals to provide aircraft for moving people under these special circumstances. So, 2020 saw a mix of private and government sales, 2021 comprised private sales and we launched the ACJ TwoTwenty in 2020 as well.
“Both were record years and last year was also our best year for deliveries – ten aircraft – since 2007. These figures mean that even though we are still serving a niche within the niche business and VIP aviation market, we are leading and continuing to grow.”
Right now, the ACJ TwoTwenty is a particular focus for Defforge’s seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. With the first airframe delivered early in 2022, the A220-based business/VIP jet is essentially in a class of its own or, more accurately, the first entrant in a class of its own creation. Defforge explains: “The ACJ TwoTwenty takes us into a new market segment and it is the perfect product for the US. The market here is quite different than the Middle East, for example, where lots of flying happens in large aircraft, what we might call ‘bizliners’.
“In the US, the bizliner market is limited. We have a few ACJ customers, but most people use smaller aircraft. The ACJ TwoTwenty enables us to enter the game with a platform that is not only already performing super well with the airlines but, with the ACT [additional centre tank], has intercontinental range above 5,500nm. That means it meets 98% of our customers’ flight requirements, while most flights in the US are coast-to-coast – that’s 5 hours and the TwoTwenty can fly 12 hours. Besides which, our analysis shows that 99% of US flights in heavy, long-range jets are under 5,500nm [2019 data]. On top of which, I am convinced the trend for chasing range will change as people realise the more comfortable option.
“We also decided to offer the ACJ TwoTwenty with a flexible cabin allowing customisation through a catalogue, which enables us to position at a similar price to the Gulfstream G700 and Bombardier Global 7500 but with more than 20% lower key operating costs. It means private customers have the choice of targeting range they won’t use in a smaller aircraft, or sufficient range and double the space or three times the cabin volume. I believe it makes a lot of sense in the US.
“It also opens new possibilities for corporations. In can be difficult for corporate customers to justify buying a bizliner, but they may be looking at a Gulfstream or Bombardier. Now they can stand before their board and suggest fleet renewal with an alternative aircraft that has twice as much space, so it can comfortably fly 19 people, and at the same capital expenditure but with lower operating costs.”
Meanwhile, the A220 airliner is rapidly attracting customers, so that support for the platform – airframe, avionics, engines – is increasingly available on a global basis. Defforge confirms: “The first ACJ TwoTwenty will enter service early in 2023, with operations ramping up in 2024/25, by which time support around the world will be in line with our customers’ needs. As we did with the ACJ319 and ’320, we’ll have some specific support in regions where our early customers are based, in Dubai, for instance, to ensure smooth service entry; our customer support director will also be located close to those first customers.” This local support will offer reassurance over ACJ-specific features, since the A220 has already accumulated many flight hours in airline service… more, in fact, than the Gulfstream G650 in the entirety of its service to date.
Defforge is confident that ACJ will not lose ACJ319 customers to the ACJ TwoTwenty. “The ACJ319 will fly 6,750nm, it’s a long-range bizliner,” he says, “offering even more space and a fully customised cabin, but it costs more than US$100 million. The TwoTwenty offers similar cabin quality to its smaller competitors at a similar price, so it’s complimentary to the ’319. It’s a question we already asked ourselves.”
Almost every model, although not every subvariant of every model, in the Airbus airliner portfolio now has an ACJ derivative. Still, one or two aircraft offer interesting possibilities for the future, including the A220-300 (the ACJ TwoTwenty is based on the shorter -100) and A321XLR. What does Defforge think? “Our focus today is on the A220-100 airframe, which we call the ACJ TwoTwenty and which has a long product lifetime; should we have a customer request for the -300, we will look into it. The A321XLR has space and range, but it’s achieving so much airline success that production slots are booked for the near future. We already delivered an ACJ321LR to the German government though.”
The ACJ TwoTwenty is a game-changer Defforge insists. He is very passionate about the aircraft. Where, then, does he expect ACJ and the ACJ TwoTwenty to go in 2022? What might he be telling EVA about the previous year in spring 2023? “I’ll be telling you that 2022 was the year in which we really penetrated the US market, building the foundation for long-term trust with our US customers.”