Benoit Defforge, President, Airbus Corporate Jets, presides over some of business aviation’s largest and longest-ranged aircraft, but insists ACJ is all about the solution, not just the platform
On 17 January, Acropolis Aviation took delivery of the first ACJ320neo, followed on 25 March by Comlux, which received the initial example of three ACJ320neo aircraft it has on order. Today, Airbus Corporate Jets has 14 orders and commitments for ACJ320neo family jets, offering customers the choice of new generation CFM International LEAP-1A or Pratt & Whitney PW1100G powerplants; Comlux chose the CFM option, based on its long-term relationship with the General Electric/Safran Aircraft Engines joint venture. Comlux Completion will install the jet’s unique VIP cabin.
The second member of the ACJ320neo family, the ACJ319neo is a little shorter, but goes further. The ACJ320’s cabin is 89ft 10in (27.74m) long, while the smaller aircraft offers a 79ft (24m) living space. Where the ACJ319neo wins is in range, since it will fly eight passengers 6,750nm, or more than 15 hours, on an NBAA profile and with reserves for a 200nm diversion; the equivalent ACJ320neo range is 6,000nm, or in excess of 13 hours.
Much larger than the ACJ320neo, the ACJ330-800 offers a 147ft 8in (45m) cabin and range capability that Airbus calls ‘nonstop to the world’ – that’s 10,400nm, or more than 21 hours with 25 passengers over an NBAA flight profile and, again, with reserves for a 200nm diversion. In ACJ330-900 form, the aircraft’s cabin is 165ft 2in (50.35m) long and it has the legs to carry 25 passengers 9,900nm. Power for the ACJ330neo comes from the Rolls-Royce Trent 7000.
While the ACJ320neo’s CFM and Pratt & Whitney options don’t share names or designations with those of the legacy aircraft (which offered CFM International CFM56 or International Aero Engines V2500 turbofans), the ACJ330neo uses the Trent, apparently an engine that’s been around some time. In fact, Rolls ran its first Trent in 1990, basing it on the RB.211 originally designed for the TriStar. It was an early example of the Trent 700, designed for the A330 airliner. Subsequent iterations have powered the A340-500/600, A380 and A350 XWB, plus Boeing’s 777 and 787, each variant tailored to its specific application and featuring the latest technologies.
According to Rolls-Royce, the latest Trent 7000 is quieter than the Trent 700 and offers a 10% improvement in specific fuel consumption, advances achieved through applying technologies from the Trent 1000, designed for the 787, and the A350’s Trent XWB. Taken together, the result is a modern, efficient engine backed by decades of experience and refinement.
The Trent XWB of course features on the ACJ350 XWB, available in ACJ350-900 ULR (Ultra Long Range) and ACJ350-1000 forms. If the ACJ330-800 provides nonstop to the world capability, then it’s difficult to conjure a more superlative description for the ULR’s 11,100nm range with 25 passengers, Airbus Corporate Jets contents itself with the accurate but rather less emotive ‘worldwide range’.
The ULR’s 167ft 5in (51.04m) cabin is not so much larger than the ACJ330-900’s, but it out-ranges the latter by 1,400nm. Customers opting for the ACJ350-1000 get a whopping 190ft 5in (58.03m) cabin, enjoying it over a maximum of 9,850nm. Incredible range and massive cabin space are key to the ACJ350’s customer appeal, but its construction includes a large proportion of carbon composites, materials that have caused headaches for previous VIP cabin completions.
Lightweight and immensely strong, carbon composites take a leading role in producing the most efficient airliners and, by extension, airliner-based business jets, but they pose a significant challenge to completion centres. Engineers have been ‘drilling holes’ in metal airframes for decades, safe in the industry’s thorough understanding of how those metallic structures behaved. Not so with carbon composites, which pose new questions of even the simplest construction and modification tasks.
Airbus Corporate Jets recognised and avoided the issue through its Easyfit solution which, it says, “…pre-equips the carbon fibre fuselage of the ACJ350 XWB with hundreds of attachment points.” It says it also “…designed standard system interfaces, greatly simplifying the work of cabin-outfitters.” AMAC Aerospace, Jet Aviation and Lufthansa Technik, ACJ’s authorised completion centres for the model, so far seem to agree.
Other large, airliner-based business jets are available and while ACJ would argue that its aircraft are best, Boeing, Embraer and Sukhoi offer varying levels of competition. Plus, a customer looking for the extreme reach of these large machines has other choices, notably the Bombardier Global 7500 and Gulfstream G650ER, competing types locked in a round of world-shrinking long-range, high-speed records. But Airbus has one advantage none of its competitors shares…
Through Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH), it offers high-end expertise in the latest rotorcraft technologies, applying ACJ levels of completion and customer service to the kind of lift only a helicopter provides. Even the most impressively finished ACJ350 can’t land atop a mountain, embark upon yacht or land on the lawn after an 11,100nm trip, but a similarly appointed helicopter waiting to complete the last few miles of the journey completes the experience in the best possible style.
But are customers really buying a jet and a helicopter from Airbus, especially with quality competition on the rotary-wing market? Benoit Defforge, President, Airbus Corporate Jets, confirms that some helicopter customers do go on to buy an Airbus Corporate Jet, and vice versa.
“They have one helicopter on their yacht, but live most of the time in the city, so they have another to go from their residence to the airport. We share data with ACH to understand how we can provide an even better service to our customers – because we’re the only company offering that capability.”
Defforge therefore confirms Airbus has the jet/helicopter market sewn up but, like Boeing, its obvious competitor in the very large bizjet market, ACJ’s portfolio is restricted to big aeroplanes, or at last to machines no smaller than the ACJ319. Several operators combine a smaller aircraft with a large, long-range machine to maximise efficiency and right-match the aircraft to the mission. At a little over 84ft long, Embraer’s Lineage cabin falls neatly between those of the ACJ319 and ACJ320, though the Airbus jets have more cabin area. And while it doesn’t compete with ACJ’s widebodies, Embraer Executive Jets does offer a range of smaller machines, down to the Phenom 100.
Smiling at the suggestion ACJ should expand its range, Defforge responds: “What, you want me to buy Gulfstream?” No. But in summer 2018, Airbus took a controlling interest in Bombardier’s CSeries airliner and continues to build and market the aircraft through the CSeries Aircraft Limited Partnership with the Canadian airframer. Wouldn’t a corporate jet portfolio that began with the Learjet 70 and culminated in the Global 7500 for speed over distance or ACJ350 for space over distance, be a tantalising proposition?
“Bombardier has very good products. Airbus is working to deliver its commitment on the CSeries, now the A220. That’s a major first step. I don’t know what the Airbus strategy will be over the next ten years, but for the time being it’s clear that what we’re doing we are doing well. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.” Any comment on the possibility of an ACJ220? “No, except to say that Airbus has a lot to do – working with Bombardier to ramp-up A220 production, cut costs and establish a US production line – before we think about anything else.”
Airbus already builds A320-series aircraft in China and the US, as well as Europe, but Defforge says all ACJ320 Family airframes come off the Hamburg, Germany, final assembly lines. “Our volumes are quite small and it makes sense to take aircraft only from those two lines. If a customer insisted they wanted an aircraft built in China or the US, I’d certainly consider it, but there’s no industrial rationale for dividing production between the four centres.”
“…we steer, we coordinate, and we help the company understand what our customers want now and what we expect them to want in the future.”
An obvious omission from the ACJ line, the A380 was once touted as the ultimate VVIP platform but with production scheduled to end in 2021, the prospects of the world witnessing an ACJ380 are dwindling. “There’s nothing to prevent us doing it. It offers 551m2 [floor space in the ACJ350-1000, the largest jet in the current portfolio, is 308m2], so it’s huge. We’ve analysed it quite deeply for a few potential customers, we’ve discussed it with the outfitting centres, and they can do it. If we were to build one, we’d almost certainly install an Easyfit solution, which would make it far less complex to equip.
“The basics of monuments, seats, system interfaces and so on required for an ACJ380 are the same as those required for the ACJ350, Airbus would just need to work closely with the outfitter to help complete the aircraft. So that’s an opportunity to come…”
An apparently tiny part of the Airbus empire, ACJ might easily occupy a niche somewhat removed from the mainstream business, but Defforge reckons otherwise: “We’re part of Airbus Commercial, but we also interface with ACH and ADS [Airbus Defence & Space]. Our job is to analyse and understand the market, then interface internally to ensure we deliver what’s required. So, we steer, we coordinate, and we help the company understand what our customers want now and what we expect them to want in the future.
“In 2018, for example, we installed a VIP cabin in the forward fuselage of a governmental A330 MRTT [Multi-Role Tanker Transport, known in Australian service as the KC-30A]. We delivered a solution in this case, not a platform. That’s my way and the Airbus way, delivering a solution that the market needs. It could be a solution for a platform, a platform with services, a leased platform, whatever suits the customer.
“My interest is to have more ACJ flying, in any form. That’s why we’re supporting the second-hand market too. We’re not buying second-hand aircraft and selling them again, but when we have a customer come to us asking for help selling their aircraft, it’s usually because they want to buy another. And even if that’s not the case, the fluidity of the market is important to us.
“We have our Easystart product for example, designed to make starting operations with a second-hand ACJ easy. It’s for operators who have been flying conventional business jets and are looking to begin operating an ACJ. We found operators might be intimidated by the aircraft’s size and that could slow down the decision to purchase, or even cause operators to advise owners against buying. Easystart is our team helping newcomers begin their operation. After a few meetings with our experts, people realise operating an ACJ isn’t difficult.
“Our aircraft are actually designed to be simple to operate because that’s what the airlines want. And we’re very consistent in our service offering, in the ecosystem that surrounds our aircraft, the ACJ Forum, how closely we work with our five outfitting centres; we don’t have 20, say, we have five and we work intimately with them. If the market demanded a sixth, we could add one, but we prefer that close relationship.
“We find ourselves talking about solutions and delivering solutions more and more. Ten years ago, the emphasis was more on selling. Now it’s on solutions and we deliver those through our ecosystem.”
Living on board
The next big thing for ACJ, emphasised by the recent Comlux delivery, is the ACJ320neo. There’s a palpable excitement among ACJ’s executives over the new engine option (neo) aircraft and Defforge explains why. “With the ACJ319neo we are close to 7,000nm in a product with unbeatable comfort. A customer once explained to me the difference between a traditional business jet and an ACJ. He said: ‘While I’m flying in my conventional business jet I’m flying, but when I’m flying in my ACJ, I’m living on board.’ I think that summarises where we are.
“Lots of customers have a traditional jet and an ACJ. So, are we in direct competition with Bombardier or Gulfstream? I don’t think so. I think we’re offering a different experience, but it has to deliver comparable range and with the neo we have that. It completes our portfolio.”
There remains one obvious question… Why do Defforge’s customers choose ACJ over its closest competitor? “It’s because we are offering something that Boeing does not – something more modern, with more space in the cabin. And, for me, it’s a question of what are they buying? Is it a platform or a solution? We offer a complete solution, tailored to make ownership simple, with Easyfit and Easystart, our turn-key solutions and our close network of outfitters, all of them partners.
“They’re approved Airbus outfitters and they know the aircraft. Other companies could complete our aircraft, of course they could, but I want to keep our outfitters close. That way we can guarantee the quality of the work. And if a customer should have a cabin problem, it’s an Airbus problem and we take care of it. We listen to our customers, we make changes to our offering and then we seek their feedback to ensure we’re delivering what they want. The ACJ team is focused on excellence and we’ve developed trust with our customers, which makes a huge difference.”