““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Airbus began airline deliveries of its A320 twinjet in 1988. Today, more than 5,000 are in service and another 2,000-plus have been ordered. U.S. carriers flying the model include Delta, US Airways, United and JetBlue. Odds are, you’ve already been on one. Compared with the original Boeing 737, which was designed in the early 1960s, the A320 has a wider and taller cabin and a slicker wing. It also features digital fly-by-wire controls.
The aircraft–which has been available with an executive interior since 2000–has been improved substantially over the years. The latest enhancements include better cabin sound insulation and electronics, LED lighting and a new-style winglet called a Sharklet that boosts fuel economy and increases the model’s already hefty useful load by 1,100 pounds.
Compared with the standard Airbus Corporate Jet (ACJ), which is based on the smaller A319, the executive version of the A320 (called the Prestige) has a 12-foot-longer cabin and holds nearly seven times as much luggage. It can do that because it has a shorter range–“only” 4,300 nautical miles compared with the ACJ’s 6,000 (four crew, eight passengers). The ACJ gets all that range by stuffing the baggage hold with auxiliary fuel tanks that the A320 doesn’t need.
An Airbus executive told me that you can buy a new A320 Prestige with a full-up executive cabin for around $85 million, only about $5 million more than you’d pay for an ACJ. Of course, most customers spend more having completion centers build in their preferences.
Ironically, three of the leading completion centers for the A320 are in the U.S.: Associated in Dallas, Gore Design Completion in San Antonio and Comlux in Indianapolis. I say “ironically” because, at present, no A320 Prestige airplanes are based in the U.S.; most of its customers are in the Middle East and Asia.
At first blush, this seems a little mystifying. The A320 is a fine airplane that has stood the test of time. However, many American customers for so-called bizliners opt for executive 737s, called Boeing Business Jets (BBJs), for nonstop travel from the continental U.S. to Asia. With the A320, you have to land for fuel along the way. That has not kept the A320 from being popular with foreign heads of state, however. Gore has done several of these types of A320 completions and has two more in the hangar.
Typically, the completion process starts six months before the aircraft arrives, with floor plan and materials selection and related engineering. Once the A320 is in the hangar, it can take another 12 months to finish. With more than 1,030 square feet of cabin floor space, the potential for wretched excess with this airplane is, well, excessive: you can order stand-up showers, gourmet galleys, private offices, theater rooms and just about anything else you care to install.
Comlux recently finished an A320 for a Middle Eastern customer who plans to charter it out when not using it himself. The 19-passenger design features a VIP lounge with an L-shaped divan and two single seats arrayed in a club two and a large dining table for six guests. In the middle of the cabin, a private day lounge includes a divan that converts to a large double bed and a private bathroom with shower. In the rear cabin, a large business-class seating area is suitable for an entourage. Color selection was made for the Middle East charter market: beige and blue represent sand and sea (see picture below). The cabin incorporates the latest technologies, such as GSM, touch-screens, mood lighting, Wi-Fi Internet access and iPod/iPhone stands.
Other Airbus-authorized A320 completion centers in addition to the company’s own facility in France include Taeco (China), Stork-Fokker (Netherlands), Lufthansa Technik (Hamburg) and Amac and Jet Aviation (Switzerland).
Comlux strives to give its completions a European flair, said David Edinger, who runs the company’s Indianapolis center. Little touches in the last A320 it completed included wood grain with a satin finish (as opposed to the usual glossy), unique seat armrests and a formal entryway. Edinger sees more single-aisle work, including A320s, coming his company’s way and opened an integrated completion hangar in May.
While what you can do to the inside of an A320 cabin is nearly limitless, you do have limits as to where you can take it: this is a big boy. Not all airport ramps can accommodate it nor are all runways long enough. An A320 at maximum takeoff weight tips the scales at 169,800 pounds and needs 6,640 feet of runway to get airborne with a full load and nearly 5,000 feet to stop. Certain U.S. airports (such as those in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Teterboro, N.J.) continue to ban private aircraft that weigh more than 100,000 pounds. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that because the A320 is based on a mature airliner, pilots, parts and maintenance technicians for it are plentiful and certain maintenance practices are simpler and more economical than on a typical business jet. Most business jets require that certain parts and major assemblies be inspected and/or replaced at fixed intervals, which are usually defined in terms of flight hours, flight cycles (one takeoff and one landing) or time (months or years). With airliners, more of these parts need not be replaced unless they are wearing or worn out. This type of maintenance is called “on condition” and a fair amount of it can be done on the A320. Such work is almost essential on an airplane as large as the A320 as most operators do not have backup aircraft.
But if your A320 break downs, you can still get a great meal, a comfortable night’s sleep and a hot shower in the morning without getting off the airplane.
The A320’s Digital Architecture
The digital architecture incorporated into the A320 is substantially different from what you will find on the BBJ or older out-of-production aircraft from British Aerospace, McDonnell-Douglas or other companies. Fly-by-wire (FBW) replaces certain mechanical systems, coupling electronic flight controls with digital computers. Pilots make control inputs through sidesticks, other cockpit controls or the autopilot. These inputs are then instantly calibrated through a series of “control laws” and transmitted to servos that power the aircraft’s control systems and surfaces that make it turn, climb and descend. FBW has been on jet fighters since the 1960s and recently has found its way into business jets, including the new Falcon 7X, Gulfstream G650 and Embraer Legacy 500. It’s almost impossible to have a bad landing in an A320 because the flight computers won’t allow it.