““Last year, complaints about airlines increased 22%. There were probably more complaints, but the airlines lost them.” ”
When Gulfstream purchased Galaxy Aerospace in 2001 for $330 million, the deal was sort of the aviation equivalent of the reality television show Flip This House. With an eye to quick profit, an investor on the show snaps up a distressed property he thinks needs only new paint, then discovers the place is infested with termites and has a rotting roof. Whoops. Eventually, after he invests more money and energy and chugs some Maalox, everything works out.
The Galaxy purchase gave Gulfstream, previously a maker of only large-cabin jets, the type certificates of two downstream aircraft: the Galaxy super-midsize business jet and the smaller Astra SPX, both designed and manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) of Tel Aviv. Gulfstream quickly rebranded the twin-engine jets as the G200 and G100, respectively, and overnight it had a diverse product line. (Rebranding of the Gulfstream IV-SP and GV models to the G300 through G550 designations came a year later, in 2002.)
At least on paper, the eight- to 10-passenger Galaxy/G200 looked like a winner. It has the operating-cost structure of a mid-size jet like a Hawker but offers a large-jet cabin. On the performance side, the G200 has a maximum cruise speed of Mach 0.85, a ceiling of 45,000 feet and a claimed 3,400-nautical-mile range with four passengers at Mach 0.8 (although operators say it works out to more like 3,100 nautical miles). Theoretically, at least, that means nonstop trips, such as Los Angeles to Caracas, Seoul to Singapore, Berlin to Delhi and Detroit to London. But you'll be taking very thin people with almost no luggage. Maximum payload with full fuel is only 650 pounds.
The G200 was the second super-midsize aircraft to hit the market-Dassault's Falcon 2000 was first in 1995-and it quickly garnered attention for several reasons. For one thing, the stylish 24.5-foot-long cabin, created by the New York design firm Henry Dreyfuss & Associates, is roomy, light and airy.
Three possible cabin layouts are available: double club four; single club four with conference grouping opposite a berthable divan; and club four with half club and divan. You'll find master cabin controls at the VIP seat location, three 110-volt outlets throughout the cabin with adjacent data ports and a 15-inch LCD monitor embedded in the forward cabin bulkhead. The standard entertainment setup includes two DVD players, a CD player and Airshow 400. G200s can be fitted for satcom, XM satellite radio and high-speed Internet.
The forward galley features a microwave, coffeemaker, sink, ice drawer, trash compartment and storage doors and drawers. The rear lavatory has a solid sliding door, vanity with storage, sink and running water and an externally serviced chemical toilet.
By an inch, the airplane actually has more headroom (75 inches) than the much larger Gulfstream IV, but with a tube only two inches narrower (86 inches). Cabin volume measures 868 cubic feet and the G200 boasts a generous 150 cubic feet of baggage space.
Cockpit avionics are built around the digital, five-screen Collins Pro Line 4 system and power comes from a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW306A engines rated at 6,040 pounds of thrust each that deliver good fuel economy for an aircraft in this category. The engines are a variant of the PW305, which powers the smaller Learjet 60 and Hawker 1000. Autothrottles became an option in 2004.
The G200, which has a spotless accident record, sold new for $18.75 million in 2001 and today can be had for around $14 million. (Typically equipped, a new one goes for $22.07 million.) Used-market competitors include the Cessna Citation X and the Dassault Falcon 2000 series. The G200 holds its value on par with the Citation X, but nothing matches the Falcon 2000's ability to retain value. (See Bizjet Review: "Falcon 2000: First in Class," in our October/November 2006 issue.-Ed.) However, room exists for price negotiation with a low-serial-number G200 (under 80) and unfortunately there is a reason for that.
IAI began developing the model in the early 1990s as a follow-on to the Astra SP, announced the program in 1993 and intended to bring the aircraft to market independently in 1996. But the program hit delays and increased costs and the Israeli government declined to provide additional funding. IAI then partnered with Chicago's Pritzker family of Hyatt hotel fame to form Galaxy and keep the program going. Galaxy built a 165,000-square-foot completion, delivery and service center at Fort Worth's Alliance Airport and the airplane made its first flight almost two years behind schedule in December 1997.
In part to save money, IAI morphed the wing of the Astra SP, which weighs 10,000 pounds less, to the G200. This thin wing gives good cruise economy but does not provide enough low-speed lift to enable the airplane to perform well on short runways under heavy load. At sea level and standard temperatures, the G200 needs 6,083 feet of runway to get airborne at its maximum takeoff weight and 3,280 feet to stop at maximum landing weight. That's more than some airliners weighing three to six times as much would need. "It's a runway hog," admitted a Midwest-based G200 pilot.
Gulfstream rightfully points out that the airplane can typically use shorter runways on most domestic trips; for example, the G200 needs only 5,000 feet to take off and fly from Los Angeles to New York.
The G200 was (and still is) assembled at IAI's facility at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, with the fuselage's major subcomponents made in France by Sogerma. From Israel, airplanes were flown unpainted and unfinished to the U.S., with completions performed at Alliance and third-party centers. Integration of major interior components was farmed out to yet another firm. It was a tangled chain of custody and creative cash-flow-and it was doomed to crash.
In retrospect, many of the G200's early problems can be pinned on a lack of coordination. This became obvious to Gulfstream executives after they acquired the program. Larry Flynn, president of Gulfstream's Customer Support Division, explained the problem to me several years ago. "We had third-party suppliers and completions centers, with me trying to support it. It didn't work."
While Galaxy had a claimed $1 billion order backlog, the company had difficulty getting completed airplanes out the door. The average completion time once a G200 hit the U.S. was 14 months (industry average is three to four months). NetJets canceled a major initial order. In the field, a list of serious mechanical, electrical and design problems plagued the aircraft. They included starter-generator failure, slow landing-gear actuators, jet fuel that vented into the aft equipment bay, bad wiring and malfunctioning flight controls and avionics displays.
Inside, the cabin suffered myriad fit, finish and function problems that included flickering lights, toilets with inadequate capacity, truly awful seats and an erratic ventilation system. (The galley installation pinched the ventilation tube on early serial numbers, reducing fresh airflow.) By May 2000, five months after deliveries began, Galaxy began making changes to quiet the cabin, which remains relatively noisy on takeoff, and to fix the environmental control system.
But owners of low serial numbers were an unhappy lot and the company's self-admitted customer-service problems did nothing to assuage them. Dispatch reliability was low. One captain of a low-serial-number G200 diplomatically characterized it as "a smart little airplane with major quality issues" and added, "The Gulfstream warranty is very good for this aircraft and you certainly will need it."
Service problems weren't the only reasons for concern. Another was that the G200 was fat; its basic operating weight exceeded 20,600 pounds.
Something had to be done-and fast. Concurrent with Gulfstream's purchase of Galaxy, NetJets reinstated its order for 50 G200s and took options for 50 more. For NetJets, the G200 had to be able to reach London from Teterboro, N.J., with four passengers and enough fuel remaining to meet IFR reserves. At the aircraft's then weight, that wasn't going to happen. Gulfstream designed a new interior for the airplane that is 600 pounds lighter, has improved functionality and is easier to maintain. It has since been retrofitted into many G200s-which is why you occasionally see a curious ad for a 1999 G200 with a 2001 interior. Suffice it to say, you simply do not want an airplane without the new innards.
Gulfstream then tackled the quality problem by bringing virtually all G200 completion work in house and jettisoning substandard suppliers. In 2002, the Alliance facility was shuttered and all G200 completions and completion engineering moved to Gulfstream's Dallas facility at Love Field.
The program has produced many positive results. The G200's interior completion cycle time fell from 14 months to four. Exceptions at delivery plunged 90 percent to less than 10 per aircraft. Dispatch rates have also markedly improved, from 90 percent in 2001 to more than 99 percent today.
The changes made to the G200 were not cheap or easy, but they paid off. Today, G200 owners generally give Gulfstream's industry-leading product support high marks (see chart on preceding page). Properly retrofitted and maintained used G200s, while not perfect, are good values.