“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”
Large-cabin jets at turboprop prices
In the upper Midwest, where I live, regional airlines are pulling out of small-airport markets just as fast as the Department of Transportation will allow. In the era of $100-a-barrel oil, not even government subsidies can make some of these routes profitable. Flying regional jets (RJs) on these short hauls, often at low, fuel-guzzling altitudes, just makes the bad economics worse. Not surprisingly, a lot of these airplanes are being parked. For the savvy buyer, the growing glut of parked RJs presents a rare opportunity to acquire a relatively new large-cabin jet at near-turboprop prices.
By the end of 2011, nearly 400 RJs were in storage in the U.S., many of them less than 10 years old. They included 62 BAE 146/Avros; 122 Bombardier CRJ100s, 200s and 900s; 36 Dornier/Fairchild 328Jets; 66 Fokker twinjets; and 93 Embraer ERJ 135/145s. American Airlines, the latest major carrier to file bankruptcy, could wind up parking a couple hundred more Embraers belonging to its American Eagle regional subsidiary.
Converting an RJ to executive service is a fairly straightforward proposition: Gut the 50-seat airliner-style interior, replace it with a plush VIP layout with seats for 12 to 20 and add auxiliary fuel tanks for 600 gallons or more of additional capacity, generally in the baggage hold. The entire process takes around six months.
Doing this does not exactly give you business jet performance. Converted RJs generally don’t fly as fast or as high as comparably sized corporate jets, nor do they have as much range, even with the extra fuel tanks. At long-range cruise power they lumber along at about Mach 0.74, a tad slower than most airliners. They also tend to suck up more runway. Ah, but the money you save, both in acquisition and operating costs, is nothing short of spectacular.
You can pick up a lightly used, late-model RJ such as a Bombardier CRJ 100/200 at prices starting around $5 million; another $5 million buys new paint, refreshed avionics and a high-end interior with all the bells and whistles, including high-speed Internet and upscale leathers. The Fokkers, with their thirsty Rolls-Royce Tay engines, are not particularly good candidates for conversion, but the other models are.
A converted CRJ gives you roughly six hours or 3,000 nautical miles of range (with eight passengers, baggage and fuel reserves) and the same cabin space (1,990 cubic feet) as a $59 million-plus Bombardier Global Express XRS/6000 or about 30 percent more than a super-midsize. These converted airplanes also can be less expensive to maintain. Major components on airliners generally have to be replaced when they show certain wear patterns or “on condition,” while many corporate jet components are still limited by cycles or time in service. RJ parts are also generally plentiful and less expensive. The aircraft themselves have been constructed to withstand the rigors of 12 takeoffs and landings a day and several thousand hours per year of operations. It’s the kind of thrashing that not even the most heavily used NetJets Hawker gets.
Five companies currently convert CRJs: Flying Colours in Peterborough, Ontario, and its Jetcorp subsidiary in St. Louis; MJet in Montreal; Comlux in Indianapolis; Capital Aviation in Bethany, Okla.; and Field Aviation West in Calgary. Most CRJ conversions to date have been for customers in Asia, the Middle East and Russia.
If you don’t need the cabin space and the range of a CRJ, consider the Fairchild/Dornier 328Jet. Converted, these aircraft have a cabin on par with the space inside a Gulfstream G450 and a range of 2,059 nautical miles with auxiliary tanks. You can find many of these airplanes already outfitted in eight- to 14-passenger executive-seating configurations. You can still pick one up in 33-seat airline configuration for around $2 million and convert it for as little as $1.5 million. Although out of production since 2002, the 328 is supported in the U.S. by Avcraft Technical Services in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and M7 Aerospace in San Antonio.
Like the CRJ, the 328 is a decidedly slow ride, cruising at around 380 knots–about as fast as an Embraer Phenom light jet. But it is an exceptional short-field/steep-approach performer and its high-wing design makes it an ideal choice for unpaved runways. It climbs quickly, too–3,690 feet per minute. Cabin dimensions are generous; 88.5 inches wide, 72 inches tall and 34 feet long. The baggage hold is a capacious 275 cubic feet.
If you need even more space than a 328 or a CRJ offers, consider the massive, four-engine BAE-146/Avro series of commuter jets. Built for the airlines from 1983 to 2002, they originally came with seating for 70 to 100 in three fuselage stretches–models 100, 200 and 300–with cabin lengths of 51, 59 and 66 feet–and maximum takeoff weights between 84,400 and 97,500 pounds, respectively. Cabin height is 6 feet, 8 inches and floor width is a generous 10 feet, 8 inches. Cargo/luggage holds vary from 479 to 812 cubic feet. Like the 328Jet, the 146 is an outstanding steep-approach and short-runway performer. And also like the 328, the 146 offers a slow ride: high-speed cruise is just 432 knots. Standard fuel capacity is 3,099 gallons. Without reserve tanks, this is a three- to four-hour, 1,570-nautical-mile airplane. Although the aircraft was built in the UK, its wings, engines and avionics are of U.S. origin and spares are not difficult to acquire.
If you’re considering a 146, opt for one of the 166 Avro models produced after 1993.
They have higher-thrust engines and more modern cockpits. The original ALF502 engines on early models had a myriad of reliability problems, such as prolific leaks and faulty electronic controls. BAE Systems continues to support the aircraft and you can acquire used ones from a variety of sources, including aircraft leasing company Falko. A late-model Avro with a full-up executive conversion can be had for $10-15 million.
British design house Design Q has fashioned a variety of whiz-bang interior concepts for executive conversions, now marketed as ABJs, for “Avro Business Jet.” Think Saturday Night Fever meets James Bond in Out of Africa and you’ll get the idea. Inflite Engineering in the UK will install the designs. Another firm, Berlin-based Cordner Aviation, also offers 146/Avro conversions, including a Surveyor package that’s geared to the mining industry and is thoughtfully equipped with a full medevac suite.
Airline economics dictate that there will be no shortage of parked RJs for years to come. If you’re willing to trade a few knots of speed to save millions, a converted RJ may be just the ticket.