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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Business Aviation Operators Discuss Fleet Modernization

With so many different business models, aircraft types and route structures, business aviation operators have a lot to consider when preparing to invest in new aircraft and new avionics. We talk to some of the leading operators in private aviation to see how they’re modernizing their fleets and what drives them to do so.

by Woodrow Bellamy III


Today’s business jets feature some of the highest levels of avionics innovation. The Gulfstream G500 and 600, for example, are both slated to enter service later this decade with modular flight decks that integrate hardware and software from 10 different avionics companies all in the same cockpit. Business aviation leaders need to ensure that their aircraft are performing at a high level 100 percent of the time.

Fleet Modernization

Both NetJets and VistaJet consistently analyze their business strategies and go through next generation fleet transformations, investing in new aircraft and re-fitting their existing ones with new avionics. “The VistaJet business model is to renew its fleet every 3 to 5 years. Over the last 18 months we’ve gone through a big fleet renewal process, upgraded from Learjet 60s to Challenger 350s; we’ve upgraded all of our Challenger 605s and we’re phasing out our Global XRS fleet with new Global 6000s and 7000s,” says VistaJet Chief Operating Officer Nick Van Der Meer.

But Van Der Meer — business aviation operators take note — does not actually look at that strategy as renewing the fleet every 3 to 5 years. This is actually a 7 to 8 year strategy, which allows VistaJet to always have its aircraft covered by warranty. So, if there is a manufacturer-recommended upgrade, or the aircraft suffers an avionics or software malfunctioning, the company can get that repaired or replaced under warranty instead of shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars swapping in new Line Replaceable Units (LRU) or breaking open the civil aviation authority approved software configuration.

VistaJet operates the largest privately owned all-Bombardier fleet, with 21 Global and 28 Challenger jets, recently reaching 50 aircraft. All of their aircraft feature the Vision Flight Deck, which pairs the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion integrated Flight Deck with ergonomic design elements, and synthetic vision paired with Bombardier’s Enhanced Vision System. With the same cockpit package featured on every aircraft type, VistaJet can cut down on training costs, Van Der Meer says.

“The last time we took a deep look at our strategy we knew that, from 2012 to 2020, we knew what the manufacturers are doing, what’s going to be on the market, what’s not going to be on the market. That was a big driving factor behind going with Bombardier versus some of their competitors and keeping an all Bombardier fleet for the time being. Its more what the [Original Equipment Manufacturers] OEMs have to offer and what the international traffic trend is doing — which is for more and more long range flying, more and more larger cabins rather than smaller cabins,” he said, adding “if we take a pilot from a Challenger 350 and upgrade them to a 605 or the Globals, the same scene is now throughout all of these aircraft in terms of the ergonomics, the integration, the way these systems are working; that means we can transition pilots into the new type faster and with more familiarity in that cockpit — it’s a safety benefit. Sticking with one brand of aircraft helps us out in that respect from a training point of view. What Bombardier is doing, aligning all of their aircraft now helps us out a lot.”

A Citation Excel business jet is being pulled into the Fixed Based Operator facility at the Delta Private Jet Center to prepare for a flight.
Photo: Delta Private Jets.
Since 2010, NetJets has invested $17 billion into its fleet, which includes 14 total different aircraft types including Embraer, Cessna, Gulfstream, Dassault, and Bombardier jets capable of short city pairs and international long range transoceanic flying. With a modernized fleet structure already in place, NetJets is focusing on equipping its Signature Series jets with high speed broadband. “As far as what NetJets plans for our primary capital expenditures over the next two years, there are a couple programs that we have in place currently which are really driving the majority of our spend in this category. First, is equipping and maintaining the high-speed Internet connectivity on our U.S. fleet, which is currently provided by Gogo. We are using the ATG 5000 and ATG 4000 on our fleet. The ongoing data costs that are associated with that and the equipment costs for installing that on any new aircraft that are being delivered into our fleet are also a major portion of our expenditures” says Chris Long, vice president of global asset management at NetJets. “The second major component is a newer endeavor, which is the Gogo vision product, Gogo’s new in-flight streaming content system. We’ve just started deploying that on the Signature Series fleet, which are all of the new aircraft types that we’re taking deliveries of.”

NetJets uses a 10-year framework when it comes to investment, as the company is looking at equipping older aircraft within its fleet with airspace-mandated technology for programs such as NextGen and the Single European Sky. “We’re in the process of equipping for NextGen now. We have an internal operational capability team focused on this. Our role is to research mandates, technologies, etc. and provide guidance to our senior management for our 10-year plan. Right now, most of the Signature Series aircraft are compliant with most of the mandates and we are looking at the fleet plan legacy aircraft,” said Kyle Gill, director of cockpit configuration and development at NetJets. “For the Link 2000+ mandate that was recently pushed, all the aircraft flying to Europe were also similarly configured because of those international mandates.”

Mandates, Big Data and Safety

Although the 2020 mandate for Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) is still five years away in the United States and Europe, considering the timeline for maintenance and installation schedules, business aviation and operators across all sectors of the industry have to start planning now, says Elliott Aviation Vice President of Avionics Programs and Logistics Mark Wilken. Elliott Aviation performs avionics services and installations among other aircraft services at its three different locations Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. “As far as ADS-B for the Part 25 and the turbine powered Part 23 jets, the solutions are just starting to come into place, just starting to become more available. There are hardware solutions — Garmin makes hardware, Honeywell makes hardware, Rockwell Collins makes hardware,” says Wilken. “But that hardware has to get an airworthiness approval for each specific model airplane. They all have to go through an [Supplemental Type Certificate] STC process, that’s the only way to approve ADS-B right now.”

There’s no one-time fix for everything. Some airplanes that have a little bit newer setup have an easier way to get compliant — they might range from $20-$25,000 to get to ADS-B compliance. For older aircraft, I’ve priced reconfigurations up to $275,000 to get to ADS-B. It’s a range … what I encourage pilots right now is to do your research, start making phone calls and talk with companies that normally work on those kind of airplanes.”

Bombardier Vision Flight Deck. Photo courtesy of Bombardier.
Avionica CEO Raul Segredo’s company had a successful showing at the 2015 European Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition (EBACE) this year and in-depth discussions with operators around equipping their aircraft with [Future Air Navigation Systems] FANS, a technology that geographically connects NextGen and the Single European Sky by giving operators with properly equipped business jets the ability to fly within the optimal fuel efficient routes within the North Atlantic Track System (NATS). “When you look at an aircraft in the retrofit market, there’s an old rule of thumb of 10 percent. If the value of the retrofit or the modification is more than 10 percent of the asset value, most people don’t do it,” said Segredo. “Our Satlink Max, considering that it fulfills the February 2015 FANS 1/A North Atlantic mandate, when you start to look at asset values in the 4 to 5 million dollar range and the aircraft range of 4,000 to 5,000 range, you start looking at aircraft like the Gulfstream IV as the perfect candidate to be outfitted with the Satlink MAX to fulfill the mandate because as an asset the whole value is about $4 million to go buy one, and it will fly 4,000-5,000 miles. So, in order to put a $120,000 to $150,000 Satlink Max on there, that’s an easy decision for somebody that has to fulfill that requirement.”

Wheels Up Chief Operating Officer David Kaufman says the plan for his fleet, which currently includes 32 King Air 350is and 10 Citation Excels and XLS jets, is to work within OEM service bulletins for mandated avionics upgrades. “Wheels Up will certainly be upgrading to all new air-worthiness and operational mandates. We are working with the OEMs regarding their solutions for compliance as some have yet to be released. The Proline 21 King Air 350i cockpits are tracking to have an installation solution available in the third quarter of 2015. The Fusion King Air 350i cockpit deliveries will be compliant at delivery. Additionally, the Citation Excels look to be tracking toward a third quarter 2015 installation solution,” said Kaufman.

VistaJet’s Van Der Meer says complying with regulatory and airspace mandated avionics installations is fairly easy with a young fleet. “The fortunate thing is that, because we renew the fleet every 3 to 5 years, we’ve never had to retrofit the technology to our aircraft. So for example [Controller to Pilot Data Link Communications] CPDLC, with the last deliveries, all the Global 6000s have been CPDLC and ADS-B compliant. All of our new 605s are ADS-B compliant, as well as the 350s. Part of our business model is to renew the fleet so that we always have aircraft under warranty but also to ensure that all of these mandated technologies are fitted by the manufacturer. It makes our down time a lot less on the maintenance side and makes our lives a lot easier because we never have to retrofit these modifications. Those things are huge advantages; the advantage of CPDLC is dramatic. Flying over the North Atlantic, flying through Africa, it makes a big positive workload difference to the crew and enhances safety dramatically.”

The iPad-Fueled BizJet

Both in the cabin and in the cockpit, private aviation is moving toward flight environments where they have found tablets — especially Apple’s iPad — to become extremely beneficial to their overall operations.“100 percent of our pilots utilize an Electronic Flight Bag. We also maintain a robust operations support mechanism that provides resources to our crews on the road 24/7,” said James Murray, vice president of operations at Delta Private Jets. “In terms of weight reduction, the tablets are allowing our crews to take on approximately 60-70lbs more fuel per flight.”

An iPad is especially effective for ClipperJet CEO James Occhipinti, who has more than 20 years of flying experience. “I was flying a Gulfstream IV between Teterboro and LAX and we suffered from an electrical failure to the degree we had to divert to Las Vegas. It was very helpful to have the iPad. It was painless and flawless pulling up the new airport charts, recalculating the flight route data, getting airport information — all of that was a lot easier to do digitally than having to flip through the old jet charts,” said Occhipinti.

In May, VistaJet announced the launch of Aircraft Performance Group’s iPreFlight Enterprise solution, which provides a leap in flight dispatch and data management capabilities by allowing pilots and dispatchers to perform runway analysis and weight and balance calculations. The iPreFlight algorithms then automatically generate “Flight Books” for every VistaJet operated flight, which uses customer information to populate the aircraft type, city pair, number of crew members and planned passenger and fuel loads for optimum operational efficiency on every flight.

Juliet Van Wagenen contributed to this report.

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