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MRO special - Project Phoenix turns small regionals into large cabin business jets

MRO special - Project Phoenix turns small regionals into large cabin business jets

Need a business jet with the 15-seat cabin of a Bombardier Global Express for the price of a Challenger 300, delivered within 10 months? If you are prepared to sacrifice intercontinental range and live with 20,000 flying hours on the clock, Mike Cappuccitti and Kevin Hoffman believe they have the answer - a Bombardier CRJ200 reborn as a mid-range corporate jet and marketed as a "CRJ Phoenix".

Cappuccitti and Hoffman head a new business called Project Phoenix that is addressing the logjam in completion capacity for new business jets - and the resulting premium on used aircraft - by acquiring surplus examples of the Canadian airframer´s smallest regional jet, and turning them into utilitarian large-cabin business aircraft.

Although Project Phoenix is not the first company to offer used CRJ200 business jet conversions - several completion centres have carried out one-off projects - it is arguably the first to market its programme on such a scale, particularly in the emerging markets of Russia, the Middle East and Asia. The company signed commitments at November´s Dubai air show for two CRJs from Dubai-based private equity company Opus Capital, which will take delivery of the jets in September and November.

Project Phoenix also received a letter of intent for an aircraft from Macau-based operator Ritz Pacific. Cappuccitti says the company is in talks for a possible further 30 or so conversions and believes that, by 2011, it could be delivering 10 a year. "It could go beyond that if demand keeps increasing the way we are seeing," he says. With almost 1,000 CRJ100/200s in service, supply is unlikely to be a problem, says Dave Salkovitz, Project Phoenix´s vice-president of completions: "We are looking at around 300 candidates in the market."

Different approach

The initiative differs from Bombardier´s own CRJ200-based Challenger 850 business jet in that the manufacturer´s completion partners - Lufthansa Technik and Midcoast Aviation - convert green aircraft from the production line. In 2005, Bombardier awarded a contract to Lufthansa Technik to carry out completions on 17 850s over three years - the first one flew in August 2006 and the company has just delivered its eighth - with Midcoast contracted to complete a further eight. By November last year Bombardier had delivered 32 Challenger 850s, according to General Aviation Manufacturers Association figures. These include aircraft converted in-house or at other centres.

Bombardier´s introduction of the Challenger 850 had the effect of prolonging the life of its CRJ200 production line after demand for the 50-seat jets dried up. At the same time it meant it could offer a business aircraft in a segment it did not address - large cabin, transcontinental jets, a fast emerging market in Russia, the Middle East and Asia. Bombardier´s rival Embraer took a similar step to launch itself into the business aviation market in 2000 with the Legacy 600, a variant of the 37-seat ERJ-135 regional jet. Because the CRJ Phoenix is a used aircraft, at $ 17.9 million with 20,000 flying hours prices are around two-thirds that of Bombardier´s 850. The General Electric CF34-3B1-powered CRJ Phoenix has a range of 4,000km (2,200nm), or 5,550km with an extra fuel tank fitted. Lead times from order to delivery are some 40 weeks, compared with up to five years for a new aircraft, says the company.

Cappuccitti and Hoffman are both former Bombardier executives. In recent years, Cappuccitti has been involved in yacht and business aircraft sales and brokerage, while Hoffman has run Montreal-based Aerospace Concepts, a business jet completions design and project management consultancy. Also involved is another former Bombardier manager, business consultant John Lawson. Mike Creed, managing director of Sino Swearingen SJ30 distributor Action Aviation in Dubai, is responsible for sales and marketing of the CRJ Phoenix in the Middle East and Russia.

Flying Colours

The company responsible for conversions initially is Flying Colours of Peterborough, Ontario, a 30-year-old completions house that offers its own CRJ200 conversion, marketed as the ExecLiner. "One of the reasons we selected Flying Colours is because they were already involved with this sort of aircraft," says Cappuccitti. Flying Colours president John Gillespie says the Project Phoenix business is a "significant turn in the road for us". The company is doubling the size of its 5,600 square metres (60,000 ft) premises and adding another 60 staff to its workforce of 60 on the back of the contract. "This will be 75% of our business in three or four years," says Gillespie.

The Flying Colours work will take 18,000 man hours, with a team of 18 technicians working on a CRJ200 at any one time. They strip out the cabin and add insulation, electronics, wiring and an in-flight entertainment system. A forward lavatory and galley are installed, while the existing rear lavatory is refurbished. Most converted aircraft will have a supplementary 2,300 litre (600USgal) fuel tank fitted, giving 1,700km more range. The configuration, says Gillespie, is "very similar to a Challenger 850".

With demand for large cabin executive jets outstripping supply in emerging economies - and with most customers´ travel requirements in-region rather than for the ultra long-range capabilities of top-end Falcons, Globals and Gulfstreams - the converted 50-seat regional jet is an obvious candidate to meet that need. This is especially true since the easing of restrictive pilot "scope clauses" in North America has ended the boom 50-seater in sales to airlines. Embraer has delivered more than 120 Legacy 600s, most of them in emerging markets.

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