““It’s not so much a frenzy as it was before, but in the long term it’s going in the right direction.” ”
Boeing's BBJ 3
PLANETARIUM CEILINGS, gold-plated bidets and Louis XIV interiors may have fallen out of fashion for new Boeing Business Jets in this economy, but you can sum up the latest version of this private uber barge in one word: more.
Based on the stretch 737-900ER airliner, which will seat 189 in coach, the BBJ 3 has 35 percent more cabin volume, weighs 16,700 pounds more at takeoff and is 28 feet longer than the original BBJ introduced in the 1990s. [See our October/November 2005 issue for a review of that first BBJ.-Ed.] At $69 million, the BBJ 3 also costs more. And that's before the eccentricities of your European interior designer drive your completion firm apoplectic during the year or more it takes to install a custom cabin-for $8 million to $30 million more.
The BBJ spawned in 1996 from a partnership between Boeing and General Electric, maker of the CFM-56 series of engines for newer-generation 737s. Now entering its fifth decade of production, the 737 twinjet is the most successful and ubiquitous jetliner ever produced. Customers would buy the BBJ "green," or unfinished, for around $36 million (1996 dollars), and then spend whatever they wanted on custom paint and interiors. And spend they did, with the average finished price heading well north of $50 million. Before the BBJ, the top-end market for corporate jets ran in the $40 million range.
Of course, there were well-known exceptions to even this level of luxury: The Saudi royal family had been outfitting 747s and Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jets as flying palaces for years, and at nine-figure prices few could fathom. But market watchers were shocked by the BBJ's level of success.
The original BBJ took components of two 737 models, the 737-700 series airframe and the larger 737-800 series wing, landing gear and center fuselage section. Anywhere from three to 10 auxiliary fuel tanks can be installed in the belly of the airplane, giving it a maximum range of 6,196 nautical miles (eight passengers), equating to 14 hours in the air.
A stretched version called the BBJ 2 boasts 25 percent more cabin capacity, but at the price of slightly reduced range. The BBJ 2 came about in part because the BBJ doesn't have much room for baggage in the cargo hold with all those extra fuel tanks in the belly.
IN 2005, BOEING ANNOUNCED the even larger BBJ 3, based on the Next-Generation 737-900ER. The -900 has been in commercial service since 2001. The BBJ 3 has 1,120 square feet of cabin space and can fly 5,200 miles without refueling with 25 aboard at speeds up to 541 mph. Range lightly loaded is 5,435 nautical miles. More than 140 737-based BBJs have been sold. Boeing has sold seven BBJ 3s to date and delivered three to completion centers.
Why would anyone need a BBJ 3? I got the answer to that question a few years ago while touring the interior of a first-generation BBJ configured for international operations. The aircraft was divided into a large galley, crew rest area, master stateroom with double bed and bath, dining and conference area, lounge and a second lav in the aft cabin. And it felt sort of cramped. I know, ridiculous. But a 28-foot-longer cabin would have made a big difference with that layout.
Still, any of the BBJs provide space a Cessna Citation owner can only dream about. The cabin is 11 feet, seven inches wide and headroom is ample at seven feet, one inch. With that kind of space there is room for real beds, gourmet galleys, showers big enough for two and the latest and greatest cabin electronics, including 52-inch high-definition monitors and surround-sound audio equipment.
Several companies are working on systems that will allow you to control cabin lighting, temperature, audio and video through an app on your iPhone. True high-speed Internet, close to what you might get on an office T1 line, is also coming to aircraft in this category, thanks to Panasonic's Ku-band eXconnect and similar systems, which are currently flying with a handful of airlines.
All BBJs now offer a pressurization system that maintains cabin altitude at 6,500 feet, as opposed to the old system's 8,500 feet, as the aircraft cruises at 41,000 feet. The new system means that passengers arrive at their destination more alert and refreshed.
And while BBJ interiors may be a bit less ornate these days, they are hardly Spartan. Overall, customers seem to be opting for "simpler, cleaner, more modern" designs in terms of "ornaments and materials," according Michael Reichenecker, aircraft interior architect at Lufthansa Technik in Germany. But today's interiors are still full of custom-designed carpets, veneers accented with liquid metals to subtly highlight grain patterns and laser engravings in side ledges and tables. While cabin materials change little from year to year, synthetics, faux finishes and metal inlays have recently grown popular. So has color-specific LED mood lighting, which is often part of new standard designs.
As always, the key to a smooth "green" completion of a BBJ is developing and finalizing the design with the completion center early-months before the airplane arrives from the factory. Delays can be frustrating-especially if you're waiting excitedly for delivery of a BBJ 3.