“Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them. ”
Dassault Falcon’s Falcon 900EX
More than a decade ago, I was standing on a ramp at a California airport with an investment banker and his Dassault Falcon 900. Between incessant taps on his Blackberry, he was discussing the airplane and how he used it.
The night before, he said, he and his team had arrived back from China–a 14-hour flight, counting the fuel stop and crew change in Hawaii. They had all kinds of unapproved things aboard to make the trip more comfortable, including loose coolers with extra beverages and sandwiches plus sheets of plywood and rolls of memory foam to change the seats into impromptu beds.
When not dispatched on business, the airplane saw charter duty or transported the principal’s family, including small children, to rural domestic locales with short runways. As you might expect with this kind of use, the airplane’s cabin was somewhat the worse for wear. Actually, it looked like the inside of a family’s sedan after six college kids had used it to drive from Chicago to Florida on spring break.
Given his success, this man certainly could have afforded the larger airplane with longer legs that his missions seemed to require, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He intended to refurbish his 900 and keep it for many more years. No other airplane, he said, combined the 900’s unique combination of cabin comfort, mission versatility and favorable operating economics. Over the years, I’ve encountered many 900 owners who feel the same way about their airplanes—for good reason.
More than 25 years after it first entered service, the Falcon 900 remains in a class by itself; from its three-engine layout to its advanced computer design to its construction using lightweight alloys and composites, the 900 series is truly peerless. Dassault has made many improvements to the aircraft in terms of range, avionics and engine power, but the guts of the airplane and its value proposition remain largely unchanged: the trijet design lets you go where twinjets cannot and the lightweight construction means you burn less fuel while doing so.
A new copy of the latest iteration, the 900LX, will set you back nearly $42 million. However, its predecessor, the 900EX, offers much of the same utility. Dassault produced it from 1996 to 2010, and used prices start around $14 million.
For that you get a lot of airplane: cabin seating for 12 to 14, a range of 4,630 nautical miles (four passengers, NBAA IFR reserves) and the ability to use much shorter runways and have much greater peace of mind when traversing large bodies of water than you can with comparable twinjets.
The standup, flat-floor cabin yields 1,264 cubic feet of space and is 77 inches wide. The optional forward crew lavatory cuts down on galley space but is a must-have for longer missions. The galley is adequate: it offers hot and cold running water, a convection/microwave oven, ice drawer and stowage. Eliminating a forward closet can clear the way for an optional third crew seat. Typical cabin layouts include a forward club-four grouping followed by four smaller seats arrayed around a hi-lo conference table opposite a credenza. Behind that there is room for more single seats or a pair of three-place divans. This aft part of the cabin can be closed off with a solid pocket door, creating a private suite. Behind this space you will find the generous aft lavatory with in-flight, walk-through access to the baggage compartment. The 900 is pressurized to maintain a sea-level cabin through 25,000 feet, significantly reducing fatigue.
The EX arrived from the factory with several improvements, chief among them the new Honeywell TFE731-60 engines with autothrottles and Primus 2000 avionics. The engines weighed a few hundred pounds more than their predecessors but provided 500 pounds of additional thrust each (to 5,000 pounds each). The EX also featured more fuel stored in two belly tanks, one near the forward wing box and the other in the aft, which collectively add nearly an hour of endurance. However, that forward belly tank was the subject of a European airworthiness directive that required a modification, often referred to as the “dry bay mod,” to structurally strengthen the area to protect it in the event of a main-landing-gear collapse. Dassault has issued a corresponding service bulletin. Doing the mod at the same time as the six-year “C Check” major inspection can be a real time and money saver. This is also the optimum time to add winglets.
Aviation Partners’ High Mach Blended Winglets are standard equipment on new Falcon 2000 and 900 series aircraft and available for retrofit on older models, including the 900EX. The winglets cut time to climb, smooth out turbulence, reduce drag, increase range by 250 miles and cut overall fuel burn by 5 to 7 percent, depending on phase of flight. Base price for the kit is $575,000 plus installation, according to Gary Dunn, the company’s vice president of sales. Installation time is approximately five weeks, which is why it makes sense to add the winglets when you have the airplane down for other reasons. Approximately 40 of the 900s have been fitted with the winglets since they became available in 2011. Dunn notes that 25 percent of those modifications were made when an aircraft changed hands and was undergoing other work.
In 2003, Dassault began offering the EX with the new EASy digital cockpit, which is based on the point-and-click architecture of personal computers. EASy is a definite advance in the way it presents data, improves situational awareness and lessens pilot workload. It is also modular, meaning it can easily be upgraded with next-generation air-traffic-control technology and the ability to perform precision GPS-based approaches. “It gives the pilots more and better information and management,” said Mark Verdesco, director of preowned sales for Dassault Falcon Jet. The Falcon 900EX EASy command a substantial premium over a straight EX—as much as $3 million, according to the aircraft valuation service Vref. Currently, an upgrade option is not available for owners of a straight EX to convert to the EASy cockpit, but Verdesco said Dassault is considering whether such an offering would make sense.
Otherwise, aside from refreshing the paint and fabrics and updating the in-flight entertainment and information system with goodies such as digital monitors and satphone/Internet, 900EX owners need to do little to these airplanes, a testament to the strength of the original airplane’s design. Perhaps because of its military fighter heritage, Dassault has always approached the corporate market differently, with aircraft that are overbuilt and brilliantly engineered, feature the latest technology and are fun to fly. Vive la difference.
One Maintenance Facility’s Experience
Standard Aero’s Springfield, Illinois facility specializes in Falcon maintenance and modification services and sees 25 to 50 Falcon 900s each year, according to Chuck Siehr, director of modification sales and customer service. Siehr said Falcon 900 customers typically opt for a wide array of upgrades in conjunction with major maintenance and inspections.
While a standard six-year “C check” inspection can take four to six weeks at a cost of $300,000 to $700,000, Siehr said most customers don’t stop there. Often, Falcon 900 owners opt to update the avionics, repaint the airplane, refresh the interior with new leather and LED lighting, add cabin soundproofing and upgrade the inflight entertainment and cabin-management systems. Collectively these improvements can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million, depending on the systems and quality of the materials and equipment selected, Siehr said. Doing the C check and major modifications together can increase aircraft downtime to 12 to 16 weeks.
With more customers using their airplanes internationally, Siehr said, he is seeing demand for upgraded, full-berthing seats with leg rests. He said his company even installed an exercise bicycle in the aft cabin for one CEO. On these longer flights, a quieter cabin can make a big difference, and a noise-reduction system can cut interior noise by between three and seven decibels. Siehr said approximately 30 percent of his customers decide to add it.
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