Airbus plans to deliver the first copies of its next-generation Airbus Corporate Jet (ACJ) later this year. The ACJneo is a derivative of commercial jet models that have been coming to market since January 2016 and that reflect the airlines’ slavish devotion to finding new frontiers of efficiency. Per-passenger-seat-mile cost is the premier measurement for this doctrine and the aircraft with the lowest number wins. Besides delighting passengers with daily recreations of the Walmart Black Friday experience at 37,000 feet, airlines are constantly in search of ways to burn less fuel.
So, in 2010, when Airbus announced the “new engine option” (aka “neo”) program for its narrow-body jets—the A321, A320, and the A319—concurrent with the promise of 15 to 20 percent fuel-efficiency improvement, lower emissions, and less noise, the airlines and their leasing companies ran to it at full gait, ordering more than 5,200 of the airplanes through October 2017. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this development, consider the following: since 1988, Airbus has delivered around 7,500 legacy narrow-body aircraft and since 1974 it has sold around 2,070 wide bodies. “Neo” became the future of the company. Airbus and Boeing attract much attention with prestige programs like the former’s A380 jumbo jet and the latter’s 787 “Dreamliner,” but it is the sale of the lowly, ubiquitous narrow-bodies that largely pays the bills.
Airbus opted to offer customers two engine choices. The first is the Leap-1A from CFM International, a 42-year-old consortium between GE Aviation and France’s Safran that spawned the enormously successful CFM56 series of jet engines. The Leap builds on the CFM56’s technology but makes important improvements, including a redesigned combustor, more advanced materials such as ceramics and carbon fiber, a bigger intake fan, a more complex turbine setup, and the ability to operate at higher temperatures and higher compression ratios that increase the engine’s thermal efficiency.
What all this means is more thrust with less fuel. By building on the CFM56, the consortium is basically offering airlines a known quantity, and that is reflected in their engine preference to date, with the Leap specified on more than 60 percent of neo orders.
A few of the Leap engines delivered to date have experienced problems related to peeling of the ceramic coating on the engine shrouds, but that is relatively minor compared with the teething pains of the program’s other engine choice, the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G geared turbofan. A geared turbofan (GTF) relies on reduction gears at the front of the engine to slow the fan, making it potentially even more efficient than the Leap. Slowing the fan speed also reduces noise and vibration. However, this can require a larger fan than a conventional design. The fan on the GTF for the neo is in fact three inches larger than the one on the Leap. While GTFs are not new—they were previously employed on the Lycoming ALF502 and the Honeywell TFE731 for commuter and business jets—using them for engines this size and a program with such breadth presents technical challenges and risks that manifested themselves on early deliveries. By this summer more than 40 percent of the neos that had been delivered with GTFs were grounded during one week due to faulty oil seals, combuster liners that degraded faster than expected, main gearbox failure, and a shortage of fan blades.
Airbus CFO Harald Wilhelm publicly bemoaned the “number of in-service issues” with the engine. “Demonstrated performance with the engine is not satisfactory,” he said last summer. Even a senior Pratt executive, Rick Deurloo, vice president of sales and marketing for commercial engines, was forced to concede that the problems were “causing a lot of unplanned [engine] removals by our customers.” And in late October, Greg Hayes, the CEO of parent company United Technologies, acknowledged that GTF problems were causing too many aircraft to be “on the ground for unacceptably long periods.” Pratt has been working to fix these problems, however. The number of grounded A320neos has dropped by half since December, and Airbus now delivers as standard the two fixes for problems suffered by the engines.
To date, Airbus has orders for six ACJ320neos and three of the shorter ACJ319neos. The aircraft will come with the customers’ choice of engines and wingtip sharklets that cut drag and improve fuel efficiency. While Airbus does not reveal exact prices, a company spokesman said the tab will be around $95 million for the ACJ320neo and $85 million for the ACJ319neo. That’s with an average interior. Still, with a watchful eye on costs, you should be able to buy either aircraft and complete it with a nice cabin for under $100 million.
Both models offer fly-by-wire controls, advanced avionics, and significant range improvements over their legacy predecessors. The ACJ320neo can transport 25 passengers more than 6,000 nautical miles, a big jump from the 4,300-nautical-mile, eight-passenger range of the ACJ320. It can fly nonstop from London to Johannesburg or Los Angeles to Tokyo and typically accommodates 19 to 25 passengers.
The ACJ319neo cabin is commonly configured for 19 passengers, and the aircraft has a range of 6,750 nautical miles—more than 600 nautical miles better than the legacy ACJ319, with eight passengers, albeit at a relatively pokey Mach 0.82. But you’re paying for comfort, not speed. The cabins on the ACJ320neo and ACJ319neo are about 12 feet wide; the former is about 90 feet long, while the latter is 78 feet long.
Last year, Airbus unveiled an interior concept for the ACJ320neo called “Melody” that features light colors, curved lines, an acoustically tuned cabin with three 65-inch curved entertainment monitors, an oversized main lounge, and a real kitchen. The Atelier Pagnani Automobili design house has schemed an ACJ319 interior with a “sky ceiling,” a generous amount of cabin curves, and cabin partitions that can change from clear to opaque electronically. The layout of the 950-square-foot cabin features separate cinema, dining, and lounge areas. An improved environmental-control system lowers the cabin altitude to 6,400 feet at cruise flight on both aircraft. Better efficiency means both airplanes can carry less fuel and that leaves a lot more room for baggage: 650 cubic feet on the ACJ320neo and 222 cubic feet on the ACJ319neo.
Whichever neo narrow body you choose, you can be assured of lower fuel burns, the latest technology, plenty of room to stretch out, and an overall level of decadent comfort that only airplanes this size can provide. Walmart Black Friday they’re not.