Airbus's ACJ318

Want your very own late-model twinjet airliner? If so, the Airbus ACJ318 should be on your list. It features luxury seating for 18 and sleeping space for up to 11 of these passengers in a cavernous cabin that measures 70 feet long, 12 feet wide, and seven feet tall. It also has a seats-full transcontinental/transatlantic range of 3,800 nautical miles at speeds up to 470 knots. And you can buy it for the price of a new super-midsize business jet.

How is it that you can get all this airplane for such a ­comparatively small amount of money? Bad luck, mostly. You see, it’s fairly commonplace for the world’s two major passenger jet airframers—Airbus and Boeing—to stretch existing designs to create new aircraft model derivatives with larger capacities and more range. You can trace the trend back to the early 1960s. The formula is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to bring a new product to market quickly. What is less common is for the “majors” to shrink an existing design to fill a perceived market niche.

Both McDonnell Douglas (which Boeing absorbed in 1997) and Europe’s Airbus hatched plans to downsize their existing single-aisle twinjets to leverage perceived opportunities in China and those spawned by U.S. airline deregulation, which brought jet service
to an increasing number of smaller markets. But the Chinese aspirations didn’t pan out and the American dream was blown away by the emerging regional jet tsunami and the major airlines’ addiction to the hub-and-spoke airport feeder system, now the bane of the traveling public.

While praised for their durability and reliability, both the Boeing 717 and the Airbus A318 were commercial duds—victims of bad timing and changing tastes. Boeing shuttered 717 production in 2008, after an eight-year run and 156 deliveries. Officially, the A318 production line remains open, but Airbus has delivered only 80 since 2001.

There can be no doubt that the airlines disliked the A318 even more than the 717. However, Airbus had some success in marketing the aircraft as an Airbus Corporate Jet (ACJ) beginning in 2005, selling about two dozen of the total this way. It sold the last one in 2015, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

As a private jet, a used ACJ318 has distinct appeal: most are less than 10 years old, are low time, and are highly discounted. In July the asking price for one 2009 ACJ318 with only 1,500 hours’ total time—less than 200 hours a year—was just $28.95 million—and you could probably get it for less. You can find comparable ACJ318s with fresh interiors and inspections for only a million or two more. This for an airplane that sold for $68 million new stock, or around $72 million typically optioned. By any standard, this is a deal.

Discount prices are just one of many reasons to like this airplane, however. Another is that like all Airbuses, it features computerized, fly-by-wire flight controls that enhance safety and deliver a smooth ride. Pilots make control inputs through sidesticks, other cockpit controls, or autopilot. Those inputs are then calibrated and transmitted to servos that power the aircraft’s control systems and surfaces to make it turn, climb, or descend.

The ACJ318 is built to airliner standards, which means a lot of the maintenance is “on condition” as opposed to being based on the time/date intervals that still dominate in the corporate jet field. Because Airbus narrowbody aircraft are in use worldwide, moreover, finding parts, service, and pilots is a non-issue. The airframer has designated four service centers for the ACJ: Basel, Switzerland; Dallas; Doha, Qatar; and São Paulo, Brazil. The company also supports the jet through its airliner network of technical, training, and parts centers in China, France, Germany, Singapore, and the U.S. and 140 field offices worldwide. So if a problem does pop up on a trip, help isn’t far off.

Other pluses include the aforementioned cabin, which is much larger than those on even long-haul corporate jets; and the internal and external baggage holds, which combine for 430 cubic feet of capacity—more than twice that of a Gulfstream G650. Although large by bizjet standards, also, the ACJ318 has a relatively compact footprint: it’s about 103 feet long and 41 feet tall, with a 112-foot wingspan. ­Contrast this with the G650, which is about 100 feet long and 26 feet tall, with a 100-foot wingspan. Although the ACJ318’s footprint isn’t that much larger, it delivers more than twice the cabin volume—5,300 cubic feet, compared with 2,138 for the Gulfstream.

Of course, the ACJ318 is slower and has less range than the G650, but the point is that it can operate from almost anywhere you would find a large business jet. It is, for example, cleared for steep approaches into places like London City Airport. Naturally, there are some exceptions—places like New Jersey’s Teterboro, which has a 100,000-pound weight limit. Depending on the model year, a fully fueled ACJ318 can weigh up to 150,000 pounds.

Over the aircraft’s long production cycle, Airbus has offered two main variants of the ACJ318. Beginning in 2005, it hit the market badged as the “A318 Elite” (the name was changed to the ACJ318 in 2011). Customers had their choice of two cabin layouts installed by the Lufthansa Technik (LHT) completion center. While the layouts were standard, buyers had wide latitude in material and finish selection.

Customers could also opt for a completely custom interior, but the majority selected the prepackaged options. Starting in 2009, that work was transferred to LHT’s BizJet subsidiary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This kept costs and weight under control and sped the delivery process.

In 2012, Airbus began offering the “ACJ318 Enhanced,” which featured a wider variety of seat selections, a new cabin headliner, new domed ceilings, window shades, LED cabin lights, updated in-flight entertainment and cabin-management systems and interfaces and new extra-cost options, including an aft lav shower, cabin air humidification, better cabin soundproofing, a wireless local area network, cabin media lounge, and wingtip “sharklets” that improve efficiency and add range, cutting fuel consumption by 4 percent.

Typical cabin configurations feature a large forward galley with ample storage (including several closets) for multiple meal services, a forward lav, a mid-cabin lav, and a large aft lav that can be fitted with an optional shower adjacent to a private stateroom. The cabin width allows the inclusion of non-standard monuments such as round dining tables and U-shaped divans. Layouts typically divide the cabin into three or four zones.

Because of its range niche, the ACJ318 has sold primarily into Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. However, several European operators have had success with offering it for high-end charter, and in 2015 a U.S. operator began charter operations with one based in Van Nuys, California.

The airlines may not have loved this airplane, but for the right owner looking for a big, modern cabin at a relatively low price, the ACJ318 may be just the right fit.