Boeing buoyed by the Middle East big boys
US correspondent James Wynbrandt reports on the progress of the latest Boeing Business Jets, which will be making their presence felt in the Middle East's VVIP sector.
The first 747-8 Intercontinental (747-8I) that rolled off Boeing’s Everett, Washington, assembly line in late February was a VIP version ordered by the Qatari royal flight –although the Seattle manufacturer reported it was for “an undisclosed Middle Eastern customer”.
Nine of the 36 B-747-8Is on order are VIP aircraft and eight of these are bound for the Middle East.
“The Middle East has always been a huge part of our business,” said Steve Taylor, president of Boeing Business Jets (BBJ), the Boeing company’s VIP airliner division. The region accounts for “a quarter to 30%” of global sales of its four models – the eponymous Boeing Business Jet along with the 777VIP, 787VIP and 747VIP.
And, as orders for the 747VIP hint, when it gets to the “really big” VIP airplanes – the 777 through the 747 – 80 to 90% are bought by customers in the Middle East.
“The Middle East is the centre of where they’re based,” Taylor said.
While the big jets get attention commensurate with their size, the BBJ division was built on the wings of the Boeing Business Jet, its heavily modified executive variant of the 737 airframe.
BBJ was created in 1996 in a 50/50 partnership with General Electric (GE), which helped develop the CFM56-7 engines that power the Boeing Business Jet through GE’s CFM international partnership with SAFRAN.
Taking advantage of the higher useful load resulting from its low passenger load, the Boeing Business Jet has long-range fuel and navigation systems for trans-oceanic flights. It also boasts a lower cabin altitude (6,500ft vs. 8,000ft) than standard airliners, and was the first Boeing to have winglets.
The addition of the 787 and 747 to BBJ’s VIP fleet was announced in 2006. BBJ has sold more than 205 VIP airliners, in addition to executive-configured versions of the 757 and 767, which are not part of the official BBJ fleet – most of the dozen VIP 767s are based in the Middle East, Taylor said, and three 777s purchased by Middle Eastern customers are currently undergoing completions.
A selection of VIP model variants (BBJ, BBJ2, BBJ3, 737-700C; 777-200LR, 777-200ER, 777-300ER; and 787-8 and 787-9) enables customers to optimise the choice of aircraft best suited to their missions.
Given the level of interior customisation wanted in these aircraft, about a year of engineering precedes induction of the airplane on to the assembly line.
“Once they place the order, that’s when the real work starts,” Taylor said. “There’s an amazing variety of things people have on board these airplanes. When you get to an airplane that size, it’s really a bank canvas.”
And when they’re completed, on-board interior embellishments may include canvases that are anything but blank. “Some of these airplanes have spectacular art masterpieces displayed that can be worth more than the airplane,” Taylor said.
Clients typically come to Seattle several times during construction to see work in progress and some buyers position a representative at the factory full time to monitor construction.
While both BBJ and rival Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ) are discreet about how their VIP aircraft are outfitted, anecdotes of customer requests include an elevator to enter the aircraft and stairs to access stables built in the baggage hold, enabling the owner to visit his horses while in flight.
All Boeing VIP aircraft are delivered green to one of Boeing’s 16 authorised completion centres in the United States, Europe, New Zealand and China, where the highly customised deluxe interiors are installed.
Tastes and preferences for design and furnishings are “absolutely different” from region to region, Taylor said. Middle Eastern customers, for example, typically fly with a larger team and have significantly more seats than a traditional North American VIP airplane. A rear section with business class airliner seats for staff is common.
Given that preference, it’s not surprising the first VIP-8I is at a Boeing facility in Wichita, where it’s being outfitted with an Aeroloft, an eight-cabinette sleeping area above the main deck’s headliner developed specifically for the -8I by Greenpoint Technologies or Kirkland, Washington, an authorised completion centre.
“It’s like a Pullman car on the railways of yore,” Taylor said. Three of the first eight VIP -8Is have been signed on for the Aeroloft modification and another two may also possibly sign on, according to BBJ. Installation takes approximately six months.
Greenpoint has delivered 17 BBJ completions on almost all Boeing models and currently has “multiple wide-body and narrow-body VIP Boeing aircraft in various completion stages,” according to Christine Hadley, Greenpoint’s manager, sales and marketing.
“We can’t share the most interesting innovations due to proprietary agreements,” Hadley said. “However, we have overcome interesting obstacles, such as an excursion into a remote Asian jungle to find rare wood befitting a king. We have also installed painted artwork by royal artisans that have passed flammability testing.”
Lufthansa Technik will handle installation of the interior of this first -8I at its Hamburg completion centre. BBJ is in the process of delivering three-D engineering data for the -8I to completion centres.
Unlike dimensions in the 787, which are constant because the aircraft is entirely designed using three-D technologies, Taylor noted the 747 is essentially a hand-made airplane. Its minor differences in dimensions must be accounted for in designing and installing the interior. Some completion centres use stereo scanning technologies to get exact interior dimensions.
To promote sales, Boeing has six VIP specialists. Most cover vast swaths of territory – South America and Asia; North America; Europe and Russia; Southeast Asia and Australia. Robert Johnstone handles only the Middle East. “The joke is he lives in terminal five in Heathrow somewhere between Seattle and Riyadh,” Taylor said, adding that the company also keeps in close contact with existing customers. “We don’t have to stand on a street corner with a sign that says, ‘Boeing’. We know the candidates.”
Nonetheless ACJ, Boeing’s competitor in this market, is hardly ceding the region. ACJ garnered lots of attention with its sale of a VIP A380, the world’s largest airliner, to Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in 2009, though the jet has yet to emerge from completion.
ACJ has been selling corporate jets in the Middle East since the mid-1980s and the region is its largest corporate jet market, said David Velupillai, ACJ’s marketing director.
But Boeing is about to seize the VIP spotlight once again. Three of its new state-of-the-art, composite wing 787 Dreamliners have just been placed for sale with BBJ. The three come from the fleet of six Dreamliners used for the 787’s certification programme.
“We think the best target for those airplanes is a VIP customer,” Taylor said, noting that early airplanes had an empty weight a little higher and maximum take-off weight a little lower than the certificated version.
While that’s a deterrent to a commercial operator, for a VIP customer, there’s such phenomenal performance, and since you can’t use all the weight anyway, with more than an 8,000nm range, the penalty isn’t very significant.
Another reason a VIP customer might want one of these three flight test aircraft is that production of the 787 is spoken for until 2020 (some for VIP variants). “The VIP customer has no patience,” Taylor said.
Of the three available Dreamliners, Taylor expects “at least one or two of them to end up in the Mid East”.