The rise of the VIP airliner
At the recent Latin American Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition (LABACE) in Sao Paulo, Boeing Business Jets were keen to promote the full range of corporate and VIP aircraft it offers in the very-large sector.
To date, Boeing says it has sold over sold 250 VIP aircraft to governments and to ultra high-net-worth individuals.
According to Mark Briffa, the chief executive officer of Air Partner, it is not a rise in UHNWIs fuelling new VIP airliner sales, at least not directly. Instead it is demand from corporate incentives, sports teams and the VIP supporters that follow them.
Air Partner, one of the largest charter brokers in the world, say that between the beginning of 2014 and the end of 2016 it saw a 38% increase in VIP airliner requests over the previous three year period.
Briffa says that that this is partly due to improving economic fortunes in Air Partner’s key markets, but other factors have also contributed to the rise.
Part of that reason could be the increasing number of refitted airliners entering the market the VIP charter market. For a charter operator looking to add larger aircraft to their fleet, converting an airliner into VIP configuration is an attractive option, especially as the conversion process typically takes a lot less time that placing an order for a new aircraft. It is also a cheaper option.
These aircraft can boast ‘private jet’ levels of comfort with a baggage capacity and a sense of space inside that the largest private jets can’t match. Because the aircraft were originally built to withstand multiple hours and cycles every day, when they are converted into VIP configuration the hourly operating rate is comparable to purpose built business jets half their size.
The business looks set to grow much further as more and more potential customers and operators discover new possibilities with this kind of charter.
Aircraft brokers at the Biggin Hill Air Charter Expo (ACE) earlier in September largely agree with Briffa’s comments.
One of the aircraft on display at ACE was the Titan Airways Airbus A318, an ex-British Airways aircraft with 32 seats. Titan are targeting groups such as music artists and their entourages, as well as smaller company groups of between 20 to 32 people.
Alex Harrington, commercial director of Titan Airways, says that one of the problems of operating a niche aircraft like the Airbus A318 is getting flight deck crew. Most pilots with the experience needed to fly these aircraft prefer to fly for airlines with regular routes that allow them to return home every night. Titan requires flexibility because flight crew might need to spend nights in unusual locations rarely visited by commercial airlines, and might only get home a few days a week.
Another aircraft on display was a converted Boeing 737-300VIP owned by Cello Aviation. The aircraft was previously operated by Maersk Air of Denmark, but following conversion it now has only 62 seats.
A 737-300 would originally been configured for between 140 to 150 seats. The Titan aircraft is fitted in a conventional airline configuration, but with fewer, wider seats and more legroom. The aircraft targets larger groups such as football, rugby, motor racing, horse racing or hockey teams, where more than 30 people need to travel. With English football and rugby teams competing in European competitions, Titan say the aircraft is ideal for moving teams around the UK and Europe.
Perhaps the ultimate rock band transport though is a Boeing 747 Jumbo jet. During a recent Iron Maiden tour, lead singer flew the band around the world on a Boeing 747. The specially painted 747-400 used the callsign Ed Force One on the band’s 2016 Book of Souls tour.
Although smaller than a 747, the Rolling Stones will be using a Boeing 767VIP aircraft during a European tour in September and October this year.
As airlines begin their transitions to newer generation aircraft, especially in the narrowbody market with aircraft like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families, there is a clear opportunity for charter operators to pick up aircraft on the pre-owned market and convert them at a reasonable price into VIP airliners.
The charter market for these VIP airliners has been increasing, and recent acquisitions by operators like Titan show a belief that this will just keep growing.