They are the ultimate status symbols – Airbus and Boeing widebodies, purpose-built as residences in the sky for some of the world's most powerful plutocrats and leaders. Almost every business aviation show sees the unveiling of the latest cabin concepts for these twin-aisle types, with boardrooms, bedrooms and bathrooms fit for the most discerning jet-setting billionaire or head of state.
However, for the big two airframers – and the handful of completion centres able to handle such complex projects – orders have almost dried up after a flurry five to 10 years ago, which saw demand spike for the Boeing Business Jets 747-8 and 787, and even the sale of an A380 to a Saudi prince. Seattle has three 787s on its backlog, and Airbus has one commitment, dating back several years, for an ACJ350.
With the widebody segment in the doldrums, it is new-generation narrowbodies that are making the running for the completions specialists. With buyers holding off from purchasing ACJ320-family jets and BBJ 737s until the Neo and Max versions arrived on the market, at least four completion facilities now have a steady trickle of contracts for green aircraft over the next few years.
However, it has come too late for at least one centre. A year ago, US maintenance, repair and overhaul firm StandardAero announced it was closing its completion arm for large VIP aircraft. Dallas-based Associated Air Centre shut its doors at the end of 2017, with the company saying a "limited pipeline of opportunities" meant the business was "no longer an economically-viable option".
Boeing was in September on the verge of delivering its first two BBJ Max 8s to completion centres – understood to be Comlux, in Indianapolis, and Jet Aviation, in Basel, Switzerland. They are part of a 20-strong backlog for the re-engined narrowbody that splits into 13 Max 8s, four Max 7s and three Max 9s. The first Max 9 will follow next year, and the BBJ version of the smallest variant, the Max 7, in 2021.
Boeing's latest sale – announced at July's Farnborough air show – was for a Max 7 to Singapore's Seacons Trading. While this year's tally of five – including two NGs – is unlikely to reach the 16 ordered in 2017, Boeing Business Jets president Greg Laxton says the unit is "chasing several other opportunities". However, he admits that, as with widebodies, the market for narrowbodies is "very cyclical".
Airbus, meanwhile, has six orders for the ACJ320neo and three for the ACJ319neo, but has not added any this year. The airframer will deliver its first ACJ320neo – with CFM International Leap-1A engines – for UK-based launch customer Acropolis Aviation to completion centre AMAC Aerospace in Basel, before the end of the year.
A second ACJ320neo will arrive at Comlux by the end of the year, with the first green delivery of the smaller ACJ319 early next year. German charter and management company K-5 Aviation has appointed Dutch firm Fokker Techniek to outfit the aircraft on behalf of its unnamed owner.
Winning the first ACJ320neo last year was a coup for AMAC, a relatively new player in completions, although with an impressive scorecard. The firm launched in 2007, next door to rival and Basel veteran Jet Aviation, and opened its fourth hangar at the airport in 2016. AMAC was recently approved as a completion centre for the ACJ350, a type for which Airbus does not yet have any orders.
Another up-and-coming name in the sector is Comlux Completions. In 2008, the Swiss-based charter company bought a defunct Indianapolis MRO outfit that specialised in Bombardiers and embarked on an ambitious project to develop a new facility, capable of housing one widebody and four narrowbodies, and an expertise in Airbus and Boeing completions.
The company began its first narrowbody project in 2010 and carried out five green completions on Airbus and Boeing in its first five years. "We are the only ones to deliver that level of success in the history of the industry, and at a time when the market was declining," remarks Comlux Completions chief executive Scott Meyer.
That tally has now risen to 11, and the company has three more aircraft to arrive in the next 12 months: the BBJ Max 8, and two ACJ320neos. Three more will follow during 2020: a third ACJ320neo and two more BBJ Max aircraft. After a slow three years for the industry, "business is starting to come back," says Meyer, "and we’re starting to capture it."
Comlux Completions is helped, of course, by the fact that its sister charter outfit owns and operates its own corporate airliners. It has two BBJ Max aircraft on order, although the Swiss company says it may offer them for sale. Of three ACJ320s on order, one has been sold, one is being offered for sale, and the third will stay in the Comlux fleet.
However, Meyer is keen to stress that in-house contracts are not enough to sustain the completions business, and Comlux, like other centres, has had to manage the leaner periods between green projects by fighting hard for heavy maintenance and refurbishment work, and by developing exclusive technologies. "We’ve done a lot of things to stay viable," he says.
Running a successful completions operation is also about not taking on too much when times are good, insists Meyer. "We have limited our capacity with intent to three or four narrowbody projects a year. We kept small when we could have got bigger and invested when it was tempting to stop spending money. We are trying to deliver a market standard in quality, not quantity," he says.
Meyer also defends Comlux's decision to set up in Indianapolis, which, unlike Hamburg and Basel, is not known as a centre of expertise in business jet completions. The city was historically a centre of the US auto industry and is peppered with upholsterers and sheet metal specialists. "There is a strong heritage of craftsmanship here," he says.
There is also plenty of graduate expertise. "There is no other US city that you can draw a 3h ring around and hit 20 universities," says Meyer. "It means we are growing the next generation of talent. We have a governor and a local population that wants us here, whereas in New York or Miami, we wouldn't be on the radar."
One company that can draw on decades of local experience in business jet interiors is Jet Aviation. Based in Basel since the 1960s, the General Dynamics subsidiary prides itself on its vertically integrated system, with departments specialising in upholstery to cabinet making. "We really focus on the craftsmanship," says Neil Boyle, senior vice-president completions. "With us, it's creating a piece of art."
For Boyle, the arrival of the Neo and the Max on the corporate market has been extremely welcome. Jet Aviation is working on its first Max 8 completion, and "right behind that are two Neos" – all three will be on site within six months. However, he says Jet Aviation has also had to deal with the recent downturn in completion work by bringing more aircraft in for maintenance and refurbishment.
Computer-aided design packages have also aided efficiency by reducing downtime for clients and allowing more of the completion to be carried out before the aircraft leaves the manufacturer's production line. "We ask do we really need the airplane on site," says Boyle. "Can the work be done upfront?"
Lufthansa Technik is Europe's other major completions house and its senior director VIP and special mission aircraft Wieland Timm is also optimistic about the pipeline of potential Neo and Max contracts. "For the next two or three years, the workload will be good. There will be a significant amount of contracts available."
During the recent lull in green completion work, the engineering offshoot of the German flag-carrier has been focusing heavily on cabin upgrades, particularly installing connectivity packages, which often involves fitting a new antenna and radome. "Some of the upgrades we have done are almost – budget-wise – like a green completion," he says.
On the widebody side, Lufthansa Technik will receive its first BBJ 787 later this year. It has also been appointed an approved outfitter for the ACJ350, and has developed an interior concept for the type, dubbed Welcome Home, that includes flexible areas suitable for private or family time. Timm believes that "maybe next year" the first ACJ350 and perhaps BBJ 777X completion contracts will be up for grabs.
"In terms of widebodies, there are not many green completion projects on the market, but our share is good, and we continue to win contracts on used aircraft, including A340s and 777s," he says. Many customers are opting for conversions of former airliners into VIP aircraft, he maintains. "This market is growing. There is a limitation when it comes to individuals who are willing to buy a new aircraft."
Jet Aviation, also officially approved as an ACJ350 completions house, will open its second widebody-capable hangar at Basel later this year, 10 years after building the 10,000m2 (108,000ft2) Hangar 7, one of the few completion spaces in the world able to house an A380. The new addition comes in at just under 9,000m2 and Boyle describes it as "a very big deal for us".
In May, Jet Aviation announced its second BBJ 787 completion contract – it was the first interiors specialist to take delivery of the business jet version of the Dreamliner in 2015. Boyle says research and development work begun in 2013 into working with composite materials means the company can use this "innovative proprietary technology" to integrate a cabin without modifying the fuselage.
In May the company also announced that it had developed a VVIP solution for the ACJ380. Although the only A380 to be sold as a business jet ended up being returned to the market without being completed, the company is pressing ahead, with Sparfell & Partners, Winch Design, and DS Aviation, to establish a supplemental type certificate for an ACJ380 interior.
Boyle says: "We learned a lot" from preparation work the company did ahead of a possible bid for the superjumbo deal "seven or eight years ago". He adds: "We have the hangars and the expertise to do it. It's definitely achieveable and we would certainly entertain taking it on. It would be an interesting project."
Airbus formally launched the ACJ330neo last year but has not yet received any orders. It is also offering range as the main selling point, with the aircraft having the capability to operate up to 9,400nm (17,400km) carrying 25 passengers. The Rolls-Royce Trent 7000-powered corporate aircraft is developed from both the A330-900 passenger jet, and its smaller but longer-range sibling, the A330-800.
Although there have been few sales of widebody business jets in recent years, Boeing Business Jets' Laxton says the unit is "chasing some opportunities". The not-yet-launched BBJ 777X, in particular, shows much promise as a head of state transport, replacing the ubiquitous 747 as the go-to aircraft for governments, he believes.
"Four engines has always been considered safer in that market, but we will see it move towards two engines," he says. "The great advantage of the 777X is that you suddenly have an airplane that can make it nonstop anywhere on the planet. That is a huge attraction for certain heads of state."