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Uncommon sense

IT MAKES FOR GREAT copy, but does it really make sense for two great business-jet manufacturers to distract attendees with an old-fashioned slinging match at their industry's most important annual event?

The Gulfstream V and the Bombardier Global Express, when they enter service, will be far more than extremely conspicuous consumer items. These are simply, the most specialised and competent travel tools ever placed in the hands of the elite of global business. Their competence extends far beyond providing a luxurious and comfortable way of travelling - although, in absolute terms, they are probably surpassed in many ways by the best of airline first-class travel.

What these new aircraft will provide, for the first time, is the ability of a business jet to fly long-range-airliner point-to-point distances. Added to the traditional business-jet virtue of making those points the ones between which the traveller wishes to travel, rather than the ones between which the airlines force him or her to travel, this ability to move those points farther apart should make these new aircraft beyond compare or reproach.

That, alas, seems not to be the case. Their respective manufacturers have devoted a great deal of print and airtime in the last week to the cause of doing each other and their products down. Some of the arguments are arcanely technical; some of them are almost childishly trivial. Few will have advanced the cause of their particular proponent's business; none can have enhanced the reputations of the manufacturers in particular or the industry in general.

If the less emotive but more measurable, of the two manufacturers' claims are to be accepted at face value, neither of these companies needed a boost from mud slinging anyway. By all accounts, Gulfstream needed to sell about 60 of its GVs at $35 million apiece, to break even on the programme. It appears to have achieved that, even before the first prototype has flown. Equally, Bombardier says that it needs to sell about 100 of its more technically complex Global Express to cover its costs. It appears to be over halfway there, with months to go before the roll out of its contender.

In any industry, those would be exceptional performances: by the standards of the aerospace industry, they border on the miraculous. Imagine if Boeing had sold the 350 aircraft it reputedly needs to sell to break even on the 777 before the first one had flown, or if McDonnell Douglas had sold 200 MD-11s in the same time. Even before any of their champions' performance claims can be tested, these two programmes rank among the most successful ever - and that is definitely something to be admired rather than trivialised.

The argument over which of these aircraft is "best" has about as much relevance as do similar debates over motor cars or computers. Although a Rolls-Royce car may be technically and dynamically eclipsed by German competitors, there are owners to whom a Rolls is far preferable to a cheaper Mercedes Benz or BMW. An Apple Macintosh computer may be faster and more obviously clever than an IBM clone, but there are users for whom the IBM operating system will remain the most attractive option.

In reality, these aircraft fit into a tiny niche, with probably no more than 200 customers who will pay the price of a 100-seat regional airliner to buy an aircraft which can carry half-a-dozen passengers and a crew of four the equivalent of New York to Tokyo. That the industry has decided that this is a market, which will support two contenders and no more is to be applauded. Two contenders give a choice, and each has a real chance of making a profit.

The whole matter is best left at that, as befits the cream of the business-jet market. You would not expect to see the presidents of Boeing and Airbus squabbling in public over specifications and performance claims: they would be far too busy seeing to the needs of their customers - would they not?

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