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Me & My Aircraft: Mustang enjoys premier status in Europe but faces a growing Phenom challenge
The Mustang has become established as a premier operating VLJ in Europe but a major challenge could lie ahead when rivals such as the Phenom 100 start to come into operation and seriously compete for a market share on price, service, performance and greater comfort.

The Mustang has become established as a premier operating VLJ in Europe but a major challenge could lie ahead when rivals such as the Phenom 100 start to come into operation and seriously compete for a market share on price, service, performance and greater comfort.

The Phenom has already begun to arrive in Europe and the Middle East, and along with Diamond Aircraft's D-Jet will provide the Mustang with growing competition. From October this year FlairJet, which is backed by three London-based QCs, is managing two Phenom 100s at the UK's Oxford airport, prior to the arrival of its first purchased aircraft in 2012.

But the first European registered Phenom 100 jet landed at Ronaldsway airport on the Isle of Man after flying from Sao Paulo, Brazil, in May. It is owned by Midland Aviation Limited.

George Galanopoulos, md of the UK's London Executive Aviation which plans to operate both Mustangs and Phenoms, says the company is satisfied with main-tenance support for the Mustang but with dispatch reliability there were various teething problems that Cessna were "very slow to deal with."

He adds: "Cessna needs to work a lot harder in its product support, especially in view of new competition from manufacturers such as Embraer that offer an excellent service."

But Galanopoulos is very satisfied with the operating capability and value and says that the best thing about the Mustang is the operating economics. "The most desirable upgrade," he adds, "would be slightly longer range and payload."

LEA is among a growing number of charter operators in Europe that have pioneered the introduction of the VLJ. But, though operators now feel that the private charter market will recover gradually over the next 18 months or so, the global economic recession has lessened the impact of VLJs in terms of encouraging the wider take-up of business aviation.

However, there are a significant numbers of Continental European and Middle East operators claiming worthwhile business or citing growing potential, including Austria's GlobeAir and VIF Luftfahrt; Belgium's ASL and Flyinggroup; the Czech Republic's Grossmann Jet Service; Germany's Triple Alpha; Italy's Delta Aerotaxi and ItAli Airlines; Lebanon's Open Sky Aviation; the Netherlands' Sky-Taxi; Portugal's Helibravo and Switzerland's Your Jet. The UK has a number of operators convinced that the VLJ has potential including Blink, LEA, SaxonAir Charter, Skydrift and FlairJet.

Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, LEA ceo, says: "We know that not everything is sweet and rosy in the VLJ 'air taxi' garden but we also know that these aircraft are a very important element of business aviation. You have to be realistic. It is impractical to expect to achieve 1,000 hours a year on these short-range aircraft, as was once hoped. That's the equivalent of five hours every working day, for 48 weeks a year. If we could achieve that kind of usage, we'd be able to retire soon! But that doesn't mean the VLJ revolution has failed. "Over the last 20 months we have achieved an average of 360 hours per annum per aircraft and, especially with the economic downturn, we're very happy with these figures. These aircraft have a vital role to play in the future development of our sector."

He says: "The overall reliability of the Mustang has improved with later deliveries, as you might expect."

Galanopoulos adds: "CSE Citation Centre, based in Bournemouth in the UK, provides us with great support. The aircraft has been designed for simple maintenance and the 400-hour maintenance intervals help reduce time spent ferrying the aircraft backwards and forwards to and from the maintenance base. The dispatch reliability is reasonable, although there are ongoing issues like the aircraft battery, which has caused some engine hot starts. We have made Cessna aware of this matter and we hope the issue will be resolved soon.

"Cessna has good availability of spares for all their aircraft. The Mustang is no exception. But the shipping of spares from the US could greatly improve and should happen overnight, not over two days. We're continuing to discuss this matter with Cessna. The aircraft offers reasonable value for money, although of course with the large drop in used aircraft values, the Mustang has become a less attractive proposition for new buyers. Nonetheless, the low operating costs will still keep the Mustang ahead of the competition."

Galanopoulos says that LEA would love to see an increase in the range and payload of the Mustang. "Flying from the UK, with a payload of four passengers, the Mustang is just capable of reaching parts of the Mediterranean, mid-Spain and Italy. An increase in range of, say, 150-200 miles would therefore be highly desirable."

Margetson-Rushmore says the Mustang is making a positive contribution to conventional air chartering, offering low-cost travel that ensures the industry remains relevant despite the weak economy. "We have always believed in the logic of smaller business jets, but with 14 years' charter experience we have a good sense of when customers want to fly," Margetson-Rushmore maintains. "They want to leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, and hopefully they'll make extra stops during the day. But that is a world away from a high utilisation model that will rack up 1,200 hours per aircraft in a year. To us, a more realistic target is 400-600 hours, and does that make you an air taxi firm or just a charter operator? We find it hard to know where a line could be drawn."

But he says the Mustang has enabled LEA to cut charter rates by up to 40 per cent, a major saving by any standard. "If nothing else, these smaller aircraft have substantially enhanced the competitiveness of conventional air charter and I am convinced they will play an important role in expanding the charter market in the years to come."

Margetson-Rushmore adds: "The low operating cost of the Mustang means that we can now offer jet charter prices to people in the Oxford region for the equivalent cost of a turboprop. The Mustang is perfect for the kind of short haul flights with one to three passengers that dominate European business aviation."

Popular Mustang destinations include Dublin, Paris and Geneva, although one LEA Mustang has travelled as far as Tel Aviv.

Triple Alpha's Hans Pfeiffer has chalked up more than 750 hours on the Mustang since January last year. He says: "We had some issues with the software in the early days. These were resolved with revision 16 of the Garmin software and the Mustang now works just fine."

Pfeiffer says that the Mustang is the ideal aircraft for small families to go on holiday and good for the needs of a few executives working to busy schedules in Europe. "The average flight we make for our clients is around 80 minutes as Duesseldorf is within reach of most of the European capitals where our clients wish to do business. The Mustang has the advantage that it can land on a very short runway and this makes it easy to land our clients very near where they want to go. The Mustang also enables us to be very competitive on the charter price and attract clients who would not otherwise consider a private jet.

"Once they enjoy the advantages of the Mustang, many think in terms of chartering a larger jet. We are in financial discussions to bring two more Mustangs into service later in 2009 or early in 2010. Triple Alpha is sticking to its aircraft management business model which has served us and our clients well."

Pfeiffer says that Triple Alpha, in whom Ocean Sky has purchased a majority stake (EBAN September 2009), will look at adding the Phenom 100 to its fleet. "To my mind this aircraft is a trade-up from the Mustang. Some may class the Phenom as a VLJ but I regard it as a light jet with the additional room that will appeal to many clients introduced to private jets through the Mustang. The Phenom 100 and future aircraft to come including the Hondajet, should not be classified as VLJs as they are both bigger and more capable like the CitationJet or CJ1."

He adds: "There needs to be a replacement for the popular older four-seat configured CitationJets. A jet of similar size that comes with modern design and avionics will find a ready market."

But he says that the Mustang performs far better than the very conservative aircraft manual promises. "The hype that came along with the introduction of the VLJs was exaggerated, but the only serious product in this class is the Mustang. It is highly likely that this will remain unchanged for a long-time."

Bernhard Fragner of GlobeAir, which is celebrating the one-year milestone of full operation of its Mustang fleet, is adding a fifth Mustang. "We are one of the largest homogeneous Mustang pure air taxi operators in Europe," he says. GlobeAir welcomed its 1,500th satisfied passenger in mid-July following the launch of its commercial AOC operations last September. Fragner adds: "GlobeAir reached its 2,000th fleet flight hour in August."

Czech private jet operator Grossmann Jet Service (GJS) has counted a Mustang as part of its fleet since the end of 2008. "The aircraft was the first VLJ registered in the Czech Republic, and is doing quite well," says ceo Dagmar Grossmann.

The Mustang addition to the fleet followed an analysis after feedback from owners. Grossmann says: "First we have to make sure the owner is the right fit for our company's structure, and secondly we make sure the aircraft itself fits into our portfolio. In this case, the Mustang was a perfect match with our current fleet. We can serve a completely different segment of customers. In terms of pricing, it is very attractive to clients, and, as we've based it abroad for the most part, we've been able to be more flexible in terms of destinations."

She says that the Mustang is like a flying computer and its instruments are fine-tuned and state-of-the-art. "It is able to land on shorter runways, and through its capabilities we've found yet another market in which we can successfully compete. Many new opportunities opened up for us. For example in late October we're launching a new project on the Austrian market which is tailored for the Mustang.

"This will also bring the opportunity for a support role from one of our other aircraft, the Hawker 900. I would also liken the Mustang to a flying car in that it's meant for short trips to nearby destinations."

Grossmann says the Mustang's operation and costs are "very satisfying." In terms of maintenance, she says, GJS has had a good experience. "This particular Mustang has been running very smoothly. We've been lucky, we had to do some adjustments after the pre-sale inspection, but this went off without a hitch. We cooperate with a maintenance facility in Austria and Germany and we are satisfied with that partnership.

"The only issue is that the Mustang requires a skilled aviation expert as its instruments are largely computerised. So in the event that the system has a problem, it's largely an IT issue. But we've not had any serious problems with it in the past year we've been flying it."

From the clients' perspective, Grossmann adds, the best aspect is the price and the aircraft's flexibility. "As an operator, we benefit from the competitive edge it gives us for chartered flights. The Mustang can compete not only in its class, but also against mid-size jets. The disadvantage we have is the smaller range.

"Personally, I was always worried about the fact that there is no toilet, but my concerns were negated by the short distances it flies and the great price.

"The Mustang allows us to offer a service that has a huge advantage for clients and that is a flexible alternative to the strictly scheduled commercial flight times. The Mustang is already very well established on the market, and has generated a great amount of confidence among the com-panies and clients using it."

But she feels that the addition of a toilet and an expansion of the luggage space would be desirable upgrades. "Having said that I believe the Mustang itself is a perfect fit in its class and a strong competitor among the group of VLJs."

Blink has opened a Geneva hub, its first base in Europe, to target a pan-European customer base after initially launching in London in June 2008. Peter Leiman, co-md, says: "The next-generation four-seat Mustang offers all the benefits of personal air travel at prices competitive with commercial business class and up to 50% less expensive than existing private jet services."

He says seven of the 30 Blink jets on order are already in service. "Blink has been serving clients in Switzerland from its base in London since the arrival of its first Mustang but the opening of a base in Geneva will allow Blink to offer clients flying into and out of Geneva and the nearby region greater value and an enhanced service."

Blink will provide the Geneva market with dedicated aircraft. Cameron Ogden, co-md, says: "Geneva is a key commercial and financial centre that suffers from expensive airfares, over-priced private jet alternatives, and inefficient air links.

"But its importance as a business centre is growing rapidly as evidenced by the significant increase in companies and individuals relocating. Until now, Swiss business travellers have had to endure inefficient and expensive scheduled services or hire a six to eight seat private jet. When the average number of passengers on a private jet in Europe is just over two, it is clear that travellers have been wasting money and burning fuel unnecessarily."

Blink raised $30m in equity funding and says the development of its destination network and the increase of its fleet through to 2013 will attract large numbers of travellers.

Leiman says the Mustang dispatch rate is very high. "The performance of the aircraft has been very favourable in terms of fuel burn and has done better than original estimates given by the manufacturer. Spare parts is something Cessna are always looking to improve to support our business and the European support has dramatically improved. The authorised service network is unparalleled by any other manufacturer. Upgrades could be made to the transponders to allow visual tracking of aircraft."

Italy's expanding MustFly, part of the Aeroservices Group, has chosen the Mustang for its fleet development. It has ordered 18 Mustangs for delivery by 2012. "They will be marketed for fractional ownership and also traditional air taxi," says the company's Riccardo Filippi. "We truly believe that this is a good time for proactive small to medium companies to win business in the private aviation sector."

But other aircraft are being targeted at the VLJ marketplace. Smart Air's Stephane Ledermann says the company was established in 2007 with the objective of offering more affordable business aviation better tailored to European market demand. "Business research has shown that 90% of all European business aviation flights are trips of less than 1.5 hours and flown by either three passengers or less. Therefore, our choice fell on the D-Jet of Diamond Aircraft which will enable us to drastically reduce costs thanks to its size and technology.

"Our concept 'sized-to-your-needs' allows us to offer our services for a fraction of the price that other business aviation companies offer, including fractional owner-ship operators. We are the first operator to have introduced a basic level entry scheme with add-on options, allowing owners to choose the exact level of service they require. A unique three tariff-zone system for Europe is another innovation within the sized-to-your-needs concept."

Smart Air awaits the delivery of its first eight jets in the second half of 2010. "We are touring different events and fairs with a mock-up of the jet so that our potential customers can gain a good idea of the aircraft." Ledermann says that the company will pay detailed attention to the dispatch rate, maintenance support, availability of spare parts, value and effectiveness of operations. Smart Air is billed as the first fractional ownership solution with the D-Jet. "It offers a unique way of travelling in Europe, guaranteeing its customers 100% availability and the choice of 1,835 airports in Europe starting from a share of only 10%. The clients own the aircraft; we take care of everything else ranging from maintenance, logistics, pilot training and security," Ledermann adds.

The concept led to Ledermann being the first Luxembourg company owner ever to be among the last three world finalists of the international Creative Young Entrepreneur Award (CYEA). He won second prize out of a selection of 145 candidates from 18 different countries and is participating in the final round this November during the JCI World Congress in Hammamet, Tunisia.

Ledermann says: "I always believed 200% in my business idea and the vision of Smart Air. But my special thanks goes to my shareholders for believing in this project and helping me to realise the early start-up stage, to my team who turned this project with me into a young company when celebrating the acquisition of our first customer and it goes now to the members of the JCI for recognising the potential and making it one of the most recognised innovative companies worldwide."

Meanwhile FlairJet will be among those spearheading competition from the Phenom in the UK. Capt. David Fletcher, ceo, has been undergoing type-rating in Dallas, while two other newly recruited pilots have been training at Burgess Hill with CAE. In the run up to commercial launch the company has named two new management positions: Mike Chamberlain, ground operations director, and David Taylor, operations manager. The two, both ex-Jet Options managers, join flight operations director and chief pilot Gerry Rolls, who will also be a training captain on the Phenom.

FlairJet pledges that it will offer a personalised, quality service that will evolve the traditional air taxi's "pitch up and fly" culture. "With a range of 1,160 nm (with reserves) FlairJet will focus on easy to reach cities in mainland Europe, domestic UK routes and also Scotland and Ireland," says Fletcher.

"The advantages of the cutting edge entry level jet technology, affordability and superlative style of the Phenom 100, including stylish interiors from BMWDesignWorks USA, will give us a real edge over other jet operators," he says. FlairJet is also setting out to target travellers who wouldn't usually consider private charter because they perceive it is too expensive, or are too intimidated by the process.

The timing of the global recession has not been kind to VLJ operators who are likely to have to continue to work very hard for returns over the next few years.

LEA now operates six Mustangs alongside six other classes of larger business jet.

Margetson-Rushmore warns: "For operators like ourselves, I think it will be a long haul to success for VLJ air taxi operations, which mainly depends on the marketplace and the development of the customer base. But we at LEA are committed to that long-haul effort, and we will probably expand our fleet with more Mustangs and Embraer Phenom 100s. We'll achieve that expansion through our established 'hybrid' business model. Some of the aircraft we will own ourselves and charter, some of the aircraft we will manage for third parties and charter, and some of the aircraft we will simply manage for the owners."

He adds: "We see our Mustangs as our new entry-level jet - a stepping stone for our clients into the world of private flight, bringing down the cost and opening up the opportunities to a wider audience. The Mustang is perfect for the kind of short-haul flights with one to three passengers that dominate European business aviation. And pilots tell us that the Mustang is fun to fly, light and agile, with a great use of space and good overall performance."

Manufacturer's comment

Mark Paolucci, Cessna's svp customer service, says: "Cessna has a long history of responsive customer service, borne out in numerous third-party surveys. We understand there will always be issues with our aircraft and we are dedicated to designing and building quality and reliability into our products and then providing the level of after-the-sale service our customers expect. As for specific issues referenced by our customers, we have taken a number of steps in remedy.

"With hot starts, for instance, Cessna published several owner advisories and Informational Service Letter 510-80-01 to introduce a new procedure to help the aircraft start more efficiently, dramatically reducing the occurrence of hot starts. At the same time, Cessna is exploring new battery technologies that are yielding promising initial results, and new full authority digital engine control (FADEC) software that will limit the inter-turbine temperature (ITT) during starts and an improved digital generator control unit (DGCU)."

Paolucci adds: "The availability of service and parts in Europe as the Citation fleet grows is a major initiative for Cessna. Over the last year-and-a-half, Cessna has begun a three-phased initiative to improve support. First, we significantly bolstered our inventory at our Paris Service Center, which provides inventory on-continent to support same-day and next-day requirements. Secondly, we augmented the collective existing inventory holdings of our 11 European-based authorised facilities and we are working with them to develop a means to share visibility of inventory held at each of the independently owned and operated locations. To complete the third phase, Cessna has entered into a partnership with Bell Helicopter to stock parts for all Citations at the Bell Distribution Center at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. The aim of this new partnership is to dramatically reduce the time it takes to get critical parts to our customers. These three initiatives taken as a whole greatly expand the inventory levels available to support customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and also significantly reduce the transit time. Shipments from this facility should begin within the next 30 days."

Paolucci says: "It is important to note here we are adding a second company-owned Citation Service Center in Europe, this one in Valencia. Together with our authorised service facilities, our European service network is without peer. Cessna is very pleased with the acceptance of the Mustang in Europe, especially in on-demand fleets and VLJ 'Air Taxi' service and is totally committed to the success of these valued customers through ever-improving Mustang reliability and superior customer support."

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