Update: Executive Jet’s evaluation of airports across the U.S.
By John Boyce, Contributing Editor
AUSTIN, TX — Are you ready for some BBJ? That’s the question Executive Jet/NetJets has been asking the nation’s airports and FBOs for close to two years in an effort to determine if the airports, particularly on the general aviation side, are prepared to accept and handle the Boeing Business Jet.
According to Patricia York, director of
communications for BBJ in Seattle, there are currently 26 BBJs in service
around the world "that we’re not having any problems with"
at airports. However, none is operated in the Executive Jet (EJ) fractional
ownership program, as will be the case in the spring of this year.
Although the BBJ is similar in dimensions to the Boeing 737-700 commercial jetliner, it is a new, large corporate aircraft and, as such, brings with it weight bearing and equipment needs and procedures that may exceed what many FBOs currently have in place.
As befits a 19-passenger aircraft that has a lounge, a conference dining area, bedrooms, a private office, multiple lavatories, and a fuel capacity of 72,000 pounds, ground service requirements are unique — from power carts, to fueling, to lav carts, to deicing, to tug and towbar capacity, and on.
Executive Jet did not want to take anything for granted in any of these areas so it set about qualifying airports and FBOs as to their readiness for the aircraft, operationally and service-wise.
"We wanted to set up a template as to how we were going to qualify airports," says Brad Sunnucks, who along with fellow senior airport analyst and fleet support supervisor Allan Ball has been gathering the data on capabilities of airports and FBOs to handle such an aircraft.
Adds Ball, "The biggest thing we tried to establish were what the airport minimums were and then what the ground service equipment minimums were ... We used a lot of Boeing specifications to come up with the ground operations and then we came up with items that we considered to be operational items such as wingwalkers, security issues, that sort of thing."
For Marc Schoen, manager of airport technology at Boeing, "the problems with BBJ and airports are simply that there are many airports that operators or companies that operate the airplane are going to want to go to where this will be a very large airplane for that particular airport. That’s the reason each airport needs to be studied to evaluate pavement strength, parking area acceptability, and maneuvering areas on the runway to be sure it can maneuver adequately.
"It’s the same thing as buying a big car for the same old garage; you want to be sure that you can get it from the street onto the driveway and into the garage."
As of February 2001 EJ had done site evaluations on "probably 135 different airports" in the U.S. and, Ball says, their preparedness for an aircraft such as the BBJ is "pretty good."
"Most have demonstrated the ability to handle private aircraft of that size — 727, 737, even 757. It’s a matter of trying to get them to verbalize what they do with those aircraft; things like wingwalkers, advance notification, do we need a permit to fly the aircraft in. It’s trying to find that information up front for us as a company.’’
Lee Monson, vice president of the BBJ program, is comfortable that the infrastructure deficiencies that may exist at general aviation airports are quickly disappearing. "The infrastructure is quickly catching up," he says, "and we feel comfortable that most folks out there (FBOs) like to see the airplane because it has the potential of buying a lot of gas."
CHECKLIST OF CONCERNS
In order to gather the information it needed to build a database of acceptable airports and FBOs, EJ devised a 12-part checklist covering some 60 to 70 areas of concern. It sent this to prospective airports then followed up with personal, on-site visits to many of them. While this checklist was meant to determine an operator’s readiness for the BBJ, it also served as a checklist that operators could use if they wanted to get their facilities ready for the aircraft.
The initial airports for evaluation were chosen using EJ’s experience with another large cabin aircraft, the Gulfstream IV.
"We took all of the airports that the G-IV went to," Sunnucks explains, "and said, ’Okay, this is probably going to be the same group of people (operators) that will be moving up to the Boeing (BBJ).’ We decided to target those as our initial airports. So it was number one, Teterboro, and working our way from there. We’ve been trying to go to those airports and do a site evaluation."
The whole process has been far more complex than EJ expected.
"I guess we found out that the size of the task was larger than we thought at the beginning," Ball says.
"We originally planned to have 300 or 400 airports done in the first year. That’s pretty much folly because of the amount of time to visit the airport, prep the airport management and FBO management, get engineering drawings in line, and do the write-up. All told, it’s about a three- to four-day process for each one."
The end result, Ball says, will be Jeppesen-like charts for all their approved airports "for primary parking, alternate parking, taxiways and ramps, areas we should not go to, and so on. We’re trying to give them (pilots) visuals.
"As we get better at evaluation, we create more issues, which means updating this process. So the evaluation process that we do is going to be ongoing. It has to be because things change."
A TOP PRIORITY: PAVEMENT
Perhaps the most worrisome and complex issue pertaining to the BBJ is the pavement at airports: its ability to bear the weight of an aircraft such as the BBJ and other such large general aviation aircraft that will surely follow this one.
Pavement was the primary reason (they also planned to visit Austin Bergstrom International Airport) Ball and Sunnucks were in this Texas capital city in February. They were attending a technical seminar on airport pavements at the University of Texas School of Engineering.
"January 2000," Sunnucks says, "we knew we needed an education in pavement stresses and theory and we didn’t have the background. We were kind of street smart on the issue. I’ll speak for myself here, but I got beaten up at the first few airports I went to because I didn’t have a clue what I was going after."
Executive Jet has run into a reluctance on the part of some airports to give out vital engineering information on runways, taxiways, and ramps — not because they consider it proprietary, but because they see it as unnecessary.
"I think that some of these operators," Ball says, "are running larger aircraft than a 737 in there on a daily basis (and) they don’t see a need to provide us with that information. I think most everybody, as long as there is a legitimate need for this information, is willing to get us the information. I think it’s just that their perception of our need is different than our perception."
Sunnucks on occasion has used a willing FBO with a good relationship with the airport authority to overcome that reluctance and gain the necessary information.
Ball explained that just because an airport or FBO has handled big equipment, doesn’t mean it is necessarily equipped to handle EJ’s BBJs. Operators tend to see the BBJ as a huge economic windfall and are anxious to handle it.
"Our issue with that,’’ Ball said, "is that we have a different field configuration and the wheel loading is what a couple of airport managers have described as pavement-busting. At the same time, we have to protect the (client) company’s assets and interests. Two years ago, we had one of our Gulfstreams sink in the pavement in Arizona. If a Boeing were to do that, we see that as job limiting for us so we have our own interests.’’
Executive Jet has found that for weight bearing, maneuvering, and issues of foreign object debris/damage (FOD) and the like, the BBJ will have to go to some alternate parking areas at some airports other than the FBO’s ramp.
"That’s what is going to be interesting about the Boeing," Sunnucks says, "because, as opposed to the principal expecting a limo ten yards away from the steps of his G-IV or G-V, he might be asked to sit on his airplane at a remote location and allow the FBO to get to him.
"Unfortunately, that’s not usually the best cosmetic part of the airport, not the shiny glass monument. There are security issues with that. So it’s going to be a different machine from that standpoint."
Using alternate parking sites isn’t restricted to smaller airports. Some major airports have problems with their ramp in GA areas. "Quite a few," Ball says. "About two in five (major airports) have a problem with the ramp in GA areas."
Sunnucks also points out that there will be cases where the primary FBO on a particular airport is not going to be the one that the BBJ uses "simply because of the safety and weight bearing information of the competitor FBO. A lot of FBOs that think they’re out of the running shouldn’t be thinking that way."
And, Ball adds, "A lot depends on the customer. If the customer wants to go to A instead of B, and the FBO can provide the service to our standards, we go where the customer wants to go."
Apparently, some airports — seeing the potential economic impact of the BBJ — have taken it upon themselves to upgrade their ramps to accommodate the aircraft. While Ball doesn’t take credit for it, he cites the situation at Portland, OR, where the airport operators thought they could handle the BBJ based on their previous experience with 737s, but on closer inspection of the ramp decided that they couldn’t.
"They were like everyone else: ’Come on in,’" Ball says. "We asked for the cross-sections (of the ramp) and they talked to some engineers and decided maybe this (BBJ) isn’t such a good idea." After closer inspection of its ramp, Ball continues, the airport found some weak spots and decided not to park on a particular ramp until they had done an overlay. "I don’t know how much we prompted that," Ball says, "but they are going to be improving the ramp."
Ball and Sunnucks were not in a position to say if their company was contemplating offering financial help to airports and/or FBOs who just couldn’t afford to bring their facilities and services up to BBJ readiness.
However, Sunnucks says, "If we can make it into the airport and it meets the criteria for spacing, weight bearing, and turning radius, we will work with the airport manager or the FBO to try to get things done. The most important thing is, is it safe to go into in the first place? We’re willing to work with anyone and we’d like to spread the business around."
The BBJ is 110.3 feet in length, 41.2 feet in height, and has a wingspan of 117.4 feet. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 171,000 pounds, a maximum ramp weight of 171,500 pounds, and needs, by EJ standards, an "absolute minimum’’ 5,000 feet of runway. In addition, the aircraft requires 50- to 75-foot-wide taxiways, and the parking area must be such that "parking on the pad would not position the aircraft closer than 25 feet to (other) aircraft or buildings.’’