Passenger demand, aftermarket avionics upgrades and overall flight activity for business aviation are on an upswing.
Business aviation traffic in Europe increased by 6% in 2017, with more than 700,000 departures, arrivals and overflights, including an average of 100 additional daily departures, compared with 2016, according to Eurocontrol. Similarly in the U.S., TraqPak data released by business aviation services company Argus International in January showed Part 135 large-cabin jets experienced double-digit gains, climbing 11.2% year-over-year in 2017.
Regarding aftermarket upgrades, the most recent report on business and general aviation avionics upgrade activity from the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) showed a 4.1% increase in sales of business and general aviation cockpit and cabin electronics, batteries, software and related components through the first nine months of 2017.
Amid this increase in flight operations and aftermarket upgrades, some operators are looking to bring even more segments of travelers into business aviation.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport-based Delta Private Jets operates a fleet of 70 business jets, including the Nextant 400 XTI, Challenger 604 and Gulfstream IVs.
This year Delta Private Jets is introducing its Sky Access program. The operator introduced the program as a new addition to the business model to provide an “entry-level private aviation offering for consumers,” said Delta Private Jets President Gary Hammes, who took over as president in June 2017 after serving as COO of Virgin Australia.
An annual membership fee of $8,500 introduces new Delta Private Jets customers to a whole new world of flying that has become a growing trend among business jet operators. The first-year membership fee provides access to unlimited empty-leg flying, with a fixed hourly rate and guaranteed availability for flights in the U.S. The new members can then book empty leg flights, which happen when an operator needs to reposition an aircraft prior to its next flight.
“The new product allows members to experience private aviation without a large upfront commitment while providing access to unlimited empty leg flights as well as the opportunity to book private jet flights with fixed hourly rates and guaranteed availability,” said Hammes.
Empty-leg flying has become a booming app-based industry. On the mobile app JetSmarter, for instance, members pay an annual membership fee of $15,000 for access to the more than 150 domestic and international trips per day, with trips under three hours and longer flights averaging about $300 per seat, according to a report released by JetSmarter at NBAA 2017.
“Empty legs account for 65 to 70% of charter flights and are driven by the need to reposition an aircraft prior to the next customer flight,” said Hammes. “Sky Access members can view upcoming empty leg flights in real time via the Delta Private Jets mobile app or client portal on the Delta Private Jets website.”
The two primary drivers of aircraft avionics and cabin electronics and antenna upgrades are driven by two different criteria, according to Hammes.
“Government regulation is driving ADS-B upgrades, said Hammes. “Consumer demand is driving enhanced Wi-Fi capabilities.”
Delta Private Jets investments in upgrades are similar to trends persistent across other commercial airline and business jet operators facing avionics equipage mandates in the U.S. and Europe — and the North Atlantic airspace that connects the two regions. U.S.-based operators are required to upgrade their aircraft with ADS-B by Jan. 1, 2020, if they fly in Class A airspace, in and above the 30-nm Mode C veils surrounding Class B, in and above Class C, or Class E airspace at and above 10,000 feet msl, excluding airspace at and below 2,500 feet agl.
“Owner preference drives demand in much of the avionics package upgrades. Of course, regulatory requirements drive a small portion of avionics upgrades through changes in regulations,” said Hammes.
According to FAA data, as of Dec. 1, 2017, 46,968 U.S.-registered aircraft had equipped with ADS-B Out. Of that total, 34,400 are certificated fixed-wing general aviation aircraft and another 1,542 are registered to U.S. air carriers.
Elsewhere, airplanes flying within the North Atlantic Tracks (NAT) and certain other international regions are encouraged to have a revised letter of authorization (LOA) or revised operations specification for performance-based communication and surveillance (PBCS) by March 29, when a new reduced-separation standard for aircraft may become available.
The FAA recently published an international notice to airman (NOTAM) advising Part 91 operators of the need to obtain a revised data link LOA and Part 135 operators to obtain a revised operations specification to fly in the NAT datalink-mandated airspace, which is between 35,000 and 39,000 feet. It was formerly known as minimum navigation performance specification airspace, according to NBAA.
“Our most technologically advanced airplanes are in our large cabin fleet. Most of our Gulfstream and Challenger aircraft are equipped with a position reporting system that allows flying in the North Atlantic track system,” said Hammes. “This system uses the global positioning satellite system and satellite communication to provide precise position tracking of aircraft transiting across the North Atlantic track system.”
Inside business jet cockpits, the mobile tablet has become an essential element of flight operations, much like mobile phone and tablet use on the ground. Pilots can use mobile apps to evaluate wind speeds, airport conditions and NOTAMs, among other flight elements along their routes.
More than 150,000 professional pilots worldwide use Jeppesen FliteDeck Pro, using more than 30 TB of data across an estimated 300,000 tablet EFBs. One thing the flight operational division of Delta Private Jets is seeking is app consolidation.
“Flight operations would like to make the planning process for our pilots more efficient by consolidating the number of applications they use daily. By streamlining this process, our pilots will be able to provide better customer service for our clients,” said Hammes.
Ironically, the provider of the world’s two most used pilot tablet apps, Jeppesen and ForeFlight, in 2017 announced an app alliance. Pilots now have access to Jeppesen charts and data on ForeFlight Mobile and software-based navigation capabilities within Jeppsen’s FliteDeck Pro. The plan is for pilots with subscriptions to ForeFlight or Jeppesen to see a staggered introduction of new capabilities inside each app. One of the first such innovations came from ForeFlight in the form of access to global navigational, terrain and obstacle data.
In Delta Private Jet cabins, the business jet operator is responding to growing passenger hunger for expanded access to in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC).
“We want our customer experience on board to exceed their expectations,” said Hammes, whose 70 aircraft are equipped with what he calls “top-tier Gogo Wi-Fi.”
Gogo and rival airplane internet service providers have been expanding options and capabilities for business aviation at a rapid pace. In 2018, for example, Gogo’s business aviation division is expanding its broadband services beyond North America through the 2Ku high-throughput satellite network. The main onboard hardware necessary to upgrade Delta Private Jets and other aircraft is a tail-mounted antenna and interior servers, routers, wiring and wireless access points compatible with Gogo’s Ku-band satellite service. The service is expected to become available for business jets in the second half of 2018.
“We expect peak speeds to consistently be at the 25 mbps level or better,” Gogo CEO Michael Small said during Gogo’s November 2017 earnings call. “And the business aviation market has not seen that kind of performance historically.”
Delta Private Jets is also following a growing trend in commercial aviation: establishing new data-driven protocols for returning aircraft to service faster. The maintenance division has become a more data-centric operation, developing a new method for tracking aircraft maintenance issues and needs.
To maintain its fleet to the highest level of readiness, Delta Private Jets developed a fleet reliability index, Hammes said. Fleet data received through its maintenance discrepancies, discovery items in scheduled maintenance checks and pilot reports is used to evaluate the fleet, said Hammes. “Top out-of-service drivers are analyzed to find root cause,” he said. “Once identified, a proactive corrective action is applied across the appropriate fleet or ATA.” AVS