Bombardier MRO specialist Flying Colours (Booth W85) is highlighting this week at EBACE its reinvigorated VIP and shuttle conversion programs for Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets and growing interest among European operators for the full-service, heavy maintenance capabilities offered at its North American facilities.
Interest in the CRJ conversions—a follow-on to Flying Colours’ ExecLiner VIP and Corporate Shuttle CRJ cabin makeovers introduced at the top of the last decade—has “really picked up in the last six to seven months,” said Flying Colours executive v-p Eric Gillespie. “We've got a handful already in the queue for the summer and fall.”
The conversion turns a CRJ 200 into a Challenger 850—the business jet derivative of the CRJ.
“The airplane gets a new lease on life, maintenance-wise,” Gillespie said. “You get a new interior, new paint, and everything else you need, all in one location,” at either Flying Colours’ Peterborough, Ontario headquarters near Montreal or at the company's facility near St. Louis, Missouri.
The makeover program “fits right into our niche of conversions and completions,” he added. “It touches every department, from engineering through design and woodwork, maintenance, and paint.” Conversions usually require six to eight months for completion and all are covered by two-year warranties.
Customers can choose the floor plan and other features of the VIP cabin, which will include a galley and spacious lavatory. For connectivity, customers in North America are opting for Gogo’s Avance L5 system. “We're looking at Ka- and Ku-band options for international clients,” Gillespie said.
Alto Aviation provides the cabin management system for the Flying Colours-modified CRJ200s, and a saddle tank auxiliary fuel system the MRO developed extends the converted jet’s range about 50 percent, to some 3,000 nm, Gillespie said. The company is now finalizing interior elements and vendors.
The Corporate Shuttle configuration has 16 or 18 business jet-style seats. “You’re getting a business jet feel with that,” he said. One customer is interested in a quasi-airline 29-seat conversion, with airline seating in the back and VIP seating forward.
Flying Colours performed about 30 CRJ conversions over the history of the program, split evenly between shuttle and VIP versions. Half of the conversions were performed on green aircraft. Orders had slowed until inquiries reignited due to the recent uptick in consumer demand for lift coupled with lower availability of preowned aircraft .
Buyer’s intended uses of the converted jets are “all over the boards,” including transport for sports teams, touring performers, and on-demand charter, he said. “It's a good-sized airplane for traveling with a big group—you essentially get the same size cabin as a Bombardier Global 6000.”
Engineering is in early phases, though some work is already completed, not to mention STCs in hand from previous projects. “We're bringing some of that back to life and updating plans where needed.”
Gillespie foresees potential global appeal for the jet makeovers. “A couple of the original conversions we did 10 years ago went to Europe, so there's definitely a market for it there. And a ton of them originally went to Asia, so hopefully we’ll see a resurgence of that demand.”
Buyers or their agents find and acquire the aircraft, primarily from airline owners, retrieved from mothball “in Arizona where most of those airplanes are stored,” according to Gillespie. Flying Colours can provide advice on airframe issues and pre-buy inspections, but is otherwise uninvolved.
Conversion inquiries extend beyond CRJs, Gillespie said. “We've seen interest in Embraer conversions on the ERJ-135 and 145, and we’ve talked to customers about the E190.” Such discussions are in “early stages,” but “interest is there—that's from all over the world, not just North America,” he said.
Meanwhile, interest in Flying Colours’ MRO services also extends beyond North America and into Europe, boosted since the appointment of its first European sales representative on the eve of EBACE 2019.
“European customers see the value in coming to North America, and we’re looking to increase our European MRO business,” Gillespie said. “Obviously, there's a price factor in flying over, but the cost to do it in North America is much better than in Europe, and the fact that we can do everything under one roof—the heavy inspection, the paint, the interior upgrade—and do it effectively, is bringing them.”
Meanwhile, since the onset of the pandemic, MRO work has kept Flying Colours busy, if not as predictably as usual, Gillespie said, calling the scheduling during the time “‘sporadic,’ for lack of a better word—owners couldn't fly anywhere, so they figured they might as well put it down and get some interior work they’d delayed done, get a paint job done, do the seats now instead of waiting a year.”
Required heavy checks and other scheduled maintenance coming due on early Bombardier Global Express/XRS models are driving some of the maintenance and underscore challenges ahead facing all providers and operators. Landing gear overhauls are among mandated items, and titanium, a key ingredient, is one of the commodities whose supplies are affected by the Russia-Ukraine war.
“Bombardier does a lot of the gear for us on the overhaul side,” said Gillespie. “You have to book it early, and there have been some issues.” Indeed, overall, “There are definitely supply chain issues—issues with vendors and certain components or raw materials that ripple up to us,” he said.
“Shipping and logistics, and getting things here that used to take one or two days now takes three or four, and sometimes there's no rhyme or reason for it making it hard to plan. We try to build in buffers, but it affects scheduling. It’s definitely challenging,” he concluded. “Most customers are understanding.”