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Jet Classifications. Who decides the aircraft categories?

Mike Potts   |   1st July 2008
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Mike Potts Mike Potts

Mike Potts is a writer and consultant who has been involved in aviation for more than 30 years....
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It used to be so simple - up until about 15 years ago in the business jet world- there were light jets- medium jets and heavy jets. Today- though- simplicity is long gone. No longer are there just three classes. Today there are at least 10 identifiable categories of business jets for sale- and from the looks of things- more categories are coming.

Moreover- there is not even much agreement throughout the industry as to exactly what the classifications ought to be- or exactly which airplanes fit into them. What defines a light jet and differentiates it from a light medium jet? It all depends on whose system you are using and what factors shape their view of the business jet world.

So how did the simple three categories of 15 years ago evolve into the confusing naming conventions of today? Basically- the forces of the free-market and the growing demand for an increasing variety of business jets have conspired to produce our current situation. As demand for business jets began to heat up in the mid-1990s- manufacturers started identifying unfilled niches in the jet market- and then creating new aircraft to fill them – airplanes that would meet a perceived customer need or requirement better than any competing model- either because it was a little faster- had a slightly bigger cabin- or offered better range. The result: in addition to the creation of some really nice airplanes has been the proliferation of numerous whole new categories of business jets.

In talking with jet manufacturers in an effort to make some sense of this- one fact quickly becomes very clear: The reason there is confusion about what defines the categories is because no one is really in charge of creating the categories. There is no agreement on what differentiates the large airplanes in the light jet category from the smaller airplanes in the light medium jet category. There isn’t ever agreement on what to call the light medium jet category- or most of the other classifications that fit somewhere between the traditional light- medium and heavy categories of 15 years ago.

It turns out that each manufacturer defines the market pretty much in terms of the aircraft it builds.

A good example of this is found at Bombardier- which sees the market as existing in nine segments - and this particular planemaker has offerings in eight of them. Bombardier’s nine classifications and its airplanes that fit into them are:

Light Jet (Learjet 40XR); Super Light Jet (Learjet 45XR); Midsize Jet (Learjet 60);; Super Midsize Jet (Challenger 300); Large Jet (Challenger 605); Super Large Jet (Global 5000); Ultra Long Range Jet (Global Express XRS); and Converted Airliners (Challenger 850 jets for sale- 870 and 890).

The ninth category in Bombardier’s system is the Very Light Jet. This is a grouping where Bombardier has no entry- so its interest in this segment is limited – at least for now. The group of airplanes Bombardier views to be occupying this segment is quite broad- including the Beech Premier I- the CitationJets 1 and 2- and the Mustang; the Embraer Phenom 100- the Eclipse 500- the HondaJet- the new PiperJet- the Diamond DJet- the Spectrum Independence and the Adam A700 - currently on hiatus.

Not everyone would agree that a Beech Premier I- with its stand-up cabin- 12-500- pound gross weight and $6 million-plus price-tag is in the same category as an Eclipse 500. Interestingly- the CitationJets 3 and 4- and the Sino Swearingen SJ30 are listed in the light jet category in Bombardier’s opinion.

These groupings- Bombardier says- are “largely determined by a combination of cabin volume- range and price-” although it doesn’t specify exactly how these factors interact to produce a classification. And this turns out to be a common theme – using some combination of cabin size- performance and price to define a category.

With the exception of Cessna- every jet manufacturer reported using some variant of this system to define categories. “We’ll leave it to the journalists to define the classifications-” said Cessna’s Director of Corporate Communications Doug Oliver- although he did say the company develops new products based on price and performance points in the market.

Cessna company insiders did say- however- that the company objects to having its new Mustang listed in the same category as the Eclipse and other aircraft typically characterized as Very Light Jets- or VLJs. Cessna believes that the Mustang’s technical sophistication lifts it above the VLJ category.

This situation illustrates a key point in the classification process – the companies building the airplanes being classified are much more sensitive to the nuances of how their products are categorized than others might be. The distinguishing characteristics of airplanes in Bombardier’s Very Light Jet category don’t matter very much to Bombardier- because the company has no product in that segment of the market. Those factors are- however- terribly important to Cessna- and probably other manufacturers as well- who could legitimately argue that there are at least two and perhaps even three different categories of aircraft lumped together in a single grouping under the Bombardier system. And it’s the need to differentiate that causes at least some new categories of business jets to come into being.

Another factor that creates new business jet categories is evolution. Changes in the market and the introduction of new products have created a need for new categories to describe and differentiate them. Sometimes the changes even cause some established products to move from one category to another.

Ralph Aceti- Director of Communications for Dassault Falcon- noted that back in the ‘good old days’ when there were just three categories- the Falcon 50 was a large business jet. Today it would be considered a mid-size jet- with several categories now existing between where the Falcon 50 is now classified and the ‘large’ category it once occupied.

Falcon’s market offerings have evolved in response to where it sees the market going. With the Falcon 50 now out of production- Dassualt’s smallest product today is the Falcon 2000DX/EX – an airplane the company considers to be in the super midsize category. The Falcon 2000 shares the same cabin cross-section with Falcon’s 900DX/EX and 7X (6’2” high and 7’8” wide)- but the 900’s cabin is seven feet longer and the 7X- at 39’1”- is nearly six feet longer still.

Dassault considers the 900 series airplanes to be “large-cabin long-range” models- while the 7X is an “ultra-long-range large-cabin” airplane. “The length and range probably influenced our thinking-” Aceti says. “While range has nothing to do with size- it does constitute a parameter that influences weight/cost. And frankly- if you give an aircraft range- it dictates that the cabin be spacious enough to accommodate the number of hours of flight-duration with amenities- etc.”

Gulfstream- meantime- whose airplanes mostly populate the larger segments of the jet market- classifies its models by speed and cabin size- using terminology that is similar to what Dassault uses. Both Dassault’s and Gulfstream’s naming systems are derived from the classifications introduced by Honeywell in its annual market forecast- but they are not identical with the Honeywell system.

In Gulfstream’s terminology- the Gulfstream G150 is a “wide-cabin highspeed” business jet. The G200 and G350 are both “large-cabin- mid-range-” aircraft- with the “mid-range” being in the 3-400nm arena for the G200 and 3-800nm for the G350.

The G450 is a “large-cabin long-range” jet- with “long range” being 4-350nm. The G500 and G550 are both “large-cabin- ultra-longrange” models- with “ultra-long-range” being 6-000-6-700nm respectively- while the G650 is an “ultra-large-cabin- ultra-longrange” aircraft with “ultra-long-range” meaning 7-000nm.

Embraer also uses a classification system loosely built on the Honeywell model- but with fewer categories and with slightly different terminology in some cases. As with other companies- Embraer’s system is based on the products it currently builds or has under development. To a greater degree than some of the other companies- Embraer’s system appears to focus more heavily on cabin size – an area where its products tend to excel.

The Embraer system has eight categories: Very Light- Light- Mid-Light- Mid-Size- Super Mid-Size; Large- Ultra-Long Range and Ultra-Large. Until recently the company was delivering aircraft in just one of these categories – the Super Mid-Size Legacy 600 – and was developing aircraft in three more: The Phenom 100 in the Very Light category; the Phenom 300 in the Light class- and the Lineage 1000 in the Ultra-Large segment.

Earlier this year Embraer announced two more aircraft in development- aptly named the Mid-Size Jet- or MSJ- and the Mid-Light Jet- or MLJ initially. With these airplanes it is quiet clear from their names just what category they will fit into- although both feature unusually large cabins for their segments and both share a common cabin cross section.

Elsewhere- like many of the other companies- Hawker Beechcraft business jets patterns its jet classifications after the system Honeywell uses in its annual market forecast- but it uses somewhat different names for the categories.

Andrew Broom- Hawker Beechcraft’s Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs says the company calls its Hawker 400XP a “traditional light jet-” while Honeywell calls it “light jet”. The Premier IA model is an “entry level light jet” in the Hawker Beechcraft system- while Honeywell places it in the “very light” category. This initially might appear to be consistent with Bombardier’s assessment of things- but it’s not. That’s because “Very light” is not the lowest category in the Honeywell system- and most of the airplanes that Bombardier calls “very light jets” are classified as “personal jets” by Honeywell.

Similarly- Hawker Beechcraft calls its Hawker 750 a “light mid jet-” while Honeywell calls it “light medium jet.” The Hawker 900XP is termed a “medium jet” in Hawker Beechcraft parlance- the same term Honeywell uses for the category- and the Hawker 4000 is a “super-mid” in Hawker Beechcraft terminology- while Honeywell calls it a “medium large jet”.

Although none of the jet makers copy it precisely- Honeywell’s system has obviously had a significant impact on how business jets are categorized today. Charles Park- Honeywell’s Director of Marketing Analysis- says his company’s system has evolved over the years in responses to changes in the market. “We look at several attributes- including price- cabin volume- gross takeoff weight and range-” he says.

But Park also says there is no precise formula by which these factors are weighed against one another to create the categories. Instead- he says- he looks for “clusters” – groupings of airplanes that seem to go together – providing more or less comparacomparable performance and value. And over time- he says- this evolves. “As new airplanes come into the market- new clusters form- and we adjust the system accordingly.”

Park has been doing this for quite some time- and remembers quite well when there were just three categories of business jets. That all began to change around 1995- he says- when the Lear 45 and the Citation Excel corporate aircraft were announced. “It was clear that these represented a new category – a type of jet that hadn’t existed before- and that came between the light jets and the medium jets-” he said.

Since that time a lot of new airplanes have come into the market and these have required the creation of new categories. Today- Honeywell forecasts the market for eight categories of business jets: Very Light- Light- Light-Medium- Medium- Medium- Large- Large- Long-Range and Ultra-Long- Range.

In addition- Honeywell recognizes two further categories: Personal Jets at the bottom end of the market and Business Liners at the top end. It doesn’t forecast in these categories- Park says- because the survey base of 1-400 flight departments where Honeywell has collected the data for its forecast for the past 20 years don’t participate in these markets.

The top of Honeywell’s Ultra-Long-Range category is defined by weight- with 100-000 pounds being the cut-off point. With the advent of airplanes such as Gulfstream’s new G650- with a predicted maximum gross takeoff weight of 99-500 lbs.- the evolution of business airplanes could push Honeywell to re-define its limits.

Like the jet manufacturers- Honeywell’s forecast is built around the products and services it delivers to the market. The jet classifications in the survey- then- reflect what Honeywell hopes to accomplish in the market.

The other non-business-jet manufacturer that classifies business jets is Rolls-Royce. Like Honeywell- Rolls-Royce’s builds its classification system around the company’s annual market forecast. Unlike Honeywell’s- however- the Rolls-Royce system is based entirely on maximum gross takeoff weight and recognizes eight categories: Microjets at 5-000-10-000 lbs; Entry Jets at 10-000-13-000 lbs; Light Jets at 13-000-20-000 lbs; Light Medium at 20-000-33-000 lbs; Medium at 33-000-50-000 lbs; Long Range at 50-000-80-000 lbs; Very Long Range at 80-000-100-000 lbs- and Bizliners at over 100-000 lbs.

Defined weight categories make the Rolls- Royce system easy to understand- although as business jets adopt larger cabins to satisfy customers’ changing tastes- it’s not hard to image development of a large cabin airplane over 50-000 lbs. that might not offer particularly long range capability.

It’s also not hard to imagine having to sub-divide the Business Liner/Bizliner categories into further subsets. Airbus is already offering a bizjet version of the A380 – an airplane that is clearly in a different category than bizjet based on a Boeing 737 or Airbus A319. Meanwhile at the other end of the business liner category- both Bombardier and Embraer are offering bizjet versions of their larger regional airliners – again- aircraft that could be classified in an arguably different category than the 737/A319 class of airplanes that originally defined the business liner category.

So there you have potentially two more categories – light business liners- and super heavy business liners- to go along with the original business liner category. Based on the Honeywell system- that would create 12 definable categories of business jets.

And then there’s the supersonic business jets now in development – surely they will need their own category- as well.

So that makes 13… Who knows how many more categories there are to come as business jets evolve to meet the ever growing demands and changing tastes of the market. Wasn’t it all so simple when there were just three…?

Read more about: Embraer | Bombardier | Cessna | Gulfstream Jets | Bombardier Learjet 40XR | Jet Categories

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