Bombardier's Challenger 300, historically a best seller for almost a decade, continues to reign supreme as the definitive super-midsize business jet, according to operators.
“This is the gold standard airplane,” says one Fortune 50 flight department manager. “Bombardier made this class with the airplane and now it's the master.”
Originally called the Continental, the Challenger 300 was intended from the outset to be an aircraft that could fly eight passengers nonstop between the east and west U.S. coasts. It would bridge the gap between Bombardier's midsize 2,300-nm range Learjet 60 and large-cabin 4,000-nm-range Challenger 604. With cabin dimensions similar to those of a Gulfstream II, it would offer passenger comfort and utility similar to large-cabin aircraft, including a flat floor and inflight access to a capacious aft baggage compartment. But its acquisition and operating costs would be closer to those of contemporary midsize jets, especially the popular Hawker 800.
The Challenger 300's design was based on extensive market research conducted by Bombardier in 1996 and then confirmed the following year. Operators told the researchers that their midsize aircraft were too cramped and they fell short on range, climb performance and cruise speed, plus their aft baggage compartments weren't accessible in flight. In the case of the Hawker 800, it had only a forward cabin baggage closet and no external baggage compartments at all.
Stepping up to legacy large-cabin aircraft could solve those problems for many companies, but the cost of heavy-iron business jets exceeded their budgets. Even quasi super-midsize aircraft with transcontinental U.S. range, such as the Cessna Citation X and Dassault Falcon 50EX, were pricey step-ups from midsize aircraft.
Focus groups told the Montreal planemaker that they needed a “true” eight- to nine-passenger aircraft that could fly at least 3,000 nm at Mach 0.80 and operate out of 5,000-ft. runways. Of key importance, the aircraft needed to be priced at less than $15 million.
Bombardier delivered on most of those goals. The Challenger 300 could fly nonstop from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, Miami to Seattle or from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco against 99% probability headwinds. It also could fly across the North Atlantic from Europe to virtually any North American city with one fuel stop. For late 2003 deliveries, the aircraft carried a base price of $14.25 million. Equipped with popular options, it sold for $16 million to $18 million, which made it far more expensive than midsize aircraft, but far less costly than large-cabin jets.
However, Bombardier's prediction that the aircraft would carry eight to nine passengers with full tanks was based on a super-lean 22,350-lb. “spec. basic operating weight” printed in brochures. Equipped with typical options and upgrades, though, customer aircraft had average BOWs that ballooned to 24,000 lb. or more. Some customers added forward pocket doors separating the galley from the cabin, heavier acoustic insulation and plusher cabin furnishings, along with dual FMS and GPS, flight crew to dispatcher air-to-ground data link services and a hydraulically powered, backup generator.
Bombardier engineers responded by increasing maximum zero fuel weight by 1,850 lb. and max ramp and takeoff weights by 1,350 lb. But max landing weight remained fixed at 33,750 lb., cutting unrefueled range after a stopover to about 1,500 nm.
With such shortcomings, we asked operators why they continue to give the Challenger 300 such high overall marks.
To its credit, Bombardier elected in early 2004 to deliver the first Challenger 300 to Business Jet Solutions (BJS), the formal name for the manufacturer's Flexjet fractional ownership subsidiary. This move would enable the aircraft to mature rapidly as the fractional operation would fly it in excess of 1,000 hr. per year. Flexjet went on to take delivery of more than two dozen Challenger 300s, and in so doing tested the limits of Montreal's technical and parts support capabilities. This was intentional. Bombardier's product support went through a steep, painful learning curve. Now, it's significantly improved, operators say.
XOJet, a 2006 start-up, thought so highly of the Challenger 300 that it bought 15 reconditioned and new aircraft for use in its high frequency air charter operations. While the firm may fly the aircraft fewer hours, charter operations demand very high dispatch reliability rates. And operators say dispatch reliability is one of the aircraft's key attributes.
About three-quarters of the fleet are based in North America, with U.S. operators accounting for more than two-thirds of all aircraft in service. Canadian operators account for about 5% of the North American fleet, while half that number are based in Mexico.
In the U.S., large corporations such as Exxon Mobil, FedEx, Union Pacific and The Limited, along with Eaton Corp., PNC Financial Group and XTO Energy, operate fleets of the aircraft, according to FAA registration records. In mixed fleets, the Challenger 300 often flies shorter missions formerly flown by heavy-iron jets such as the Challenger 604/605 and Gulfstream IV/450/550, because its operating costs are close to one-half lower. Operators save their large-cabin aircraft for missions longer than 3,000 nm.
FAA records also list McDonald's, Nestlé Purina, Regions Financial and the Richards Group, plus Cargill, Verizon, Raytheon and NCR, along with Abbott Laboratories, Worthington Industries, Koch Industries, MedImpact and Ball Corp. as members of the Challenger 300 club. Close to a dozen or more aircraft are flown by high-net-worth individuals, such as New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and country music star George Strait.
Many individuals and companies said they had outgrown their legacy midsize aircraft because they needed to fly farther, higher and faster on many missions. The Citation X, Sovereign and Dassault Falcon 50EX had the range and speed they needed, but their cabins seemed cramped when loaded with six or more passengers on 5- to 6-hr. trips.
The Gulfstream G200 had a comfortable cabin and transcontinental U.S. range, but its lackluster airport and climb performance, along with the lack of inflight access to the aft baggage compartment, eliminated it as a viable competitor during the purchase selection process for many potential buyers. The strong performing G280 was not yet available when operators decided to step up to the Challenger 300