The concept of convertible vehicles is one that has been carefully exploited in the automobile market for decades. Yet in the business jet world, the idea has been almost absent despite the crossover potential between passenger and cargo operations. That is until now.

This year Aerospace giant Boeing launched a long-haul business jet capable of being reconfigured from an all-passenger aircraft to an all-freighter in less than eight hours. The move marks a new era for the Boeing Business Jets (BBJ) Programme, which now offers four versions of its 737-700 for business and VIP customers.

The BBJ programme was originally started as a joint venture between Boeing and General Electric Company (GE) in July 1996. At the time corporate planes were increasing in range and cost so Boeing customer Jack Welch, then CEO of GE, and former Boeing CEO Phil Condit came up with the idea of adding range to a version of the next-generation 737 aircraft. This, they believed, would offer a price-competitive business jet with almost three times the interior space of rival Gulfstream and Global Express aircrafts.

Long-range capabilities

By producing a long-range version of the next-generation 737 that uses the fuselage of the 737-700 combined with the wing, centre section and landing gear of the 737-800, the BBJ was born. The specially tailored model provided owners with a range capability of 6,200nm (11,482km) and a payload Boeing claims is flexible beyond that of any competitor.

“The aircraft can carry more than 16.6t of cargo or seat 126 people in a two-class configuration.”

The president of the BBJ Programme, Stephen Taylor, explains how such developments eventually led to the creation of the BBJ Convertible. "Boeing Commercial Airplanes launched the Next-Generation 737-700 Convertible in 1997. In 2005 the BBJ sales team began asking its customers if there was interest in a BBJ version of the convertible," he says.

"Customers responded well and in May 2009 BBJ was able to offer the model to customers. The multi-mission capability of the BBJ C addresses the trend in government spending toward multi-use aircraft."

To modify the BBJ for both freighter and passenger configurations, a side cargo door and cargo handling system was added to the original model. The floors of the aircraft were modified and additional seat tracks were introduced, while six auxiliary fuel tanks were needed to support the configuration flexibility.

No training required

The result is an aircraft that can carry more than 16.6t of revenue cargo or seat 126 people in a two-class configuration, which rises to 149 in a single-class configuration. When swapping between the configurations an eight-hour period is required to remove passenger seats and carpeting and install the cargo handling system in the existing seat tracks. No training is required for the transition, although detailed instructions showing how to install the cargo handling kit can be found in the aircraft's maintenance manual.

The main reason for this user-friendly approach was the wide range of customers Boeing had in mind for its use. "Customer interest ranges from private individuals to governments. Governments are particularly interested because they can transport VIP, staff or troops and then reconfigure to carry cargo such as tools, parts and machinery as well as life-saving food and medical supplies. Interiors can be configured for medical evacuations as well," Taylor says.

"The BBJ C has not yet been configured for emergency rescue operations, but it certainly could be. Other 737 models have been used in that manner. What differentiates the BBJ C is its significant increase in payload and range capability."

A flexible design

“The aircraft could also benefit the automotive and entertainment industries.”

The practicalities of the new model are shown through its current deployment by Texas-based charter airline Peregrine Point.

The part 125 operator uses its BBJ C to transport both company executives and freight by adopting two all-passenger configurations: one that seats about 32 passengers and another that seats about 90. Peregrine’s staff are able to reconfigure between the two passenger schemes in about 3.5 hours.

Given the space onboard the aircraft, Boeing feels it could also benefit the automotive and entertainment industries. It has identified the BBJ C as suitable for carrying race cars and parts, racehorses or other animals, large instruments such as grand pianos and equipment for touring bands and musicians.

Taylor says he believes such flexibility combined with the timing of the model's launch will give it a market edge now and in future. "The payload and range capability of the BBJ C far exceeds current and proposed single-aisle cargo or convertible airplanes. It is timed perfectly to replace many of the single-aisle freighters and convertibles that are approaching 30 years in service," he says.