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.