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.

Operator and Mission Profiles

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.

Yet, U.S. operators typically fly the aircraft on missions that average 2 hr. or less because of frequent short trips to shuttle employees or company guests from headquarters to outlying facilities. Large firms with mixed fleets typically load the aircraft with six to eight passengers for most flights and in a year's activity log 300 to 500 hr. per aircraft. Smaller firms, especially ones with one or two aircraft, tend to fly fewer hours and fewer passengers.

Close to 20% of the fleet is based in Europe. That's up from 10% in 2007. The largest number is registered in Austria. Six are operated by Vienna-based Amira Air, a charter firm that also flies a Citation CJ2+, a Challenger 605, a Global 5000 and a Global Express. Vienna-based Avcon Jet operates five Challenger 300s among a fleet of more than 30 aircraft. These aircraft can fly nonstop to any city in Europe, the Middle East or northern Africa.

The Isle of Man ranks a close second in European registrations for tax purposes. Germany ranks third, with most others based in Russia, the U.K. and Switzerland.

The aircraft's popularity is growing in Asia. Eight aircraft are registered in China with five being operated by Shenzhen-based Donghai Jet. These aircraft can fly nonstop to all cities in China, plus most destinations in the Far East.

Four aircraft are registered in Turkey, including two aircraft operated by Palmali Group and one each with Halk Financial Leasing and Cukurova Holding in Istanbul. Three are based in India. Brazilian operators fly nine Challenger 300s, but there are few others based in South America.

Most operators climb the aircraft directly to FL 400 or FL 410 on all but the shortest missions. They cruise at Mach 0.80 or faster. The aircraft burns 2,200 to 2,500 pph the first hour and 1,800, 1,700 and 1,600 pph during subsequent hours. They can comfortably fly the aircraft 5 to 6 hr. A 3,000-nm mission takes about 6+40 and that's a stretch unless there is good weather and plenty of suitable alternates near the destination.

An increasing number of operators are flying the aircraft on international trips. They're loading it with life rafts, provisioning the large galley and adding plenty of passenger amenities. This adds as much as 400 to 800 lb. to empty aircraft weight and reduces tanks-full payload to as few as two to three passengers.

Best and Worst Features

Operators who flew conventional midsize aircraft before they stepped up into the Challenger 300 tend to view it quite favorably. Those who added it to fleets of large-cabin aircraft are more sparing with their praise. But virtually all operators said the aircraft has been remarkably reliable and it's getting better. Dispatch reliability ranked near the top of their five favorite features about the aircraft with both commercial and private operators.

Comparatively low direct operating cost is another strong characteristic. One firm said that it charges back to users a cost per mile that's close to half that of a G550 it operates.

The aircraft has a rugged, semi-mono–coque aluminum airframe and relatively simple systems, not unlike those of a Learjet. The electrical system, for instance, is a 28-volt DC design. But it's powered by long-life brushless generators rather than starter-generators that require overhauling at 1,000 hr. Jet pumps transfer fuel from tank to tank and supply the engines. DC boost pumps supply pressure for starting. The hydraulic system powers the usual utility functions, such as landing gear, thrust reversers and wheel brakes. Unlike that on Learjets, the system also powers the Challenger 300's nosewheel steering and power control actuators for the rudder and elevators. Both aircraft have hydraulically actuated multifunction spoilers.

The Challenger 300 has a brake-by-wire system with carbon heat packs rated for 2,000 landings. That arrangement results in fewer shop visits for brake overhauls and more time in service. Pilots smile when discussing the aircraft's stopping performance, especially when compared to that of midsize legacy Learjets.

Runway performance, especially when departing hot-and-high airports, is another favorite with operators. The Challenger 300 has a large, 522-sq.-ft. wing and strong performing Honeywell HTF7000 turbofans. It needs only 4,810 ft. of runway when departing sea-level ISA airports and 6,860 ft. of pavement at BCA's 5,000-ft. elevation, ISA+20C airport. The APU may be used to pressurize the cabin to conserve engine thrust for maximum performance takeoffs from hot-and-high locations. Airport performance is second only to that of the sprightly Gulfstream G280.

Cabin size and passenger comfort rank high with operators. Overall cabin length is 23.7 ft. and the main seating area is 16.5 ft. long. The standard double club seating layout comfortably accommodates eight passengers. Some operators have chosen to swap out two facing chairs for the optional three-place divan to accommodate nine, except for landing and takeoff. For a ninth passenger, the aircraft must be equipped with a belted potty seat used for occupation during takeoff and landing.

The aircraft's flat floor, as opposed to the dropped aisle found on many midsize jets, along with its 105-cu.-ft. aft baggage compartment — again, accessible in flight — get high passenger marks as well.

The cabins of early aircraft weren't especially quiet and the furnishings were comparatively spartan, but Bombardier subsequently upgraded cabin amenities, expanded outfitting choices and made available an optional sound suppression kit. Operators also say the optional 80-lb. pocket doors for the bulkhead between the galley and main seating area are quite effective in reducing wind noise from the entry door.

Passengers who alternate between large-cabin, intercontinental-range aircraft and the Challenger 300 seem perfectly at ease in the latter despite its more compact size because cabin cross sections of both are nearly the same.

Several flight department managers said the aircraft provides large-cabin aircraft passenger comfort without the ramp presence “optics” of a heavy-iron jet.

Pilots, overall, gave the Challenger 300's Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 cockpit and avionics suite high marks. The instrument panel has four, portrait configuration, 12- by-10-in. flat-panel displays. The outer two screens are PFDs, while the inner pair function as navigation and EICAS displays. Features include systems synoptic diagrams and electronic checklists. FMS programming is straightforward, embracing user interface conventions favored by many airline pilots. Flight department managers also said avionics reliability is top notch.

But pilots said that the autopilot tends to wander in pitch when climbing while using the flight level change mode. They prefer to use the vertical speed mode because it's more comfortable for passengers.

They also say that when flying the aircraft by hand it has a somewhat numb on-center pitch and roll feel, plus rather heavy roll control forces. It handles more like a large-cabin Challenger 604 than a midsize Learjet, they say.

Flight crews also note that, prior to starting the APU before engine start, it's essential to power up the electrical system and let the avionics system run through the built-in tests, a hands-off period. It takes a few moments for the system to prepare itself for pilot inputs. Start tapping too soon and the BIT check may fail, thereby requiring a shutdown and reboot.

Operators credit Bombardier's customer service with marked improvement since the Challenger 300 made its debut. But they also say parts support still isn't yet to the high standard set by Gulfstream.

They also say that while Bombardier has upped its spec BOW for the aircraft to 23,850 lb., that's still not representative of most typically equipped aircraft, especially ones flown on transatlantic missions or between North and South America. And thanks to the Challenger 300's operating economics versus large-cabin aircraft, that represents an ever-growing number. The BOWs for aircraft equipped for international missions typically range between 24,400 and 24,800 lb., particularly if they're fitted with deluxe forward galleys and the hefty weight, backup hydraulically driven motor generator.

Operators also say Bombardier needs to offer an alternative progressive maintenance inspection program that would allow them to break up large maintenance tasks into small chunks that mostly could be accomplished during overnight layovers.

Looming Super Midsize Competition

When the Challenger 300 entered service in early 2004, Bombardier faced little competition in the super-midsize class. The Hawker 4000 (nee Horizon) program was mired in problems and the Gulfstream 200 (nee Galaxy, nee Astra IV) was hamstrung by its anemic airport and climb performance. Bombardier owned the niche and Challenger 300 deliveries soared.

But now two strong competitors are emerging. The 3,600-nm range Gulfstream 280 overcomes virtually all the deficiencies of its G200 predecessor. Recently certified, that aircraft has the strongest performance in the super-midsize class, along with the largest cabin and aft baggage compartment, the most range and the best fuel efficiency.

As more Challenger 300 operators fly internationally, the G280 could prove to be an attractive alternative because of its 400+ nm range advantage and higher tanks-full payload when typically equipped.

From Embraer, the 3,000-nm EMB-550 Legacy 500 arrives this year. It has full fly-by-wire flight controls, and about the same cross section as the Challenger 300, but its cabin is about a foot shorter. While the range of the Brazilian jet is 200 mi. less than that of the Challenger 300, it offers even better runway performance on equal-range missions. And although it doesn't provide inflight access to the aft baggage compartment, it does have a 40-cu.-ft. aft internal luggage bay behind the lavatory.

When compared to the Challenger 300's flight deck, both the EMB-550 and G280 have considerably more advanced avionics suites, ones that offer standard auto-throttles, synthetic vision and optional head-up displays with IR cameras, along with WAAS LPV approach capabilities, RNP 0.3, CPDLC and ADS-B functionality. Both of the new competitors have standard or optional auto brake systems and both have better equipped standard galleys, higher pressurization and high-capacity vacuum lavatories.

Challenger 300 operators note, however, that Bombardier has been continuously upgrading the aircraft and periodically introduces block point upgrades. The next block point upgrade begins with serial number 20405 this year. Laser IRS will become the standard AHRS, synthetic vision will become available for the Pro Line 21 PFDs, a HUD will be offered as an option and close to a dozen other functions will be added to the avionics systems, operators say.

The 2013 block point upgrade has been an effective sales tool. Some operators of older Challenger 300s are increasing the size of their fleets by adding these new aircraft. They've grown very loyal to the Bombardier super midsize jet because of its proven value as a reliable business transportation asset, and they're not likely to switch brands.

Bombardier also has shown plenty of pricing flexibility, while Gulfstream has been much tougher on holding to book listings and thus appears to have given the Challenger 300 a significant price advantage.

The Canadian jet also could be price competitive with the Brazilian alternative, depending upon how Embraer prices optional equipment. The Legacy 500 currently carries a base price of just under $20 million, but options could increase typical retail prices by 10% or more.

For now, the Challenger 300 continues to dominate the super-midsize class. “It's done everything as Bombardier advertised,” says one flight department manager.

He and other operators say it would take heady persuasion from competitors to make them abandon their Canadian jets for ones built elsewhere. BCA