There now are more than 460 Gulfstream G550 business jets in service and operators say it’s a top performer, a versatile workhorse offering solid dispatch reliability and backed by unmatched product support.

Operators say that the $59 million, 6,700-nm range G550 occupies a sweet spot in the large-cabin category, providing the best tradeoff between range and price of any aircraft in its class. Cruising at Mach 0.80 and assuming optimum conditions, it can fly eight passengers from Minneapolis to Muscat, Beijing to Boston or São Paulo to St. Petersburg.

But few operators push the aircraft farther than 5,500 nm in everyday operations. “It’s a ‘do everything’ airplane, a proven airplane,” says Dave Cassalia, chief pilot for Warner Chilcott, based in Morristown, New Jersey. “We cruise at Mach 0.83 downwind and 0.85 upwind all day long.” Most operators prefer to cruise at high speed even though the aircraft burns 11% more fuel than at long-range cruise.

The G550 is a 2003 amendment to the 1997 GV type certificate. It’s known by the FAA as the GV-SP and it’s actually the sixth iteration of the GII, which was first certified in 1967. Each new version has offered more range, speed, cabin comfort and fuel efficiency. Engineers pursued low-risk, evolutionary approaches in creating each new model.

Compared to the GV, the G550 has four main improvements: improved takeoff performance, slightly more range and fuel efficiency, better cabin space utilization and the PlaneView flight deck featuring Honeywell Primus Epic avionics. A seventh pair of windows is added to the fuselage, several drag reduction details boost range by 250 nm and the entry door is moved 2 ft. forward to increase usable cabin length and boost net cabin volume by 58 cu. ft. More net storage capacity is available in the aft baggage bay due to the installation of conformal water tanks and a relocated vacuum lav waste tank.

Max ramp weight and MTOW are increased by 500 lb. to provide more tanks-full payload. Typically equipped, the aircraft can carry eight passengers with full fuel. But that’s with a lean 106-lb. allowance for tableware, galley stores, multiple meals, beverages, water and cabin supplies.

Most aircraft are configured with a forward galley, crew rest area and lavatory. The main passenger cabin has three sections, usually including a forward, four-chair club section and a variety of different layouts in the mid and aft cabin that can be configured with a four-seat conference grouping, credenza, four-place divans and pairs of facing chairs, among other furnishings. Virtually all aircraft have an aft lavatory. The baggage compartment is accessible through a rear door in the lavatory. Both lavatories feature high-capacity vacuum waste systems with single-point servicing. A sizable number of aircraft are configured with aft galleys instead of forward galleys, providing more storage volume and serving prep area.

The cockpit features four, 14-in., landscape configuration flat-panel displays with optional synthetic vision PFDs. This was the first Gulfstream to be fitted with cursor control devices (CCD). But rather than using trackballs in the center console, Gulfstream developed sidewall-mounted CCDs with integral armrests, ergonomically angled handholds and thumb-operated force transducers that control the cursors on screen.

The G550 also has a standard Rockwell Collins HGS-6250 head-up guidance system and second-generation Elbit EVS II IR enhanced vision system, significantly improving situational awareness in reduced visibility conditions, according to operators.

Operator Profiles

Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. have long represented a strong core of Gulfstream operators, so it’s not surprising that more than 250 G550 aircraft have U.S. registrations. NetJets is the largest single operator with 27 aircraft.

Most other U.S. operators are long-time Gulfstream loyalists, some having owned four or five generations of large-cabin Gulfstreams. In fleets, the G550 often is the largest and longest-range aircraft. It complements shorter-range large-cabin aircraft, such as the Gulfstream G450, Dassault Falcon 2000 series or Bombardier Global series, in the fleet mix. A few operators also fly the Gulfstream G650 as their largest and longest-range business aircraft.

Oil and gas exploration firms lead the G550 pack, including Anadarko, Apache, Chief Oil & Gas and Chevron, plus ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Peabody, Phillips 66 and Valero, according to registration statistics compiled by Amstat. In the financial services sector, the G550 operators include Amex, Bank of America, Fidelity National and Franklin Templeton, plus JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Sequoia Capital, along with Visa and Wells Fargo. Amgen, GlaxoSmithKline Novartis, Merck, Pfizer and Valeant are among the big pharmas that fly the aircraft.

Blue Chip G550 club members are many, including 3M, Alcoa, Berwind, Campbell Sales (Soup) and Coca-Cola, plus and Deere & Co., Dow Chemical, du Pont, General Dynamics and Hewlett Packard, along with Honeywell, Monsanto, Motorola, NCR, Procter & Gamble, Qualcomm, United Technology and Whirlpool, Tyco and United Health Care. Also operating the jets are younger, high-growth firms including sports gear makers Nike, New Balance, Timberland and Under Armour, plus Clear Channel, Dick’s Sporting Goods, eBay, Harbor Freight, Nu Skin, the Pritzker Organization (Hyatt Hotels) and SoftBank, along with firms owned or controlled by tycoons such as Ralph Lauren, Rupert Murdoch, T. Boone Pickens, Mark Cuban, Tom Friedkin, Todd Wagner, H. Ross Perot, Oprah Winfrey, Casey Wasserman, the Van Andel family (Amway) and Steve Wynn. Time Warner, Earthstar (Disney) and the New England Patriots, Johnson Controls, MGM Resorts and Altria, Lockheed Martin, Target, Nissan USA, Toyota Motors, White Wave Foods and Yum! Brands (KFC and others) are also club members.

Elsewhere in the Americas, there are a dozen G550s in Mexico, a trio in Canada, 10 in Brazil and one each in Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela. There also are eight registered in Bermuda but not based there.

Notably, Gulfstream has been quite successful in selling the G550 into China. There now are 70 aircraft in the region, including 19 operated by charter and management powerhouse Deer Jet in Beijing, nine with Metrojet in Hong Kong and one with China Eastern Airlines Executive Air in Shanghai. Several others are owned by Asian entrepreneurs and operated by management firms vetted, licensed and sanctioned by the People’s Republic of China. Property developer Sun Kian Ip Group of Macau, Hong Kong investor Che Fung’s Harmony Energy and Joseph Lau’s Chinese Estates Ltd. are among the high-profile entrepreneurial firms that operate the aircraft.

The aircraft is popular in Europe, with 16 in Great Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man, nine in Switzerland, eight in Germany and five each in Luxembourg and Russia. Only a few are operated by high-profile companies such as Great Britain’s ArcelorMittal mining and steel production, BMW in Munich, Saab in Nykoping, Tesco Stores at Luton and Sberbank in Moscow. NetJets Europe operates eight of the aircraft with Portuguese registrations.

Russian firms or individuals are especially low profile, apparently registering their aircraft in Bermuda or Isle of Man and having them managed by third-party firms.

The G550 is quite popular with Europe charter operators including Global Jet Luxembourg with six, Avcon Jet AG with three, Barcelona’s Executive Airlines with a pair, DC Aviation in Stuttgart and Milan’s Sirio, plus Korfez Havacilik in Istanbul. Jet Aviation and TAG Aviation manage several G550 aircraft on the continent.

Middle Eastern operators include Funair in Tel Aviv, Moalm Jets in Riyadh, Saudi Aramco in Dammam and FlyExec Ltd. in Beirut.

Aircraft also have found homes with military and government operators, including the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, along with Bahrain, Israel, Morocco and Nigeria, plus Oman, Singapore, Tanzania, Turkey and Uganda.

Mission Profiles

Gulfstream has a history of quoting realistic basic operating weights (BOW) for its aircraft and the G550 is no exception. The firm’s published BOW is 48,700 lb., including an 11,000-lb. outfitting allowance. That provides a 1,700-lb. full-tanks payload. Operators with whom we spoke report BOWs between 48,103 lb. and 48,800 lb. But they also say it’s easy to balloon up to 49,300 lb., or more, if they carry ample galley stores, tableware, food and beverages, plus supplies and spares that are needed for the longest international missions.

The aircraft has 6,700 nm of range with four crew and eight passengers, assuming ideal NBAA conditions. Most operators, though, limit their longest missions to 12 to 13 hr., yielding 5,500 to 6,000 nm of range at Mach 0.80 long-range cruise speed.

Raj Patel, who flies for a Texas firm, says he’s flown from Beijing to Houston, a 13+30, 7,445-nm mission while cruising at Mach 0.80 with favorable winds.

Most pilots say they climb directly to FL 400 or FL 410 on long-range missions, ballpark planning on a fuel burn of 4,500 to 5,000 lb. for the first hour, decreasing to 3,000 lb. for the second hour and decreasing to 2,400 lb. for the last hour of the mission. Such generous estimates for fuel burn assure they have ample reserves upon arrival.

Many operators routinely fly their aircraft at Mach 0.83 to 0.85 on missions shorter than 12 hr. Such cruise speeds enable them to fly nonstop between most city pairs in North America and Europe, and one-stop between most cities in the Western Pacific and North America. Anchorage is a popular technical stop between Asia and the U.S. where operators refuel and change flight and cabin crews. On shorter-range missions, crews say they plan on burning 5,000 lb. for the first hour, 4,000 lb. for the second hour and 3,000 lb. per hour for the remaining hours.

While the aircraft can carry 12 to 18 passengers, depending upon configuration, most operators report average passenger loads of two to five people, though some regularly carry as many as 10. The range tradeoff for each 200 lb. over tanks-full payload is about 37 nm. Fill up all the seats and, assuming an ideal NBAA mission profile and advertised BOW, you can still fly this aircraft 6,350 nm.

Typical stage lengths are 4 to 5 hr. On such missions, it’s possible to climb directly to FL 430 to FL 450 for improved fuel efficiency on transcontinental U.S. missions. However, when maintenance hops, position flights and domestic short-haul flights are included, average mission duration drops to 2.6 hr., according to Gulfstream Aerospace records.

The aircraft interior can be fully customized, but long ago Gulfstream began offering 12 “select” interior layouts with standardized seating, furnishings and plumbing. As noted, the manufacturer offers both forward and aft galley configurations, with close to two-thirds of customers opting for forward galleys.

Aircraft with a single sleeper chair in the forward crew rest compartment have three passenger seating areas in the main cabin. Some operators forego the crew rest compartment and configure the cabin with four passenger areas.

Popular options for passengers include additional cabin entertainment flat-screen monitors, Nespresso machines for the galleys, Inmarsat SwiftBroadband or Ku-band satcom broadband multilink data communications, a hinged shelf in the aft baggage compartment and a solid pocket door for privacy in the optional aft stateroom. Up front on the flight deck, many customers opt for synthetic vision (SVS) for the PFDs, the enhanced navigation system providing WAAS/SBAS/LPV approach and circling approach guidance, plus electronic charts, along with Honeywell’s Runway Awareness Advisory System (RAS) and flight crew emergency vision assurance system (EVAS).

Virtually all layouts feature a four-chair club section in the forward cabin. The center cabin may be configured with four club seats or a four-seat conference grouping with a credenza. A four-place divan may be installed in place of the credenza, conference grouping or a pair of club chairs.

The center cabin layouts also may be used in the aft cabin, but it’s also likely to be configured to feel like an executive retreat with room dividers, a sofa sleeper and a single work chair with table.

All aircraft have high-capacity forward and aft vacuum toilets. They’re not as noisy in operation as ones on commercial jetliners, but some operators say that most passengers take notice when either is being flushed.

When using cold weather landing facilities, operators say that it takes plenty of time to fully evacuate the water/waste water system to prevent freezing. Forget to purge the systems dry and you might incur a $100,000 plumbing repair bill, they claim.

Five Likes and Dislikes

The G550 is one of the strongest performers in the large-cabin class, and operators say reliability tops their list of five favorite features. Gulfstream says the aircraft indeed has achieved a 99.92% dispatch reliability, one of the highest of any group of aircraft we’ve yet surveyed.

“It’s built like a tank,” says Patel.

“It’s overbuilt,” says Dave Cassalia, who flies for Warner Chilcott. “It’s a proven airplane, such a good airplane at a reasonable price.”

Range and performance run a close second among the G550’s positives. Cassalia, for instance, says he’s flown from New York to Dubai, landing with generous reserves. The 1,135-sq.-ft. wing results in a relatively low wing loading that helps the aircraft climb directly to FL 410 at MTOW. But the wing is relatively stiff, so the ride in turbulence is not as comfortable as in some competitive large-cabin business aircraft with more-flexible wing structures.

For the G550, the Rolls-Royce BR700-710 turbofans produce 635 lb. more takeoff thrust than they did for the GV, in large part due to being able to turn off bleed air during takeoff when necessary. In combination with the aircraft’s relatively low wing loading, the more-sporty thrust-to-weight ratio of the aircraft results in shorter takeoff field lengths. When departing at MTOW, the G550 needs less than 6,000 ft. of runway assuming sea-level, standard-day conditions and less than 9,100 ft. when departing B&CA’s 5,000-ft. elevation/ISA+20C airport.

The aircraft’s 10.2-psi pressurization system also is a favorite feature. The system provides cabin altitudes of 4,500 ft. to 6,000 ft., thereby reducing passenger and crew fatigue on longer missions. Passenger comfort and acceptance ranked considerably higher for the G550 than for the GV because of its 20% larger usable cabin volume, low sou.nd levels and additional cabin windows.

Handling qualities also were lauded. The GV/G550 has a higher power boost ratio on the ailerons than GIV series aircraft, along with higher deflection roll spoilers. The design features reduce roll control effort and provide crisper roll response. Some pilots, though, say “It’s no Falcon,” referring to the light control feel of the Dassault jet.

In addition, the low wing loading and large trailing-edge flaps provide relatively low V speeds, along with low drag characteristics with flaps extended. Assuming standard day conditions, you can depart a 4,000-ft. runway for transatlantic trips between Western Europe and U.S. Northeast cities.

“It shows its muscle,” says Billy Witcher, who flies a G550 based in Florida.

Product support consistently makes the operators’ five favorites list. Some operators say there was a pronounced improvement in product support after the late Teddy Forstmann, chairman of Forstmann-Little, which owned Gulfstream from 1990 to 1999, wooed Bryan Moss away from Bombardier to lead the Savannah, Georgia, firm. Moss gained a reputation for putting product support ahead of aircraft sales, thereby earning strong loyalty from customers.

One pilot told of his aircraft being AOG on an island in the Caribbean. Alerted, Gulfstream sent parts and a technician to repair the aircraft and it was back in service prior to the scheduled return time to home base. A maintenance chief for another operator says that he can order AOG parts as late as 18:00 and the components arrive at his hangar by 08:00 the next day.

The flip side of Gulfstream’s renowned product support is comparatively steep direct operating cost, mainly due to expensive spare parts. Most often, operators cite problems with the cabin management system, power window shades and entertainment system.

“They’re a disaster,” says Patel.

Operators also complained about the steep price of upgrades, such as Cert F, SVS and enhanced navigation.

Cabin completion durability was criticized, particularly the deterioration of wood veneer finishes. Several operators said they’ve had to refurbish the interiors sooner than expected. But most of those critics fly early serial number aircraft that have been in service for nearly a decade.

Some operators say that cockpit temperature control is difficult and that the forward crew rest area is chilly at cruise altitude. Several also say that the BR700-710 turbofans have annoying vibrations and that Rolls-Royce just claims the engines’ roughness is within product specification. Operators are not pleased with Rolls-Royce’s response on this issue.

And, finally, some operators say the lean fuselage cross-section feels tight, compared to the more-generous dimensions of Bombardier Global series aircraft and Dassault Falcon Jets.

On Balance

The G550 has been Gulfstream’s best-selling model in the past half century. Indeed, it’s the best-selling model in the history of large-cabin business jets. The versatile long-range workhorse isn’t inexpensive to operate, but dispatch reliability, versatility and product support virtually are without equal, operators say. It’s a low-risk, evolutionary design that has proven its worth since it first entered service in 2003.

No operator we contacted rued the decision to buy the G550 instead of a competitive make. But it has reached the peak of its popularity and deliveries are tapering off.

That’s not a problem for Gulfstream. For buyers needing more range, speed and cabin size, the firm offers the G650 at a $6 million premium. And in 2019, the G600 will enter service, offering G550 operators another model with higher cruise speeds, yet lower cabin altitudes and a more-generous cross section. It’s worth noting that Gulfstream is deviating from its 50+ year history of only fitting Rolls-Royce engines to its newest models, instead opting to power the G600 with Pratt & Whitney Canada PW800 series turbofans.

However, the G600’s maximum range will be 500 mi. less than the G550’s, so some current operators may keep their aircraft unless Gulfstream offers a G600ER version with equal or better range performance. So, the G550 could remain in production until the end of the decade, or longer, continuing to lengthen its lead in this top-end market segment. B&CA

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This operators survey appears in the April 2015 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation under the title "Gulfstream G550."