Aviation meeting at the Monaco Yacht Show with Benoit Defforge, the dynamic President of Airbus Corporate Jets
The success of Benoit Defforge, who’s barely 50, in the very upscale world of business aviation confirms that age is not necessarily an indicator of value. In 2014, Benoit Defforge was appointed President of Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ) while retaining the presidency of Airbus Corporate Jet Centre (ACJC), a subsidiary dedicated to the interior design of private jets. What makes him a recognized leader in this market is his ability to listen to clients, his know-how, which is bolstered by his exceptional ingenuity, and of course his passion. He’s known for his work with the world’s most high-tech, comfortable and refined aircraft and offers today’s “busy people” a different way to travel!
Benoit Defforge, you’ve been the President of Airbus Corporate Jet (ACJ) since early 2014. Two years later, how would you rate your grand and wonderful adventure?
I took on the presidency of ACJ after being the President of ACJC for seven years, which provided me with extensive experience in the field of business aviation.
The first priority was to start changing the ACJ319 and ACJ320. This change was crucial, with the integration of a new generation of engines that consume 15% less energy, offering our clients a greater range. We also made several other improvements related to passenger comfort. Today, the ACJ319neo can reach a range of 6,750 nautical miles, or more than 15 hours of flight. With such long flight times, it’s important to be attentive to the comfort of our clients.
Turning your A350 into the ACJ350 was, I believe, the second stage of your project?
The second stage was indeed to transform our A350 into the ACJ350. The more I learn about this plane, the more I realize that it benefits from all the know-how of Airbus’s latest developments. It’s an extraordinary design, both in terms of comfort, noise, reduced environmental impact, and when it comes to performance such as range. It reaches a flight duration of 20 hours and almost 22 hours with the ultra-long range version. Our ACJ350 is an all-around-the-world model, with over 270m2 available to our clients.
Although the composite materials give us an advantage performance-wise, they can make the integration of a VIP cabin more complex. We foresaw this difficulty and worked with our outfitters to develop an “EasyFit” interface solution. Our clients can therefore benefit from the ACJ350’s performance without any surprises during the outfitting phase. ACJ is a niche in the heart of this magnificent company that is Airbus. Our role is to pay special attention to all the needs of ACJ’s clients and their specific operational features. An ACJ client has a different flight profile and use their aircraft differently than an airline. The constraints and issues involved are different. We have a responsibility to our clients, so I always repeat our priority to my teams: “Excellence in Customer Care”. The “EasyFit” solution is a perfect example.
And the third stage?
The first two stages allowed us to renew our product range. We now have modern, efficient, comfortable designs that are tailored to our clients. The third stage, which was equally important, was to develop the ACJ brand so that we could be better known to our clients – brand awareness. We innovated by developing highly selective partnerships, the first being with Richard Mille. Our Design Studio, headed by Sylvain Mariat, designed the RM 50-02 ACJ closely with the Richard Mille team. Richard is passionate about aviation, and Sylvain and I feel the same way about watches – hence, this unique partnership.
In the same spirit, we work with Boutsen Design for events like the Monaco Yacht Show, since yachting shares the same high-end clients as business aviation.
What is ACJ’s advantage compared to others?
A major advantage is the comfort of our aircraft; we offer the most spacious cabins on the market. This enables us to offer an unmatched level of comfort. For example, our ACJs are wider and higher than the Boeing by 12 inches; it may not seem like much but it brings a lot in terms of design opportunities. Designers love it and in addition to extra space, we also offer silence. The ACJneo and ACJ350 offer the latest noise-reduction technology that benefit both our passengers and the environment.
What you offer compared to traditional business jets, is a level of unparalleled reliability. Could you tell us a little more?
Our designs are put through rigorous trials when used by airlines. Airlines require maximum availability, requiring equipment reliability and optimized maintenance periods.
Our ACJs benefit from all developments in these areas; our guests have aircraft at their
disposal whose availability rate is incomparable and whose operations costs are like smaller aircraft. We’re talking extraordinary benefits.
What are ACJ’s latest innovations?
Our brand and products would be nothing without our clients, so naturally we
always have them in mind. On the day of delivery, the life of our aircraft begins!
“Excellence in customer care” is more than just a motto, it’s a mindset. For example, every year we meet our clients through the “ACJ Customer Forum”, where we listen to our customers and present our various innovations. We’ve also set up a “Customer Advisory Board” where a dozen of our clients represents the ACJs in operation. We work with them on improving their ACJ but also on improving their operations. Our clients are very involved in identifying product improvements and in the decision-making process. For each topic, the members of the Advisory Board can, at their discretion, accept our solutions or ask us to continue working towards a solution that fully satisfies their needs.
What is your client profile, and how many of your corporate jets are in operation today?
We have over 180 ACJs flying around the world. The ACJ fleet is the 10th largest Airbus fleet in the world. So, it’s a niche market but it’s very important to Airbus which is why we set up its own organization.
Our client profile is quite varied. A head of state, for example, nowadays can’t travel around the world without being in a secured environment, or without being able to communicate confidentially with their government and even their army staff. In addition, heads of states very often travel accompanied by ministers or delegations of business leaders and journalists. As such, they’re required to have private planes and I don’t mean VIP planes. Businesspeople and entrepreneurs also use our ACJ, since their business is global and they often travel with their staff. Those are the two “corporate” uses of our ACJ.
Of course, we also have many private clients who use their ACJ for leisure and/or business. Finally, we have charter companies that rent our ACJs for a flight or a prolonged period. Our ACJ clients fly on average 500 to 600 hours per year, which is low compared to an airliner, and some owners make their ACJ available for charter flights.
Our clientele is international – the Middle-East has been a very active area, as well as Russia. In recent years, the Chinese and Southeast Asian markets have developed considerably.
What can you tell us about the peculiarities of Russian clients?
The Russians are used to refined, luxurious and elegant environments. The history of Russia is that of a great country that, through the centuries, has developed etiquette and know-how that’s reflected in the needs of our Russian clients. This is particularly the case when it comes to designing a cabin. It requires entering the innermost thoughts of our clients to understand how they’ll live on board. It’s nice to work with Russians; they make appropriate choices due to their culture.
Russia and the surrounding countries represent an extremely important geographic area for us – more than 15 ACJs fly in that area. Airbus and ACJ and have an office in Moscow, which combines our support and sales force. Airbus also has many suppliers in the area.
Could you tell us a little about the design of your cabins?
Unlike traditional business jets, the ACJ’s cabin can be completely customized. We can manage the whole aircraft’s project – cabin and design – for our clients. We can also deliver an aircraft without a cabin and the client can manage the design and outfitting of the cabin with their team. Many things are possible, but we still must respect the constraints of aeronautical certification and of course remain alert to the ground. The cabin’s design phase is always very exciting. The first questions I always ask a client are, “What do you want to do with your cabin and how do you want to live in it? Will you be flying alone, with family or with your employees? Will you work in the plane; sleep in it?” Then and only then comes the aesthetic part. To bring this back to our Russian clients – they have a real feeling for and a genuine attachment to decor. This cabin design phase is a very pleasant and rewarding one; it’s a moment of true exchange with our clients, and it’s a rare moment.
Would you like to say a few words about your presence at the Monaco Yacht Show and on your partners?
Two and a half years ago, when I took on my new role, I worked on several approaches,
especially on different ways to communicate. That’s when we decided not to focus solely on air shows, but to meet new clients at different events. The Monaco Yacht Show (MYS), is a world-renowned event that attracts potential clients. The budgets of a 100m2 yacht and that of an ACJ are similar, which made the MYS an interesting target for us. The next question was, how could we optimize the presence of a brand that isn’t a nautical one? Daniela and Thierry Boutsen, whom I’ve known for a long time and appreciate enormously, facilitated our work and it happened naturally. Last year, Daniela had me visit the Yacht Club’s dining room that she had had the honour of decorating. This year, Daniela offered to share her “Secret Garden” which was a great opportunity to be at the heart of the MYS in the Yacht Club’s extraordinary environment. Mission accomplished!
How many planes do you deliver in a year?
On average, we deliver between 8 and 10 ACJs annually. We’re currently transitioning to new designs we’ll be delivering them starting in 2018. On average, it ranges from seven to eight ACJ319s and ACJ320s per year and some widebodies.
Could you tell us a little about the security of your jets?
It’s probably one of the most important issues for our clients. They generally have their own security but we felt it was important to offer them systems that are complementary, embedded or set up on the ground. They’re perimeter protection systems equipped with cameras and communication systems to alert and map in case of an intrusion within the plane’s perimeter. It’s another example of our “Customer Care”.
What are your development projects?
We now have new platforms for our ACJ319, 320 and 350; we’re working with the A330 teams to prepare for the arrival of the ACJ330neo.
Of course, we’ll continue to develop our services so that our clients continue to benefit from the latest developments in connectivity and digital technology. Airbus also manufactures helicopters; we have an EC145 on exhibit on the Yacht Club’s roof at the MYS. These machines are highly appreciated by our VIP clients. As such, we’re considering how greater collaboration with Airbus can help us better satisfy our joint clients.
As you can see, we’re not short on projects!