April 1, 2009:
With relatively few Meridians flying around Europe our survey yielded only a couple of responses. Mike Drake of PJ Group, Ireland, reported being satisfied with the dispatch reliability, operating capabilities and value-for-money of his US-registered example. However, he is currently very unhappy with the available maintenance support. "Mann Aviation after 15 years say they do not want to service the aircraft any more," he told EBAN.
The best thing about the Meridian, he says, is its value for money from a to b, while the worst thing is the handling on the runway. The company in Europe with the greatest experience of Meridian operations must surely be Piper OK as, the manufacturer's dealer in the Czech Republic. It manages five Meridians in its NetFlight programme which includes both private aircraft management and fractional ownership. "Some aircraft we operate are fully owned and some are fractional, but they are all collectively operated as a single fleet," says Piper OK's Lubomir Cornak.
"So far we didn't have to cancel a single flight due to mechanical reasons. The Meridian can fly 700 km trips with four passengers, or up to 1,800 km with two," he adds. "There is nothing available on the market that comes close to Meridian in terms of cost per mile."
He cites the recently introduced Avidyne MLX-770 datalink as the most desirable upgrade, providing European operators real time weather data, including radar pictures.
"All customers would add a slightly bigger cabin on their wish list, but they collectively agree that the cost factor is higher priority than the cabin size for them," he adds. "We even have customers who have access to a business jet through their parent companies, but they still prefer to fly Meridian on shorter trips.
"Our goal was to provide a cost conscious alternative to traditional business aviation arrangements. Some of our customers use their Meridians as passengers, while others take advantage of piloting the aircraft themselves, with help of our accompanying professional pilot.
"We plan on expanding the programme throughout Europe, as we think a customer base exists for this "low end" business aviation everywhere," he says.
So how did the NetFlight programme come about? Cornak explains: "I believe the smaller aircraft like the Piper Meridian may gain greater popularity in the future, as they are the real cost-cutters against traditional business aircraft, while there is no significant sacrifice in performance, comfort and safety. That gain in popularity has only been delayed by a few years because of 'VLJ-fever' fueled by unrealistic promises. Now that the VLJ market is materialising and everybody sees that there is no such thing as a free lunch, customers are realising that the only low-cost turbine travel option available today is in single-engine turboprops.
"I am sure there are at least 60 Meridians operated in Europe, most of them fully or partly for business. But since they are owned by small enterprises and individuals rather than corporations they get less visibility than the TBMs and PC-12s. However, it is not uncommon to see two or three Meridians at the same airport (over recent months I have seen three Meridians at St Gallen, Biggin Hill, Vienna and Prague).
"We have been a Piper Aircraft dealer for over ten years and as the Piper Meridian was being developed, we saw many people interested in this 'everyman's turbine'. But it is still too expensive for the average Joe-pilot. That's when the idea of fractional ownership first came into my mind. It took a couple of years to develop the programme and go over all the legalities, but in 2006 we started operations with the first Meridian. Today we have five aircraft with two more on order. Most operations are from Prague, Czech Republic, but we are starting to penetrate other regions too.
"Our fractional program NetFlight has two basic forms: Operational Lease and Investment. We typically start working with new customers in our Operational Lease programme, to give them the opportunity to get a feel for the aircraft without the long term commitment. If they like it, we will transfer them into an investment programme at the first opportunity. Customers may choose from five different share sizes, starting with 1/16 share for as low as e1,950 lease per month and e435 operating costs per flight hour. The 1/16 share allows them to use 50 hours per year. Since the Meridian is capable of flying to small airfields with very low landing fees, but also to major airports where costs may be astronomical, we keep these items out from the hourly price and rather charge customers their respective fees. The basic hourly operating costs include one pilot, since some of our customers are pilots themselves and they are glad to take the other front seat. However, our non-pilot customers may opt for a two pilot crew for an additional fee. We are trying to educate them on the safety issues of single-pilot vs. multi-pilot operations and, as a result, the absolute majority of our flights are with two-pilot crew, either including a piloting customer, or a full professional crew.
"Even though we operate on a non-commercial basis, we apply many of the OPS 1 concepts into our operations voluntarily. Our goal is to provide our fractional owners with similar safety standards to commercial operations. We start with things like duty and rest time control, use of SOPs, continuous training, line checks, performance limits, etc. When an owner proposes a flight where standards cannot be met we make sure that he is aware of the fact and can make a reasonable decision from there. Beside that, we have our absolute safety minimums beyond which we don't allow any operations, no matter how insistent a customer might be.
"The Meridian is in no way a Citation replacement. However, missions are often flown by jets which could be easily flown by a Meridian for a fraction of the cost. Some NetFlight customers charter jets for some of their air travel and they continue doing so even as they own a Meridian share.
"With Meridian they do their daily business hopping, mostly replacing a car ride, but they use jets to fly greater distances. We even have one NetFlight customer who owns a King Air 200, but for short trips within 500 km radius he prefers to use the Meridian, while he rents the King Air to a charter company.
"The Meridian is the easiest turbine aircraft to fly one can imagine. It was designed with the private pilot in mind, including many "foolproof" design features, such as the permanent inertial separator, so the pilot doesn't need to worry about ice ingestion, foreign object damage or engine performance degradation in icing conditions.
"So far, the Meridian has fulfilled all expectations we had. It is true all-weather aircraft with solid perfor-mance and very reasonable costs."