Piaggio Aero P180 Avanti II: Too Much Private Plane Or Just Right?

  on June 04 2012 8:32 PM

The P180 Avanti II is striking. Even stationary on the tarmac, the plane from Italian aerospace company Piaggio Aero looks like it will rise into the air on the slightest breath of breeze, a magnificent roc ready to take to the skies and transport its travelers to wondrous lands -- or at least the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J.

Taking the Avanti II for a test flight proved to be a calming, almost idyllic, experience in its way, despite the drive through industry-stained and strip mall-choked New Jersey. To be perfectly honest, the best argument for anyone considering buying a private, executive airplane like the Avanti II is that it is tremendously convenient, but that can apply to any plane in the class.

The ability to simply drive up to the airport (the small the better, no parking difficulties, no lines) and meet your pilot and walk out to the plane is absolutely worth it. You can fly whenever you want, from wherever you want with no security checks, no checking bags, and no terrible airport food. But those perks are the same for any private plane. Why spend $7.2 million on an Avanti II instead of something else?

The answer comes down to three simple factors: understated luxury, efficiency and utilitarianism, three things the Avanti II has in abundance.

The Avanti II has comfort and luxury in its bones. Literally. The cabin is significantly larger than other planes in its class. At 6 feet 1 inch across and 5 feet, 9 inches tall, it far and away exceeds planes like the King Air, Citation CJ and Citation XLS+ and is only slightly smaller than a Falcon 50.

You can actually stand up as opposed to walking around like the hunchback of Notre Dame, Piaggio American President and CEO John Bingham said during the flight, describing walking about in the plane. Bingham has intimate experience with luxury as a former executive at Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars, and he brings a bit of stuffily, British euphemism to the mystique of Piaggio Aero. He knows luxury, though, and the Avanti II fits his definition.

The roominess of the cabin is a huge selling point for the Avanti II, and it is further complemented by unquestionably fashionable trim in the best Italian style. Leather seats, embossed or embroidered to order, wood paneling and pullout tables and a sliding panel door that completely closes off the bathroom at the back of the plane make the interior a pleasure to survey.

The plane can seat up to nine, depending out the layout selected, plus two crew. We tested a seven-seat layout that left plenty of room to swivel seats around, stretch out and walk in the cabin. For longer flights, seats can be reclined and positioned to convert into beds, much in the style of the seats on European trains, only immeasurably more comfortable. The most noticeable thing about the Avanti II (or is it the least?) is the comparative silence.

Part of what makes the Avanti II look so outwardly striking is that its twin turboprops are located at the rear of the plane and face backwards. To lift the nose of the plane, it has a pair of stubby wings in the front. The combination gives the Avanti II three lifting surfaces: primary wings, nose wings and the fuselage itself. More importantly, however, from a passenger's perspective, the placement and direction of the engines make the cabin exceptionally quiet.

The turboprops on the plane face the rear for two reasons. The first is summed up by a point from the plane's pilot Grant Spigener: When have you ever seen a cruise ship with the propellers in the front? The aerodynamics and physics of the plane are such that it is significantly more efficient to face the propellers to the rear. The outside benefit of placing the engines at the back of the plane, facing away, is that engine noise in the cabin in greatly reduced. When flying in the Avanti II, you don't notice the sound of the engines at all beyond a warm hum in the background like a fan on a summer's night. It makes having a conversation effortless.

The silence of the cabin is a huge part of the Avanti II's appeal. It makes holding conversations, as in a business meeting, very easy, and the plane comes equipped for just that. It has multiple screens allowing the display of presentations and it comes wired for Internet and cell phone connectivity. The cabin features multiple adjustable work surfaces and has clearly been designed with the executive business meeting in mind.

The aerodynamics and unusual design of the plane also make it highly efficient. The Avanti II is capable of a cruising speed of 402 KTAS. It's twin turboprops are driven by Pratt & Whitney Canada PT66B engines capable of developing up to 1630 horsepower each. A speed of 402 KTAS makes it faster than some light jets and only slightly slower than many of its other competitors. While a Hawker 400 XP can do 450 KTAS, it burns 180 gallons of gas an hour compared with 100 for the Avanti II. The fuel economy of the Avanti II is impressive. Even the similarly sized Citation CJ1 burns 120 gallons an hour while only managing 389 KTAS. The Avanti II's efficiencies can reduce operating costs by as much as 40 percent, according to Bingham.

So for the environmentally or price-conscious buyer capable of spending $7.2 million on a plane, the Avanti II is miles above its competitors in terms of fuel efficiency and eco cred. All the technical innovations -- engine placement, lifting surfaces, wings in the front -- also give the Avanti II a distinct advantage in that they grant it access to any runway 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) long or more. The plane's maximum ceiling is 41,000 feet and its maximum range is 2,722 kilometers (1,691 miles).

From a pilot's perspective, the plane makes a lot of sense. It can handle relatively modest runways, can be flown with a multiengine certification, does not require a co-pilot (although there is a seat for one) and has a lusted-after glass cockpit of top-of-the-line instrumentation.

So by numbers, by appearance, by utility, the Piaggio Aero P180 Avanti II makes loads of sense. Each plane is made individually to order -- it's not sitting around prebuilt in some warehouse. The plane is efficient and comfortable, quiet, classy, cutting edge. Yet, while 1,691 miles is plenty for cross-country flight, it won't get you from New York to Paris. Any buyer considering the Avanti II has to question whether the amenities and convenience of the plane truly outweigh the cost savings of flying first class everywhere. At $1,000 a ticket, one way, you can fly between New  York and Los Angeles 7,000 times before equaling the cost of the Avanti II, and that doesn't include operating costs (despite the 40 percent savings offered by the Avanti II over competitors).

The Avanti II is a great private plane, no doubt, but does a private plane really make sense for most businesses? Probably not. For a private individual willing to pay a premium price for convenience and comfort, though, the Avanti II may be just the ticket.

After all, it impresses me every day how far it will go, how fast it will go on so little gas, Bingham said.

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