All that glitters

Flight International Comment from 15 October.

Look around the business jet industry today and, on the surface, the view is impressive. The marketplace abounds with a flashy array of major product upgrades and clean-sheet designs, while whispers hint at more aircraft launches still to come.
Not since the ludicrous heyday of the very light jet era has the industry seen so many new projects in the pipeline. The difference between now and then, though, is that the industry appears aware of the actual state of the world outside its glossy brochures, which is not nearly as healthy as appearances may imply.
Like visitors to Las Vegas, the venue for the upcoming NBAA convention, the business jet market is divided into winners and losers.
Makers of large-cabin and super-midsize jets continue to call it right – these are as popular now as they were before the financial crisis. But the luck of the high-rollers has still not trickled down to gamblers at the lower end. The light and midsize sectors have always relied on North American entrepreneurs to sustain growth, but this usually reliable pool of customers has simply dried up.
Theories to explain this behavioural shift are plentiful and include the political backlash against “fat cats” in business jets, a glut of used aircraft and general doubt about the direction of the global economy.
And forecasts indicating a full recovery unfolding in 2014 are still based more on faith than hard data.
The standard metrics suggest the rebound should already be well under way. Yet combined sales this year of entry-level Embraer Phenom 100s and Cessna Mustangs still trail those of the large-cabin Gulfstream G550. That does not suggest a healthy and balanced business.
The good news is that the industry – particularly the segment that nearly lost its shirt – is adapting. The days of three-year order backlogs appear to be gone, and so is the requirement for customers to specify their cabin interiors months, or even years, in advance. Now, most manufacturers are willing to configure a light or midsize jet with as little as three weeks’ notice. It’s a small step, but indicative of the changes required.
But uncertainty surrounds the prospects for the clutch of new aircraft entering the bottom half of the market. It remains possible that there are too many new projects chasing too few old customers.
What the light jet and midsize sectors really need to thrive is the unlocking of new markets in the so-called developing economies. That, or a little bit of good old-fashioned luck.


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