2008 forecast: the business aviation boom shows no sign of faltering

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As the world's faltering financial markets start to knock the stability of many global economies, business aviation continues its relentless charge through one the most prosperous periods in its history, cushioned from a possible downturn by healthy aircraft backlogs and an insatiable appetite for both new and used aircraft.

Significantly, business aviation is for the first time no longer dependent on the US economy and the country's strong corporate profits to bolster its fortunes.

New markets

Airframers' vigorous pursuit of a new generation of customers within the prosperous emerging markets of China, India, Russia and other former eastern bloc countries is finally paying off. Meanwhile increased acceptance of business aviation in established markets such as the Europe and the Middle East have also helped to boost order books to unprecedented levels. Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia says: "Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, but so far things look good. Corporate profits have been strong, but can turn on a dime."

Last year international markets displaced the USA for the first time at the top of the leader board for new aircraft sales and the gap looks set to widen over the coming year as the sales frenzy continues worldwide. "You can't place too much faith in the large backlog to insulate business jet manufacturers from any corporate austerity measures, but demand globalisation will provide considerable relief for any US-focused recession," says Aboulafia.

While economic stability is a fundamental ingredient for sustaining demand, introducing new aircraft models and upgrades is also vital. While most airframers are electing to squeeze the last drop out of their cash cows with product upgrades and soaring aircraft deliveries, last year was boosted by the entry into service of new and derivative aircraft with big order backlogs, including the Dassault's new Falcon ultra long-range 7X, Hawker Beechcraft's 900XP - the first of two derivatives from the popular mid-size 850XP - and Bombardier's Challenger 605 and Learjet 60XR. Dassault and Bombardier were the only leading airframers last year to launch clean sheet designs with their respective mid-size Falcon and next generation Learjet NXT- set for its public debut later this year - although neither is expected to enter service until the next decade.

Perhaps a highlight of 2007 was the service entry of the first wave of very light jets - the Eclipse 500 and the Cessna Citation Mustang. Their introduction sparked the launch of the first low-cost air taxi service from Florida-based Dayjet, which will be followed by other new services in 2008 including Magnum Jet of Texas and London, UK-based Blink.

The coming year promises to be equally as bullish for the airframers, starting with the long awaited service entry of the Hawker 4000 super-mid-size business jet and the Wichita-based airframer's new mid-size offering, the Hawker 750. Further derivatives of its Beechcraft and Hawker lines are also anticipated.

Austria's Diamond Aircraft will certificate and deliver the first of a new tranche of person­al jets in the second half. Adam Aircraft of the USA and Swiss-headquartered Grob will be hoping to clinch certification for their respective A700 VLJ and SPn light jet in the fourth quarter, while freshly funded start-up Sino Swearingen may finally be able to begin production ramp-up of its SJ30 light business jet.

New product

Gulfstream, whose last new aircraft, the G550, was launched in 2000, is likely to unveil new product this year if it is to remain consistent with its tradition of adding a new product every seven years.

Embraer will certificate and deliver its eagerly anticipated Phenom 100 VLJ this year while simultaneously building a business case for launching a its new medium-light and mid-size jets this year that would enter service in around five years.

Cessna has a busy year ahead with the first flight of its Citation CJ4 light jet set for the first half of the year. The latest upgrade to its popular superlight XLS will enter service in the coming 12 months equipped with Pro Line 21 avionics, digital engine controls, reprofiled nose and a new interior. The largest general aviation manufacturer, Cessna, is widely expected to launch its large-cabin business jet this quarter, finally marking its foray into this popular market sector and providing a step up from its mid-size Sovereign and high-speed Citation X. While Cessna considers its strategy, its ubiquitous Caravan 208 single engine turboprop will be available for the first time this year with a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. It will be joined in 2008 by the Pilatus PC-12 and EADS Socata TBM 850 in 2008 which are also getting new generation flightdecks.

These modernisation programmes are symptomatic of the turboprop's continuing renaissance, boosted by rising global fuel prices. Operators and manufacturers hope 2008 will at last bring approval of commercial single-engine instrument flight rules operations in Europe after a wait of a dozen years.