Along with keys to the executive washroom and the parking spot for the Porsche, many of Wall Street's vanquished Masters of the Universe will have said farewell in recent weeks to the Citations, Gulfstreams and Learjets that sped them to high-powered business meetings and weekend homes in the Hamptons. Meltdown in Manhattan is having a telling impact on the business aviation sector by removing many of its most lucrative customers.

As operators and suppliers gathered last week in Orlando for the annual National Business Aviation Association convention, the worry was that the spread of the contagion to the wider global economy would throw into reverse a sector that has become a global success story in the past four years, spreading its wings into new regional markets and sectors such as very light jets, as well as spawning a host of new aircraft programmes.

NBAA static aircraft park
 © Barbara Cockburn/Flight International

Manufacturers were having none of it, talking up the industry's long-term robustness and dismissing current problems as an irritating blip. That is to be expected. Airframers that invest hundreds of millions of dollars in developing sophisticated products have little to gain by yelling fire in the theatre at a time when consumer and shareholder confidence is fragile at best.

However, the optimists do have a point. Backlogs are stronger now than they were when the dotcom crash and terrorist attacks threw the US economy into tailspin in 2001. More important is the source of that backlog. Six years ago, six out of every 10 aircraft on Bombardier's orderbooks were destined for North American customers. In 2007, just three in 10 were. Although the rest of the world is not immune to the crisis in the USA - witness the bank failures in Iceland and plunging stock markets in Asia - the market for business aircraft will not necessarily catch the USA's cold.

Much of the wealth in emerging regions is commodity-based (oil sheikhs and mining barons have more to spend on corporate jets than ever), while distances and poor infrastructure create a real need. Meanwhile, unlike North America's 60-year-old sector, the rest of the world market is in its infancy, with burgeoning business communities just beginning to discover the joys of private air travel. You just have to look at the growth of industry shows in Moscow and Dubai - next month's Middle East Business Aviation convention is reportedly thrice the size of its 2007 predecessor - to see the enormous potential.

The profile of the industry is different too. Back in the early noughties, there was a yawning gap between mostly decades-old piston designs and the smallest business jets. Since then the entry price point for business aviation has plunged with the advent of very light jets from Cessna, Eclipse, Embraer and others, as well as highly efficient modern pistons from the likes of Cirrus and Diamond. Although many of these programmes have had a bumpy ride to certification and beyond, they have opened the door for potentially millions of new users of business aviation, who no longer need telephone number-sized incomes to enjoy its benefits.

But at NBAA this year, it was hard to paper over the cracks. There were signs aplenty that the next 24 months could be challenging for an industry that has recently launched an unprecedented number of new models. Although the lack of programme announcements was more likely down to the fact that most manufacturers have already called their hand, there were worryingly few big order deals being signed at the show. Exhibitors reported aisle traffic substantially down on last year. Rumours abound that several big US corporations are looking to offload part or all of their fleet of business jets. A glut of used aircraft on the market will depress prices and make it more difficult for manufacturers to sell new models.

Long before the credit crunch, most long-term forecasters were predicting a mild downswing in business aircraft orders at the end of the decade - not entirely unwelcome given the difficulty capacity-constrained manufacturers have been having in meeting demand. And if the downturn proves short-lived, or if business aviation customers in the rest of the world prove resilient to the crisis in financial markets, strong backlogs will see the industry through the worst. However, anxious eyes will be looking for weather warnings of a deeper, more prolonged downturn ahead. A collapse in used aircraft values in the next few months would not bode well.


Source: Flight International