Demand for corporate jets spanning Gulfstream (GD)’s $14.5 million G150 to the $4 million Embraer SA (EMBR3) Phenom 100 is failing to track a rebound in stock markets as companies focus on preserving cash.
Concern about the strength of the economic recovery in the U.S., the European debt crisis and the potential for more political turmoil in the Middle East is also contributing to buyers sitting on the fence, companies including market leader Cessna said this week at the Ebace business-aviation expo.
Manufacturers that had been forced to slash output from a 2007 peak as the credit crunch and recession sent demand tumbling had since counted on gains in corporate earnings and share prices to spur orders. The increasing number of high net worth individuals and demand from China had also been expected to revive demand, a bet executives said has yet to pay off.
“The stock market is at record levels but a lot of that is through cost control,” Scott Ernest, CEO at Textron Inc. (TXT)’s Cessna, said in an interview at the show in Geneva. “The ability for people to take a decision to spend a significant amount of money on a business tool such as a jet is difficult.”
Gulfstream President Larry Flynn said order weakness is mainly afflicting the market for smaller jets, in particular its G150, where production slots remain available early next year.
‘Slow to Close’
“Companies have the money, they have the earnings, but they are slow to close airplane deals,” Flynn said, adding that while the situation won’t hurt the business this year, it may do so in 2014.
The flagship $65 million G650, which can cover 7,000 nautical miles and fly close to the speed of sound, remains sold out through mid-2017 and the G280, first delivered last year, is still benefiting from the uplift new models generally get, he said.
Cessna is seeing a similar trend, with new planes enjoying greater demand, Ernest said. The six-passenger Citation M2 is sold out for 2013 and about 10 production slots are available next year. The company is also wrapping up development of the Sovereign, seating 12 and due for delivery in the third quarter, and the Mach 0.935 Citation X, slated for this year.
“The wallets have not fully opened up,” said Ernest Edwards, president of Embraer’s business-jet unit. “There is still not quite the confidence to get a strong recovery in aircraft sales.”
Signs of a rebound exist, Edwards said, with sales of Embraer’s smallest plane, the $4 million, seven-passenger Phenom 100, and the larger Phenom 300s starting to pick up in the U.S.
Embraer is betting the market for larger jets will also rebound, with first delivery of the $20 million Legacy 500 12-seater starting next year and the first flight of the Legacy 450, accommodating eight, due before year’s end. Edwards predicts the new planes can outsell the Phenom models, the Brazilian company’s most successful business aircraft to date.
The used aircraft market, where prices have been depressed, is also damping demand. As a result, Cessna has begun monitoring production on a quarterly basis to allow it to boost output if sales picks up, or slow it if orders wane, Ernest said, with lead times trimmed for maximum flexibility.
“We have positioned our company to be productive in this environment,” he said.
Although the U.S. order recovery has been slow, there are pockets of strength including Africa, according to Eric Trappier, chief executive officer of Dassault Aviation SA (AM), who said the French company is in “a wait-and-see position.”
In China, where sales have surged in recent years, prospects remain strong even if growth rates have slowed slightly, said Trappier, whose company plans to unveil its new plane, the SMS now in its industrial ramp-up phase, in October.
Embraer’s Edwards said Indonesia and the manufacturer’s home country of Brazil are two other markets where business is booming. Still, there is concern that a Chinese consumption tax may add 25 percent to the price of business jets, on top of a 22 percent import levy, dealing a “devastating” blow, Gulfstream’s Flynn said.
Even according to its most pessimistic outlook, Embraer sees demand in the next two decades for more than 7,900 business jets worth about $205 billion, or several hundred more if the market rebounds.
“The lack of confidence is what is missing,” Edwards said. “The sooner we can get confidence back the better.”