The turnaround in the private-jet market is finally reaching the small- and medium-sized models that fell out of favor after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.
Buyers in 2014 included a mozzarella maker, a seller of building materials and a pasta producer. With the U.S. economic rebound picking up steam, midsize companies are again feeling flush enough to invest in corporate planes, said Brian Foley, a Sparta, New Jersey-based aviation consultant.
“There’s pent-up demand out there,” Foley said. “Buyers of that smaller category had stayed on the sidelines until they regained confidence in the economy.”
Aircraft makers shipped 480 midsize and light jets combined last year, a 12 percent increase from 2013 and the first gain since 2008, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Large-cabin aircraft, which are favored by big corporations and had spearheaded the rebound in private aircraft sales, fell by 7 planes to 242, the first decline since 2011. Total business jet shipments in 2014 rose 6.5 percent to 722.
The rising demand for smaller jets reflects a rebound in the U.S. economy, which expanded 2.4 percent last year and is expected to grow 3.2 percent this year, according to estimates from economists surveyed by Bloomberg. That would be the fastest pace since 2005.
The negative stigma on traveling by company jet that arose during the recession has dissipated as the economy improves and as industry groups promote private aircraft as a time-saving tool, especially when flying to smaller cities that have limited commercial flights.
Companies such as Denver-based Leprino Foods, American Builders & Contractors Supply Co. and Divine Pasta Co. have benefited from increased consumer spending, job growth, low interest rates and a housing rebound.
Alexander Palermo, who founded Burbank, California-based Divine Pasta fresh out of college in 1992, recently flew with five of his employees to Gadsden, Alabama, to inspect equipment for a production line. The trip took a day with his Phenom 300, made by Brazil’s Embraer SA, instead of at least two in a commercial flight.
Flying private “allows for extreme flexibility and there are certain places that are very hard to get to,” said Palermo, who flies about 30 hours a month. “The aircraft we have has everything to do with the economics.”
As his business has expanded, Palermo, 46, decided to buy a larger plane to replace a Phenom 100, giving him the range to fly to Chicago from Los Angeles nonstop, he said.
Leprino, which is the world’s largest maker of mozzarella cheese, according to its website, and Beloit, Wisconsin-based ABC Supply both purchased new Bombardier Inc. Challenger 300 jets in 2014, according to Federal Aviation Administration registry records.
Kim DeVigil, a spokeswoman for Leprino, and Nancy Deptolla, a spokeswoman for ABC Supply, declined interview requests.
“The overall trend is positive,” said Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. “As the U.S. economy improves and you combine that with new product offerings, that all helps the lighter jets.”
New aircraft demand has been helped by a decline in the number of used jets for sale, Bunce said. A glut of pre-owned planes put on the market after the 2008-2009 recession drove down prices and dissuaded buyers from purchasing new planes.
Kenny Dichter, founder of the New York-based Wheels Up, has signed up 1,100 customers since he started the company, which sells flying time on private aircraft to members, 18 months ago. About half of the fliers come from corporations and are moving up from airline business class to private travel as the economy improves, he said. Wheels Up has purchased 10 Cessna Citation Excel/XLS jets and 27 King Air turboprop planes.
“We haven’t seen this kind of robust demand in the U.S. since 2007,” said Dichter, who founded Marquis Jet in 2001 and sold it to Warren Buffett’s NetJets Inc. in 2010.
The trend of the smaller private-plane shipments gaining more than 10 percent and large aircraft posting no -- or even negative -- growth will hold this year, Foley said. A slowdown in emerging markets, including China and Russia, have crimped sales of big aircraft, such as the Gulfstream 550 and Dassault Aviation SA’s Falcon 7X.
Weakening currencies in foreign countries also may drag down sales of large jets, which are sold in dollars no matter where they are made, Foley said.
Gulfstream, a unit of General Dynamics Corp., delivered 117 of its large-cabin aircraft last year, down from 121 in 2013. Dassault’s 7X sales dropped to 27 from 43 in 2013.
Lower jet fuel prices may spur more private flying and eventually encourage owners to purchase a new plane, Foley said. Private flight operations for aircraft under instrument flight rules, which had declined for the past 15 years, held steady in 2014 from the previous year, according to FAA records.
“The buyers of small and midsize jets are very price sensitive,” Foley said. “They shy away when things are expensive and they move back in when things get affordable.”