The fractional jet industry is in the midst of a major transformation caused by shakeups in executive suites, startup failures and questions of survival for some established providers, according to Brian Foley, president of Sparta, N.J.-based Brian Foley Associates.
The recent .5 billion cancellation of Bombardier Learjet 60 XR orders and options by Portugal-based Jet Republic should have come as no surprise, said Foley. "A year ago we publicly warned that start-up fractional companies would be particularly vulnerable during this downturn," he said. "But this was especially dramatic because it concerned one of the largest business jet fleet orders ever placed."
Fractional fleet sizes are flattening out, which is evidence that the industry has matured and discovered that demand for lift is not limitless, Foley said. "The problem," he noted, "is that the existing business model is geared to rapid growth. So long as fleets expanded, providers could profit by buying new aircraft at discounts and selling them at list price to customers. But now, with fleet size very nearly constant, the emphasis must be on making the operational side profitable or changing the business model altogether."
Only a few types of companies will survive the transformation, Foley said. "Those that have the financial wherewithal to weather the slowdown, have parental support and can adapt change," he predicted.
Despite the current unsettled state of the business aviation industry, Foley points to three positives for the sector: given all of the recent negative business jet publicity, the market is expected to lean a little more toward ownership structures that keep the jet under the radar, such as leasing, jet cards, charter and fractionals; companies that can adapt and survive will eventually end up in a world with fewer competitors and have the ability to raise prices a must for long-term viability; and double-digit percentage gains in year-over-year fractional flight activity later this year will be a healthy sign the slump has bottomed out and turned the corner. There will be significant announcements between now through mid-2010 as the shake-out is completed, he added.
Businesses that survive will have to continually adapt to changing market conditions and price their service to be profitable even during downturns, Foley said.
Looking at the aircraft manufacturing side, there are still some "fluffy" fleet orders on the books, and there will be more cancellations in the coming months, Foley predicted. "Going forward, sales to fractional aircraft companies will become more of a replacement market rather than a fleet growth market," he said. "As a result, we´ll see the traditional 10-15 percent of manufacturers´ production output that was going to fractionals reduced to 8-10 percent."