If world recession is looming, the throngs of high-spenders and huge orders placed at the biggest EBACE yet indicate that business aviation - if not immune to global pressures - continues to thrive on an anticipated surge in corporate air travel in Europe and the emerging markets of the east.
While short on big programme announcements - which still tend to be made at EBACE´s bigger US brother NBAA - the Geneva convention last week reinforced the emergence of a new and confident tranche of business aviation operators outside North America. While the manufacturing end of the industry is still based overwhelmingly on that continent, the purchasing centre of gravity is moving firmly overseas, boosted by a weak dollar, a faltering domestic economy and high commodity prices that are enriching those who control oil and other raw materials. Cessna, for instance, arguably the most American of business aircraft names, says 70% of its sales in the first quarter were international. Other manufacturers report similar splits.
Among the young guns is Austrian-based charter operator VistaJet, which claims to be the "world´s fastest-growing private jet company". It announced an order for 35 Bombardier jets at the show, worth $ 1.3 billion at list prices. The deal - for 11 Challenger 605s, 13 Learjet 60XRs and 11 Learjet 85s, with an additional 25 options - makes VistaJet the Canadian airframer´s biggest customer and will triple the size of its existing fleet. An even bigger surprise was the announcement that Bombardier is in negotiations with the Salzburg company to sell its Farnborough-based Skyjet charter scheme. The company is looking at expansion in Asia and the Middle East and has opened a base in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "We see increasing demand for top-of-the-line corporate jets," says chief operating officer Bing Chen.
It is the biggest business jets of all that are benefiting from much of the growth in emerging markets, where wealthy users of business aviation tend to travel long distances with entourages and have no qualms about showing off their wealth. Airbus clinched its biggest deal for corporate jetliners, with an order for six A350 XWBs to Saudi firm MAZ Aviation, while Dassault secured an order for 20 Falcon 2000LXs from NetJets Europe, part of the world´s biggest business aviation operator.
Another Austrian operator, Jetalliance, added to a good show for the Toulouse airframer with a follow-on order for an Airbus Corporate Jetliner and two A318 Elites. The company, which operates two Airbuses and has another three on order, is targeting the CIS market. "Russian and Asian customers have become a significant part of our business," says chief executive Lukas Lichtner-Hoyer. "This is where much of the demand will come from in the next decade." Jetalliance also ordered 24 Cessna Citations to take its Cessna orders this year to 50.
Greg Thomas, chief executive of Boeing Business Jet operator PrivatAir, echoes the view that the Middle East and the former Soviet Union are the most buoyant regions in business aviation. "Russia is particularly strong and is growing at 15% a year," he says. Francois Chazelle, the new head of Airbus´s executive aircraft division, is confident the widebody boom will continue. "We are very excited about the way the business is developing," he says. "With the sale of the first A380 Flying Palace (at November´s Dubai air show) and the prospect of another of the test aircraft being made available, there is great interest in widebodies, both in our traditional market of the Gulf and beyond. We have 15 aircraft in greater China, and there will be more demand there for widebodies."
On demand charter start-up XOJet, which announced at the show that it had raised $ 2.4 billion to expand its operations, may be founded in San Francisco. But the company, which plans to take delivery of 107 aircraft over the next five years, is earmarking Abu Dhabi for its new base.