Fractionals stumbled in brutal 2009

 - February 22, 2010, 7:15 AM

Data on the U.S. fractional share industry show that last year was extremely challenging for the big four fractional operators–NetJets, Flexjet, Flight Options and CitationAir–and for smaller but healthier Avantair. Near the end of last year, in a financial results statement, Hawker Beechcraft revealed that cancellations of orders by NetJets “represent approximately 90 percent of the company’s previously contracted backlog with NetJets.” NetJets is “not expected to provide [Hawker Beechcraft] any substantial revenue during 2009 or 2010…” the statement added. And sales activity at the fractionals supports a conclusion that the rapid growth that used to be the hallmark of the fractional industry has slowed to a crawl.

Based on data provided by Paris-based author and fractional industry researcher Pierre Parvaud, last year saw net negative additions to the combined fleets of the five companies, with -33 aircraft added during the entire year. Avantair was the only fractional operator to see a positive net change to its fleet last year, with one aircraft added. NetJets lost a net -14, Flexjet was even at zero net change, Flight Options was down -10 and CitationAir down -10.

The owner numbers also show a downward trend, although this category seems to have hit bottom in the first half of last year. During 2007, the five fractionals gained a net 260 shareowners. In 2008, that number was -192 for the year, followed by -394 in 2009. The first half of 2009 saw a large drop in shareowners, with a net -318 total; in the second half of the year, that number was better, at a net -76 for the five companies. Avantair was the only fractional with a net gain of shareowners in the last half of last year, with six additions. The other four companies lost more owners than they gained in that period and the first half of 2009 as well.

The total fractional fleet in the U.S. has dropped, to 806 airplanes as of Dec. 31, 2009, down from a fleet high of 834 in mid-2008. None of the fractionals added any new aircraft in the second half of last year, while there were nine added during the first half, according to Parvaud’s analysis. During 2008, a net 86 aircraft were added to the U.S. fractional fleet.

NetJets remains the industry leader in terms of the lowest percentage of core aircraft in its fleet, at 7.5 percent. CitationAir, Flexjet and Flight Options all have about 22 to 23 percent core. And Avantair had four core aircraft at the end of last year.

In a January 20 interview on CNBC, NetJets chairman, president and CEO David Sokol predicted that the company will at least break even this year, “and I think it’s highly likely we’ll turn a reasonable profit.” Through the first three quarters of 2009, NetJets reported pre-tax losses of $531 million, of which $436 million was due to downsizing and asset write-down costs. NetJets parent company Berkshire Hathaway had not released full 2009 financial numbers as this issue went to press.