Millions of years ago, scientists say, the dinosaurs were rendered extinct by a cataclysmic event that shook the world. Today, the dinosaurs among business aircraft could be facing their own extinction in the aftermath of the financial asteroid that threatened recently to obliterate the world’s economies. A recent report from corporate aviation information provider JetNet shows that while the pre-owned business jet market inventory is gradually diminishing, from 17.4 percent fleet availability in May last year to 15.3 percent this past May, the overall number of days on the market for pre-owned bizjets has increased by 72 percent over the same period, to an average of nearly a year.
For older aircraft such as the Challenger 601-3A (produced between 1987 and 1993), the 19 aircraft currently available have been on the market an average of more than 18 months, according to AircraftPost.com, a Web-based aircraft information service.
As airplane values decreased during the recession, in some cases by as much as 80 percent, many owners and potential owners are now forced to weigh that decline against the costs associated with major maintenance events and upgrades, which in many cases can cancel out the value of the airplane. It’s a simple equation to some industry veterans. “If the cost to maintain an older aircraft exceeds its value, don’t buy it,” recommends Janine Iannarelli, founder and president of Houston-based aircraft broker Par Avion. “I definitely think some older aircraft will stop trading altogether.”
Dennis Rousseau, founder and president of AircraftPost.com, agrees. “Aircraft are a piece of metal with an expiration date stamped on them, and these older aircraft are reaching that lifecycle.”
That “perfect storm” of recession, technological obsolescence from outdated avionics or inefficient engines and the recent financial difficulties some operators have faced has unleashed a flood of older aircraft onto the market, muddying the true picture of viable available inventory. “Relevant inventory is what I consider the market,” said Sean Lancaster, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based aviation consultancy Bristol Associates. Speaking at the Corporate Aircraft Transactions conference in New York City in June, he noted the pressure older aircraft are exerting on the used aircraft inventory. “If you get rid of all the GIIs and GIIIs, Learjet 55s, Learjet 35s, just take that whole market segment and separate it out, the picture would be much more attractive.”
Lancaster, like many in the industry, believes the values of older aircraft will face a difficult, if not impossible climb to reach the levels seen in 2007 and 2008. “For mid-cabin aircraft that are more than 10 years old, the market is depressed and from there it runs downhill,” he said. “We’ve got some markets with as much as 25 to 35 percent of inventory available from total manufacturing.”
While the numbers of newer business jets (10 years old or younger) and older jets in service are nearly equal, according to JetNet, the numbers for sale are not. Among the newer business jets– which number approximately 8,700 in service–9 percent (or 786 aircraft) are for sale. Among the older jets–a category that includes Sabreliners, JetStars and Jet Commanders all the way through to the Gulfstream IV and the Dassault Falcon 50–1,838 jets are for sale. That figure represents 20 percent of the 8,979 in service globally.
“There are older airplanes that are never going to come back from this and they are still listed as available in giant numbers, and this skews the overall market of what’s available,” said Joseph Carfagna Jr., president of the aviation advisory firm Leading Edge Aviation Solutions. “The old airplanes, past about 17 to 20 years old, just go into an area where there is little demand.”
Of those older aircraft, few will ever see charter service again, even in an improving private aviation market, according to William Foster, director of business development for charter and management provider Solairus Aviation. “[Sellers] are going to have to be realistic. The GIII, the Learjet 35, the older Falcon 50, anything more than 15 or 20 years old just isn’t going to work; the demand is not out there for those airplanes.” Yet despite two years of market erosion there are still many owners who refuse to accept that their airplane is no longer worth what they expected it to be and have declined purchase offers.
“There are people in this market who continue to have unrealistic expectations of the value of the asset and sometimes they chase the price down to nothing,” said David Rimmer, executive vice president of Long Island, N.Y.-based charter and aircraft management provider ExcelAire. In a buyer’s market with large availability for certain airplanes, Rimmer said, the customer for an older aircraft will simply move on to the next jet if he is not happy with the terms.
Those older aircraft that do sell are typically on a cash transaction basis as the traditional lenders are loath to provide financing on an aircraft older than 15 years for fear of default. “There are plenty of people who can now afford some of the older aircraft,” said Rimmer. “They can afford to buy them, but they can’t afford to operate or truly own them. When you see GIIs at half a million dollars and GIIIs at $2 million, that’s attractive to a lot of people.” Josh Mesinger, vice president of J. Mesinger Corporate Jet Sales, offered as an example the sale he is brokering of a Challenger 601-3A, an older large-cabin jet with 6,000 flight hours and recent engine overhauls. “It’s been owned by the same company for 16 years and has impeccable pedigree,” he said. “There is a ton of life left on this airplane, but it’s 21 years old and no lender will loan on it. I’ve had buyers who were approved for loans take this airplane to the lender and had the lender reject it for [no reason other than its] vintage.”
Retaining Asset Value
While those older aircraft languish they could suffer as owners look for ways to stem the flow of money while waiting for a possible rebound in prices. “We’ve had people talk to us about parking airplanes or reducing flight crews,” said Rimmer. “They are trying to stem the bleeding without devaluing the asset. Airplanes that sit devalue, and airplanes that fly perform better and show better. Having an airplane sitting because you’re concerned about the short-term bleeding makes the airplane even tougher to sell.”
While parting out an aircraft was once a reasonable alternative to selling, by virtue of the value of its parts, the current situation has changed that market too as more aircraft stay on the chocks. “It used to be that some of the older aircraft had much more value when parted out,” said Rimmer. “There are a lot of aircraft out there that are just worth the engine value, especially GIIs and some of the older aircraft. There are just so many of them out there being parted out that the value of the parts is no longer worth more than the whole.”
While most agree that the values of older, technologically antiquated aircraft will never again reach the heights they achieved just a few years ago, not everyone is willing to guarantee their extinction based on past cycles. “There are always predictions that there are going to be great numbers parked,” said New Jersey-based industry analyst Brian Foley. “But what history tells us is that maybe a percent of the fleet has gone away, year over year, and maybe now it’s a little higher in the last two or three years; but ultimately it seems these airplanes always find a new home somewhere.”
Despite more stringent noise restrictions and operational changes such as RVSM requiring specialized equipage, ExcelAire’s Rimmer believes these older airplanes will endure. “There will always be people who are drawn to aviation, and think they have the solution to either operating inexpensively or making a profit, so they will keep a lot of these aircraft flying well beyond when they should stop,” he said.