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AvBuyer at 20: Two Decades of Business Aviation

Looking back at the ups and downs (with plenty more to come…)

Dave Higdon   |   3rd November 2016
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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In the two decades since the launch of AvBuyer, Business Aviation has experienced significant growth, some minor contractions, the Great Recession and - through it all - attracted thousands of new participants. Dave Higdon walks through 20 years in Business Aviation…

In twenty years, new companies have emerged and old companies faded, but today's business aircraft fleet numbers exceed all past highs while membership in National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) recently surpassed the 11,000 mark – the highest in its nearly 70-year history.

In short, Business Aviation continues to thrive against today’s challenges, and it has done so making some major transitions – to RVSM, to WAAS GPS, and now to ADS-B. Performance-Based Navigation, space-based global flight tracking and digital text communications are all moving forward.

The Business Aviation community has pushed-back against discriminatory noise restrictions and curfews, defended embattled airports, and fought a running battle against efforts to privatize ATC (along with a parallel effort to change FAA's main funding source from easy and inexpensive excise taxes on fuel, cargo and airline tickets to a user-fee-based system with the costly and burdensome bureaucracy required to support such a system).

Let’s start back in 1996, the year in which World Aircraft Sales Magazine (as AvBuyer was then known) launched on the market...


William Jefferson Clinton was in the White House. He had signed product-liability reform, known as the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA), in 1994 to help General Aviation expand while trying to improve flying in other ways. No Plane No Gain, the community-wide advocacy program initiated by the National Business Aviation Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in 1993 continued to be the focal point of communications promoting Business Aviation.

One element of this push was the September 1996 release of the report from the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. The final text landed on the President's desk the following February.

The Gore Commission and the National Civil Aviation Review both gave aviation interests heartburn over the prospect of changing how ATC would be funded and managed.

Meanwhile, Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums (RVSM) came into use in 1996, with Dassault's Falcon 2000 the first to receive approval out of the factory.

The focus of the 1996 NBAA convention was on new aircraft models and future growth in Business Aviation. Business aircraft OEMs active at the time included Raytheon Aircraft, which launched development of two new jets employing cutting-edge manufacturing techniques and then-new digital avionics packages: the Hawker Horizon super mid-size jet, and the Premier I light jet.

Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier (and its Learjet division), Cessna, Embraer, Israeli Aircraft Industries, Dassault, Dornier, Gulfstream and Piaggio were all established turbine-aircraft manufacturers. Germany's Dornier; Switzerland's Pilatus; and Brazil's Embraer were up-and-coming contenders within the business-turbine segment.

The Gulfstream GV and Bombardier Global Express opened up a new ultra-long-range aircraft segment, while Boeing entered the field announcing plans for what would become Boeing Business Jet. Sino-Swearingen was flying a prototype of its FJ44-powered SJ30-2, and the former head of Learjet, Brian Barents, took the helm at a new start-up OEM, Galaxy Aerospace.


NBAA turned 50 and grew under the visionary leadership of President John W. Olcott. A strong economy and bullish stock market drove one of the most-productive periods of economic growth in decades, and deliveries of new business turbine aircraft reflected that economic strength.

New companies continued to embrace business aircraft after recognizing the benefits of a corporate aircraft, attracted by new models such as Learjet's 45, Boeing’s BBJ, and a planned single-engine VisionAir Vantage jet (started by a furniture maker and business aircraft-user from the Southeast US – sadly only the proof-of-concept would fly).

VisionAire Vantage jet

Although a market study into a supersonic business jet failed to spur Dassault to develop such a machine, the supersonic dream rumbled on and continues to be alive and well today.


According to NBAA's annual report for 1998, research revealed an increase in business aircraft operators exceeding 1,000 in number over the prior three years, confirming the growth trend. Operators responding to the strong economy increased their flying hours even as they added aircraft.

Part of the growth stemmed from the surge in Fractional Ownership programs at the time. The existence of Fractional Ownership companies split the community between those who supported the shared-ownership arrangement and those who felt these programs infringed on traditional Part 135 charter operators – but without the burden of the 135 certificate.

FAR 91 Sub-part K helped settle some of the debate, and Fractional Programs continued to grow in popularity.

The aircraft OEMs certainly weren't complaining about the Fractional Programs since they had become major customers for everything from the Airbus Corporate Jet and BBJ, right down to CitationJets.

Bombardier Learjet 45 jet

This was also the year that Learjet finally delivered its first Learjet 45, the first all-new design since the original Learjet 23 of 1963.


NBAA's convention in Atlanta feted the association's growth to 6,000 members, while the OEMs tried to keep up with the heated growth in sales brought about by the strong economy.

Talk of a new generation of smaller light jets had owner-pilots eager for their arrival, thanks in part to work by Williams International on a family of jet engines smaller than the FJ44. Not to be left out of the smaller-engine business, Pratt & Whitney Canada launched development of its PW600-series jet engines. Meanwhile, the concept of the single-engine jet remained an unrealized ambition after the decline of VisionAire's Vantage.

Elsewhere, billionaire businessman Warren Buffet demonstrated his faith in Business Aviation by following his purchase of FlightSafety International with the acquisition of Executive Jet Aviation (EJA), the Ohio company that invented the fractional-ownership program a decade earlier.

Warren Buffet

On the propjet front, Piaggio became a subsidiary of Italian automaker Ferrari and resumed production of the P.180 Avanti – providing the only competition for the Beech King Air line of propjet twins.


As the new millennium dawned, the bubble burst on the Dot-Com boom. Wall Street panicked, but not the OEMs thanks to a record backlog of more than $2.4bn in advance orders. Indeed, the industry flourished through the year, with Cessna forecasting continued double-digit growth for the coming years.

Raytheon Aircraft continued to struggle with its Premier I program, but launched a Hawker 450 derivative – meanwhile the Hawker 4000 (formerly Horizon) continued to stumble toward certification.

But new dreams emerged—dreams of a business jet priced under $1 million thanks to Eclipse Aviation and its new Eclipse 500, designed to fly on two Williams International EJ22 powerplants. The company developed its own digitally-integrated avionics package in-house. The industry dubbed the Eclipse and several ‘me-too’ efforts as Very Light Jets (VLJs).

Eclipse 500 jet

On the avionics front Honeywell – the merged Allied Signal/Honeywell company – launched its Apex program at the NBAA convention in New Orleans, with products designed to hit all three levels of aviation: Commercial Aviation, Business Aviation and General Aviation aircraft.


Although further delays were experienced by Raytheon in the certification of the Premier I and Hawker 4000, use of business aircraft remained strong and aircraft sales solid. In fact, 2001 looked like being another solid year with EBACE taking place for the first time in Geneva that spring.

But all of aviation literally came to a complete halt in the US the morning of September 11, 2001. Nineteen Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners, flying two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and one into the Pentagon; the fourth was crashed into a Western Pennsylvania field after passengers revolted against their four hijackers.

By noon all of American aviation was grounded, including some outside the country, after security officials and the FAA closed the nation's airspace internationally and domestically. Three days later the FAA began the laborious process of reopening the airspace and admitting US flights previously trapped abroad.


The world of aviation security changed permanently that day. Even the NBAA Convention scheduled for New Orleans had to be postponed until December in the aftermath of the attack.


Business and General Aviation groups continued a lengthy struggle to restore normality to private aviation flights, pushing back against efforts by the then-new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to force all private aircraft to employ airline-type security measures. Government officials even suggested that family members of owners and pilots endure security screening – and considered an order requiring armed security agents to fly on all aircraft...and then on all larger aircraft.

This struggle would continue through the next few years with TSA publishing a proposed rule mirroring that one-size-fits-all security apparatus.

Private Aviation groups all pushed back and eventually sanity prevailed – albeit with new rules for Part 135 operations, background checks for pilots and students, and an ongoing construct of security steps following government attempts (fortunately unsuccessful) to implement outrageous security proposals for General and Business Aviation.

Meanwhile, a new OEM quietly entered the market: Aerion’s goal was to field a supersonic business jet (SSBJ).


Changes swarmed over NBAA, starting with the announcement by association president John W. Olcott that he intended to vacate his post at the end of the year. The NBAA board formed a five-member panel to search for his replacement, while lauding Olcott for his success in growing membership, convention attendance and Business Aviation advocacy with the association's launch of the No Plane, No Gain program.

His replacement proved a bad fit, and another leadership change would be made within the year.

On the up side, 2003 brought a new Business Aviation trade show to the global stage – this time in Latin America with the launch of LABACE.


The replacement for John W. Olcott departed NBAA and in September the membership welcomed a new president named Edward M. Bolen, fresh from the same post at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

Ed Bolen, NBAA

A “recreational” pilot himself, and with extensive experience working in and for members of Congress, Bolen started the association on a revival of programs and membership growth that has continued to this day.

R&D efforts continued to bring new products to the market, with Airbus even marketing its new A380 as a business jet candidate. At least one was sold for that purpose. Meantime, Aerion unveiled its design for the twin-engine SSBJ, the AS2.

After a soft 2002 and 2003 (ripples from the 9/11/2001 attacks), 2004 brought a stronger year for business aircraft sales and use.


Say hello to ABACE – the Asian Business Aviation Conference & Exhibition, another collaboration between NBAA and local Business Aviation groups in Shanghai. This show would go on to serve its region of the world with the same level of workshops, safety forums and trade-show exhibits as EBACE, LABACE and the US NBAA Convention (BACE).

Meanwhile, legislative efforts that would disadvantage private aviation continued to be a point of contention between the White House, the airlines and groups representing private aviation users and operators.

Thankfully, the efforts failed but would resurface in later years.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans only a couple of weeks ahead of the 2005 NBAA convention forcing the event back to December – and to Orlando.


In 2006, Raytheon Corporation sold Raytheon Aircraft to a consortium made up of Goldman Sachs and Onex Corporation, the company that bought out Boeing Wichita and eventually spun it off, taking it public as Spirit Aerosystems.

The deal with Goldman Sachs/Onex loaded Raytheon Aircraft with a heavy debt burden against which it struggled when the economy started south in 2007. The Premier I and Hawker 4000 remained active programs but far behind schedule…


The signs of a downturn came slowly and innocuously enough, but they were there nonetheless. Backlogs of pre-owned business jets edged ever higher; asking prices fell; and sales lagged. By year's end the backlog of unsold pre-owned business-turbine aircraft would reach new highs.

Meanwhile, Aerion opened the orderbook for its AS2 SSBJ and quickly landed 50 deposits. Key to its acceptance is its Mach 1.6 top cruising speed where supersonic is allowed, and a fuel-efficient Mach 0.96 cruise speed where supersonic is banned (i.e. Continental US).


The bottom fell out of the US economy just in time to serve as campaign fodder for the two major-party candidates for President of the United States; the stock market fell by two-thirds of its previous high, and unemployment soared while aircraft sales tumbled.

Business Jet Sales Great Recession

The US budget, signed into law by outgoing President George W. Bush, breached the $1 trillion deficit mark for the first time, and manufacturing was in a steep decline. The new administration of incoming President Barack Obama faced a national economic crisis many equated to the Great Depression of 1929. The world even gave this recession a name equal to its depth – The Great Recession.

Chairing a Congressional hearing in November, Representative Gary L. Ackerman (D, NY) vilified car executives—and by association all users of business jets—for flying into Washington, DC on their company aircraft. The Business Aviation community experienced a big hit. Aircraft sales, both new and used, plunged while the lenders all-but-left the used business-turbine aircraft market for the next three years.


Welcome back, No Plane, No Gain, to the forefront of promoting the advantages and contributions of Business Aviation specifically, and General Aviation in general. NBAA’s Ed Bolen and Pete Bolen, his GAMA successor, revived the program to become an ongoing centerpiece of the two groups’ work supporting the ownership and use of business aircraft.

New models of aircraft continued to flow through the pipeline, albeit at a reduced rate due to the Great Recession, and in spite of difficulty financing both new and used aircraft.

Meanwhile, a years-old effort by the FAA to reinvent how controllers monitor air traffic was the subject of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would require the vast majority of aircraft to equip with new surveillance technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B.

Comments focused on the lack of direct benefits to operators, while the FAA promised that indirect benefits would save operators billions through reduced horizontal separation and greater runway efficiency.


The year started in anticipation of the FAA issuing a final rule on ADS-B equipage. In March the FAA published its final rule, establishing a near 10-year period for operators to comply with the new-equipment requirements.

The core of the ADS-B Out system depends on navigation equipment on board individual aircraft to determine position, altitude, speed and direction of flight – then broadcasting those data to controllers multiple times per minute thus providing more-frequent and more-accurate data for managing traffic.

Initially, business-turbine operators had few options for meeting the mandate, but that situation changed as new products subsequently entered the market.

ADS-B Concept


Upgrades were the big attractions at NBAA’s 64th annual convention at Las Vegas as aircraft owners continued to look for ways to extend the lives of their existing aircraft in the post-Great Recession world.

Engine upgrades, remanufacturing and cockpit updates drew considerable attention, with Nextant advancing its 400XT conversion of the BeechJet 400A; Blackhawk offering more turboprop upgrades; and Rockwell Collins and Honeywell battling for panel space among the OEMs.

In less than 15 years, flight decks had transitioned from Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) displays, to Liquid-Crystal Display (LCD) screens, and on to Light-Emitting Diodes (LED), paralleling a similar revolution in home television and computer screens.

Business Jet Avionics Panel


In April 2012 Raytheon Aircraft defaulted on interest payments and breached its banking covenants, prompting broad expectations that the story of fabled Beech Aircraft, founded in 1932, would end with a bankruptcy filing.

And so it happened, on May 3 as voluntary petitions under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code were filed. An attempted purchase by China's Superior Aviation failed, and on October 18 the company announced plans to proceed with the bankruptcy process.

It later announced it was exiting the business jet market and would stop jet production. Only a handful of Hawker 4000s were produced along with a slightly larger number of Premier IAs.


A new company returned from the ashes of the Raytheon Aircraft bankruptcy when the manufacturer exited bankruptcy on February 19, 2013, with a return of its ancestral Beech name: Beechcraft Corporation. Once again the legendary OEM was on its own.

Meanwhile, the new owners of the Eclipse 500 VLJ resumed production of an upgraded model, the Eclipse 550, while offering options to upgrade existing 500 models.


The year started off with a transaction pending – the attempt to purchase Beechcraft Corporation by Textron, already the parent of Cessna Aircraft, Bell Helicopter, engine maker Textron Lycoming, and McCauley Propellers. In March, the deal closed with Beechcraft becoming a product line once again, but now as part of Textron Aviation.

Textron Aviation

Airbus, meanwhile, entered into a partnership with Aerion to advance development of the AS2 SSBJ.


Avionics installers, Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) and the FAA all pushed reminders that the community was past the halfway point to the ADS-B Out mandate deadline, but barely 15 percent of the GA fleet was so equipped.

On the industry front a new entity, One Aviation, brought together Eclipse and an in-development turboprop, the Kestrel 350, under a single banner while another relatively new jet maker, Honda Aircraft, won certification of its new light jet, powered by two Honda/GE HF120 engines. Honda invested more than 20 years in the project, starting with engine studies, airframe design, engine  certification and finally, type approval.

And a new destination opened up for direct flights thanks to efforts of the Obama Administration to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Private and commercial flights were thus allowed – but only under strictly enforced conditions, none of them for direct business or tourism.

Aerion, meanwhile, continued to progress with its now three-engine SSBJ, landing a firm order for 20 units from Fractional Operator FlexJet…

Aerion AS2 Supersonic Business Jet


After years of effort, some stumbles and some redesign work, Cirrus Aircraft made history by certificating the world's first commercially-viable single-engine business jet, the SF50 Vision. Launched in 2008, the aircraft is expected to receive its final certification in the last quarter of this year. A handful of other efforts to market a jet-powered single started and failed in the same time frame as we’ve covered here.

Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet

Looking back at the past 20 years it's hard to argue other than that today, we inhabit a very different world from two-decades ago. Ground-based navigation systems are fewer and satellite-based guidance dominates.

It's been a busy 20 years with several new Citation models, new Falcons and Gulfstreams, Learjets and Bombardier Globals and Challengers. OEMs continue to advance the state-of-the-art, while business aircraft sales remain healthy, if not at their strongest.

With several ongoing projects, some aimed at bringing supersonic travel to Business Aviation we look forward to an exciting, vibrant future in this industry. We'll see you there!

Read more about: Safety | NextGen | Aircraft Sales Trends | New Jets to Market | Business Aviation Avionics

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