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Business air travel taxying to take off again
[GENEVA] The business aviation sector, in the doldrums for nearly a decade, could be readying to take off again, as plane makers seek to lure company executives with onboard connectivity and super-comfy seats, experts say.
The 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent geopolitical and economic woes sent the business air travel sector into a tailspin, particularly in countries with very high potential such as China, Russia and Brazil.
Since then, any nascent hopes of a rebound have often proved to be a chimera.
But for some industry players, gathered in the Swiss city of Geneva for the business aviation trade fair EBACE, "an improvement" or at least the tentative beginnings of one could be finally be taking shape.
"The market is improving. We had a very solid year for orders so far," said Scott Neal, global sales director at US business jet maker Gulfstream Aerospace.
"We see very good activity in the United States, in the Asia Pacific region. We also see very good activity in Europe, especially in western Europe," Mr Neal told AFP.
Peter Likoray, sales director at rival manufacturer Bombardier, agreed.
"I believe the market has recovered and to a certain extent it continues to do so. By far the number one is still North America, number two is Europe. In Asia, we have actually very strong demand and that makes me very happy," he said.
The huge Chinese market for business aviation has so far been hampered by a lack of infrastructure and the global economic slowdown.
But there are still some sceptical voices.
"Despite being a closely guarded secret, it is now understood that most manufacturer backlogs are at near record lows - even lower than during the aftermath of 2008," said Dan Hall, an analyst at Flight Ascend Consultancy told the specialist website, Flightglobal.
French plane maker Dassault Aviation is expecting the market to rebound in 2018.
"The market is still somewhat difficult, but things are slowly beginning to move a little," said Dassault Aviation chief Eric Trappier.
"You can feel the tingle of anticipation in used aircraft," the prices and sales of which are starting to regain some altitude, the first tentative sign of an upturn, Mr Trappier said.
Despite the continuing uncertainty, Dassault Aviation has, its chief said, some draft projects for a new plane.
In the meantime, the challenge is to better satisfy a customer base that is making longer and more numerous business flights.
Broadband internet allowing business executives to hold and take part in video conferences while up in the air has, for example, become imperative.
"Increasingly, the airplane must be a flying office or a flying home," said Mr Trappier.
As early as this summer, Dassault Aviation will launch its first Falcon model equipped with broadband connection.
Brazilian maker Embraer will deliver its Lineage 1000 E with broadband connectivity at the start of next year and connected versions of Bombardier's Global 6000 and Global 7000 executive jets have been on the market for a year.
While companies and governments are remaining prudent about splashing out on big-ticket investments, there is in the sector "a certain category of client who is ready to spend US$50-60 million" to buy a new plane in order to take advantage of new technologies or increased safety and security features, said Brandon Mitchener, director of the European Business Aviation Association.
He said he was more "optimistic" that the "historically cyclical" sector could be readying to take off again.
For the first time since 2007, business air travel in Europe increased consistently over the past six months, he said, adding that growth reached 6.7 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter.
Mr Mitchener attributed growth to the improved economic situation in the United States and in Europe.
But he also suggested growth could be boosted by the entry of companies into the sector that offer plane-sharing or plane rentals online and via apps.