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Private jet market split as price gap widens

Pity the poor "light-jet" owner.

They've seen the value of their small-cabin private jets plummet by more than half over the past five years. There is little sign of recovery. Credit is tight. And on the tarmac of private-jet terminals around the world, owners are experiencing serious jet shrinkage as gleaming, giant new Gulfstreams and Citations leave them in the shadows with soaring values and status.

It's the new wealth gap—between the jet set and the mega-jet set.


Gulfstream G650
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Gulfstream G650

While the broader private jet market has been slow to recover from the recession, with smaller planes seeing continued declines, demand and prices for the biggest, most expensive private planes are soaring.

Aviation experts say they have never seen a split in the market like this before. And some see it as a sign that while the 1 percent is pulling away from the 99 percent, the super rich are also pulling away from the merely rich.

(Read more: Billionaires flip their super jets)

"There's a real bifurcation in the market," said John Basileo, a senior vice president at Citi Private Bank who specializes in private aircraft. "The ultra-high net worth people—people with $500 million or more—were the ones who were best equipped to handle the downturn. And they're the ones willing and able to jump into the market now."

According to the latest jet-market report from Citi Private Bank, deliveries of so-called "light jets"—the smaller models with a takeoff weight generally around 10,000 pounds—fell 17 percent last year from 2012 and 67 percent from their 2008 peak. But deliveries of the biggest private jets jumped 18 percent last year. Gulfstream, the Rolls-Royce of jets, saw deliveries jump 35 percent.

The gap is even more visible in the used jet market. The inventory-to-fleet ratio—the percentage of planes for sale compared to the total existing fleet—is under 5 percent for Gulfstream's premium G550 model, according to Citi. The ratio of the Falcon 7X is around 3 percent. But inventory for the smaller, older G4sp, Challenger 604 and Hawker are in the double digits, and prices have yet to recover.

(Read more: Private jet makers bet on US, not Asia for big orders)

Demand for Gulfstream's new G650—the largest, most expensive Gulfstream—is outstripping supply, with some owners flipping their planes for more than the retail price.

There are a few reasons for the tale of two jet markets. First, the super rich—i.e., billionaires—have gained the most from the recovery in stock markets and asset prices. Second, rich Asian buyers are driving much of the demand in the private-jet market. The China buyers, especially, are highly status-conscious, and tend to want the biggest and best.

"The Asian market is driving global demand right now," said Philip Rushton, president of Aviatrade, a jet advisory firm and broker. "They like the space. They like to show their friends they have the best."

(Read more: Mystery megayacht's safe habor)

Rushton said that while China buyers were only buying new jets for years, now the younger Chinese rich are buying used jets for their value. He said he's brokered five deals in the past 20 months involving Asian buyers and large, pre-owned jets.

"The younger, new generation knows that it's good value," he said.

A third reason for the jet gap is credit. Before the financial crisis, mere millionaires were buying planes left and right with borrowed money. But after it, jet values plunged and defaults soared, and banks became far more selective. They are lending for jets mainly purchased by the super rich—and mainly for new, premium jets that will hold their value as collateral.

"In 2006, everybody was lending on everything to stay competitive," Basileo said. "Now the appetite has shrunk considerably."

By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.

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