Private Jets Stage a Slow Recovery

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Alberto Incrocci | Photodisc | Getty Images

Some recent glimmers of hope in jet sales and orders has led some in the industry to call a bottom in the market. Inventory for some types of used aircraft is down to 2007 and 2008 levels after exploding in 2010.

Orders for new aircraft are up between 5 percent and 15 percent over the past year, according to manufacturers. The announcement by NetJets earlier this month that it has agreed to buy more than 1,250 new planes (with options on more) from Bombardier and Cessna has added to the sentiment that the worst of the crisis may be over.

Inventories are down substantially from their crisis peaks. Used inventory of in-production models is now 10.6 percent, down from 11.1 percent in February.

Another positive sign: When customers of, say, NetJets want to exit their contracts early, they can sell them back to the company based on the appraised value of the jet (plus a re-marketing fee and other charges). Prices for these "puts" back to the company have shown a slight uptick– the first time prices have actually increased in four years.

“Prices for some segments seem to be bottoming out,” says Jay Duckson of Central Business Jets Inc., the Minnesota-based jet brokerage and consulting firm. “They seem to have stabilized.”

Still, inventories are well off their pre-crisis peaks, and there is a glut of jets in the market. The recent turmoil in financial markets and the slowdown in Europe and China could cause prices and demand to fall again. Prices for smaller- and mid-cabin planes are still off 50 percent or more from their peaks in 2008.

“Rather than seeing the recovery we would normally have at this point in the cycle, we may be stuck at the bottom,” said Daniel Herr, an attorney with New Jersey-based Fractional, which specializes in aviation and fractional-ownership deals. “In terms of a big pop, we really haven’t seen it.”

Herr said he felt more optimistic about the industry in March, but after the Euro crisis and global slowdown, “I think inventory levels are drifting back up again.”

Banks are still reluctant to lend for aircraft purchases, brokers say. And many planes are worth less than the loan values, leaving a fleet of jets around the country in financial limbo. Banks and lenders have also reposessed many planes, and continue to charter them for income.

As a result, brokers and aviation attorneys say that while they expected a recovery in 2012, many are now pushing back their rebound dates to 2013 or later.

“I was hoping and praying it would return quickly,” said Allan Tamm of Avicor Aviation Inc. “But now I think you might be looking at 2014.”

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
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