Rich Karlgaard: Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, N.M. looks like a good bet to end this streak and inject some needed revolution into the field of airtravel.
Bill Lear, in 1964, was the last entrepreneur to build, certify and sell a business jet–the Learjet. During the years stretching between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Aviator no other little startup company has matched this feat. Plans and attempts–or what mockers like to call paper airplanes–have numbered in the hundreds. Flying high and fast has always attracted dreamers, but no other entrepreneur has pulled off what Lear did 41 years ago.
The startup vacuum is easy to understand: It can take a half-billion dollars or more to get a new jet to market. The stock market is not eager to fund this capital-intensive, risk-burdened, lawyer-strafed industry. Thus the job of building new jets has fallen to older firms, such as Cessna, Gulfstream and Raytheon in the U.S., Bombardier in Canada (which bought the Learjet line) and Dassault Aviation in France. Battling Industry Conservatism This is why most improvements in bizjets during the last 40 years have come from outside the industry–electronic engine controls, global-positioning satellites, moving-map displays, downloadable real-time weather, etc. I’m not knocking the fine aircraft produced by Cessna and the like. Today’s bizjets are marvels of science and engineering. They are infinitely safer than those of the 1960s, when 10 of the first 100 production Learjets crashed.
Still, bizjets cost way too much, and just why that is could fill a book. I’ll boil it down: 40 years of lawsuits and heavy-handed regulation have made the bizjet industry hyperconservative. What begins as a healthy, skeptical attitude toward cost and market size collapses over time into a cynical, vicious circle.
For example, manufacturing technology has not advanced much for bizjets, because few care to invest in it. Put a bizjet CEO on truth serum and he’ll admit that he doesn’t believe the market is large enough to recapture the costs. Thus bizjets remain inefficiently manufactured; costs and prices remain high; and the pool of buyers stays small. We have here a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy.