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At The Gate: Fifty years and counting

The Learjet has a proud history dating back to 1960 and was one of the first companies to manufacture a private, luxury aircraft.


September 6, 2013
By Brian Dunn

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The Learjet has a proud history dating back to 1960 and was one of the first companies to manufacture a private, luxury aircraft.

BA-Learjet75_ext  
The current market downturn is disproportionately affecting aircraft in the bottom half of the market. PHOTO: Bombardier


 

Learjet began as the Swiss American Aircraft Company, founded by William P. Lear Sr. in 1960. His inspiration was the P-16, a supersonic combat aircraft designed in Switzerland. The company moved to Wichita, Ks., in 1962 and became known as the Lear Jet Corporation. It was taken over by Gates Rubber Company in 1967 and in 1970, became the Gates Learjet Corporation. The Gates name was dropped in 1987, when Integrated Acquisition purchased a 65 per cent share of the company. Bombardier purchased Learjet from Integrated in April 1990 for $75 million and assumed the company’s debt.

The first Learjet was the Learjet 23, which made its first flight 50 years ago in October 1963. Later models included the 24, 25, 28 and 29 which are all out of production. Current Learjet products include the Model 60, a transcontinental business jet with PW305 engines, which is currently in production phase; the entry-level Model 40; and the slightly larger Model 45, the first all-new Learjet since the original model, which is basically a replacement for the Model 31. More than 2,800 Learjets have been built.

The newest model, the 85, Bombardier’s first composite aircraft design, should enter service in 2014. In May 2012 at the EBACE show in Geneva, Switzerland, Bombardier unveiled its Learjet 70/75, an upgrade and rebranding of the 40/45. The new versions have more engine power and better performance and a Vision cockpit with Garmin avionics. The 75 is scheduled to enter service at the end of this year, with the 70 following a few months later. The last 40/45s will also be delivered this year. Bombardier’s Flexjet unit has converted its 40/45 options to 70/75s.

A Model 60 with standard equipment was originally priced at $7.9 million, but has since risen to $14.1 million, equipped for the XR model. The Model 45 sells for more than $13.15 million for the XR version. The Model 40XR sells for $10.6 million. The Model 70 is priced at $11.1 million, while the 75 will sell for $13.5 million. The Model 85 will sell for about $18 million in 2011 dollars, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice-president, analysis of the Teal Group Corporation in Fairfax, Va.

“After decades in the wilderness, Learjet’s acquisition by Bombardier provided stability and a strong broader market lifted the Learjet series’ fortunes. But until recently, Bombardier had been sluggish about updating the product line,” he said.

The one big initiative was the conversion of the Bombardier Continental to the Challenger 300 in 2002 and production was transferred from Wichita to Montreal.

The current market downturn is disproportionately affecting aircraft in the bottom half of the market and in 2009, Learjet saw its backlog cut in half. But the company has generally weathered the storm better than its rivals. And as the market recovers, the new Model 85 should return the Learjet line to a strong market position, Aboulafia predicted.

Apart from a welcome commitment to new product development, he said the 85 will offer a larger cabin, while the composite structure will lower manufacturing costs. The original in-service date of 2011 was highly improbable.

The new date of 2014, “at the earliest,” is still aggressive as composite development plans can generally be seen as high risk, particularly when Bombardier has very limited experience with these materials. The company plans to work with these materials in an all-new facility in Querétaro, Mexico.

“Bombardier is giving its new plane a very high level of attention, but there’s a high risk of a one- to two-year slip,” said Aboulafia. “When it arrives it will quickly replace the last legacy Learjet, the Model 60. The 60 is a very powerful machine, but it never had the cabin customers expect at that price point.”

The 85 will likely serve as the basis for a new family of composite mid-sized jets, exactly what’s needed to keep up with Cessna and prevent Embraer from displacing Learjet’s market share.

Meanwhile, the 40/45 will continue to move along, sustained by a modest but welcome update as the 70/75. These will help Bombardier keep its share of the small cabin market as that segment revives, hopefully starting next year, suggested Aboulafia.

Bombardier’s share of the small business jet market is expected to increase from 30.9 per cent last year to 34 per cent by 2022, according to Teal. Its biggest rival, Gulfstream, will also see its market share jump from 26.2 per cent to 30.9 per cent during the same period. The biggest loser is Hawker, whose 8.1 per cent share will disappear as it ceases production.


Brian Dunn is a Wings writer and columnist.


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