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Light Jets Bounce Back

Barron's logo Barron's 4/17/2018 Mark Huber

a airplane that is sitting on a runway © Provided by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Cirrus
The Cirrus is part of a new trend in light jets.

Earlier this month, the National Aeronautics Association announced that it was bestowing the Collier trophy, the nation’s most prestigious aerospace award, on the new Cirrus SF50 single-engine light jet. The news is one sign that the lagging light jet market is bouncing back.

While the number of new business jets manufactured annually declined from 718 in 2015 to 667 last year, the number of light jets—those with a maximum takeoff weight of 18,000 pounds or less—manufactured annually increased from 196 to 237. However the lower end of that category showed even more dramatic growth, with the number of jets made weighing 12,500 pounds or less almost doubling during that time to 134 from 70.

Light jets, which typically have maximum ranges of between 1,100 to 2,000 nautical miles, are seeing this resurgence in part because new, more fuel efficient engines are bringing their operating economics closer in line with turboprops and their new cabin designs are increasingly overcoming passenger comfort objections that have long-dogged the category.

And two relative jet market newcomers—Honda and Cirrus—account for almost all the growth happening in that segment. Last year the companies combined to deliver 65 new jets in the under-12,500 pound weight class, edging out the cumulative deliveries of well-established rivals Cessna and Embraer, which together posted 63 deliveries. Honda says it is building toward an annual output of 100 aircraft per year while Cirrus is gearing up to work off a backlog of 600 customer-ordered jets.

The upstarts' success can, in part, be linked to offering disruptive designs that focus on simplicity of operation and maximizing cabin comfort. They don't look like traditional private jets. Both make extensive use of composites instead of aluminum and employ unique features and shapes.

The $2-million, single-engine Cirrus SF50 is basically all-composite, while the $5 million, Honda Aircraft HA-420 “HondaJet” twin-engine jet features an all-composite fuselage and aluminum wings.(Note: By comparison, regular private jets typically range in cost from $4.5 up to $75 million depending on size.) A composite fuselage doesn’t require traditional ribs and stringers—frames that hold aluminum skins in place on conventional aircraft fuselages. This yields more cabin space, and the plane’s carbon-fiber composite is considerably lighter and stronger than metal. The six-to-seven-seat HondaJet also features unique over-the-wing engine mounts that allow for increased cabin diameter, less vibration, and better aerodynamics. Overall the HondaJet has 20% more cabin space than competing aircraft and is faster than anything else in its class with a top speed of 483 miles per hour. It also has something no other jet in its category has—a full aft lavatory with a solid privacy door.

Conversely, the 345 mph, five-to-seven-seat Cirrus is the slowest private jet you can buy, but it has an average fuel burn of just 52 gallons per hour and can take off from runways as short as 3,200 feet. The lone engine is mounted atop the aft fuselage to maximize cabin space and provide ease of maintenance access. Both the HondaJet and the Cirrus feature avionics systems built around Garmin's G3000 touchscreen system, but Cirrus incorporates it into a cockpit that virtually any competent small propeller airplane pilot can transition into with minimal training.

Cirrus CEO Dale Klapmeier says his company's new plane “rewrites the rules” for light jets. The same could be said in many ways for the HondaJet. Honda Aircraft CEO Michimasa Fujino likens it to a “flying sports car.”

Sometimes the market isn't dead, it just wants something else.

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