You can tell a lot about the business climate from the way executives travel.
In the years before 2008, business leaders needing to meet a client, check out a hot prospect or tour a factory often used their corporate jet to get them there.
During the recession, many of those Gulfstreams and Cessnas were grounded, dealing a blow to general-aviation manufacturers, their suppliers, after-market companies and the many service businesses linked directly and indirectly to private air travel.
According to the National Business Aviation Association trade group, executive flight hours in corporate planes, charters or shared private planes – anything but commercial – declined 35 to 40 percent between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of last year.
And with that decline, new plane orders to business-aircraft makers fell precipitously, resulting in the loss of 20,000 American manufacturing jobs over the same period, the Aviation Association said.
So with the economy now on a slow climb upward and commercial airfares also rising, many in the aviation world see corporate travel as a good bet to pick back up.
The announcement this month that NetJets, a private-plane-sharing company owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., had placed a $9.6 billion order for up to 425 new business jets, described by the company as “the largest aircraft purchase in aviation history,” pointed toward a rebound.
But local and national business aviation-industry representatives say the recovery has been unsteady both on the manufacturing end and for aviation services.
“It’s been a mixed picture for flight hours and new airplanes,” said Dan Hubbard, senior vice president for the National Business Aviation Association. “We have seen flight hours come off of the bottom and incrementally start to increase again. But analysts estimate we are still 10 to 15 percent off the pre-recession peaks.”