MAKING OLD JETS NEARLY NEW AGAIN
Flying|September 2021
A hot used-jet market makes avionics upgrades popular.
ROB MARK

DAVE COLEMAN has been a transaction specialist—the fancy name for an aircraft salesman—at Duncan Aviation in Battle Creek, Michigan, for as long as I can remember. He’s actually based in Chicago, so whenever I need the latest information on the jet and turboprop markets, he’s my go-to guy. I asked him about changes to the light-jet market over the past 18 months, what with the pandemic and so many people ditching the airlines for business aviation.

Coleman likes context and sources, so I wasn’t surprised when he responded with some data from AMSTAT that showed the market for used airplanes was pretty tight. He began with some big-picture numbers. “There are roughly 22,818 active jet aircraft considered business aviation in the world still on a registry. I figure there are 51,882,000 millionaires in the world and perhaps 3,288 billionaires [who have the means to buy]. Right now, there are about 1,441 jets up for sale. Last year, sales hit a record with 2,329 jets changing hands. So far this year, 1,278 jets have been sold but with many fewer airplanes for sale.” With so few aircraft on the market versus the number of potential owners, “it wouldn’t take much of a spike in demand to practically clear the shelves of inventory—in fact, just a minuscule demand increase.”

That’s just what happened in 2020. The International Aircraft Dealers Association confirmed in its second-quarter report that its members “experienced success during the pandemic and now are experiencing accelerating momentum.” IADA executive director Wayne Starling said, “We have buyers with the funds to purchase, but demand for late-model aircraft with attractive configurations exceeds supply, which could increase pressure on prices.” New aircraft are also in demand, but at much higher prices and often with long wait times for delivery.

The vanguard of the now-prized used-jet availability began long before the US ADS-B mandate took effect in January 2020. The cost of upgrading old—albeit perfectly useful—airplanes with the avionics to make them fit into the 21st century ATC system was considered prohibitive. Then the pandemic hit and demand rose. A year and a half ago, many older airframes could be had for a song and a dance, but Coleman said those days are gone. Now, 25-year-old aircraft are seeing new life if their engines are good.

Coleman and I got around to talking about my first swept-wing airplane type rating, a Cessna Citation 650. “Six or eight months ago, you could have picked up a decent one for less than a million dollars.” The Citation VII is regularly capable of flight in the high 30s or low 40s when it’s light enough. It has the cabin space of a Hawker 800 but with cruise speeds of roughly 450 knots and an 1,800 nm range. As an indication of how demand has changed, Coleman said “that same Citation VII sells for at least $1.3 million today. Citation 5s and Ultras have increased in price by a half-million bucks.” Updating an older jet has become a serious value proposition for owner-operators, and there’s no need to wait years for the airplane to arrive.

Cockpit upgrades add most of the latest safety features, as well as new, more-adaptable navigation systems that also deal with the ongoing obsolescence of legacy avionics arranged under the old federated systems. Once upgraded, future avionics updates to an integrated flight deck become much easier. Universal Avionics, for example, offers its InSight system as one option for the Citation VII with an integrated flight deck replacing the 30-year-old federated system installed at the factory. InSight brings synthetic vision, advanced radio control and embedded electronic charts through the new primary and multifunction displays, creating a centralized control device for weather, traffic and terrain.

Creighton Scarpone, Garmin’s director of airline and business aviation sales, echoed Coleman. “The jet market in the US today is just on fire.” He said many of the retrofits add new paint and interiors at transaction time. “A large portion of our retrofit business is the owner-flown market, so the new owner will…get things the way that they want them.” An integrated system also offers the option for 3D LPV approaches without huge modifications to autopilots.

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