Vilified from the presidential pulpit, an occupied Wall Street and even the Republican presidential campaign, one of the ultimate symbols of indulgence -- the private jet -- appears poised for a rebound.
Sales of corporate jets in the United States plummeted with the global financial crisis, and the reputation of the time-saving luxury for the ultra-rich sank even further thanks to bailout-receiving executives who traveled hats in hand to Washington on swanky private aircraft.
Confidence among the very rich is improving with the Spectrem Millionaire Investor Confidence Index, while still neutral, rising for the third straight month in January to its highest level since June 2011. Industry experts say demand should follow, and even a White House proposal to end a tax break for private jets has yet to damp sentiment.
We've got three years of pent-up demand, and it looks like 2012 will start an uptick, said New Jersey-based private aviation analyst Brian Foley.
Private-aircraft orders plunged nearly 35 percent in the year after markets cratered and the financial system nearly collapsed.
From a peak of 1,313 planes delivered in 2008, total worldwide shipments of business jets fell 42 percent during the following two years, with 764 jets valued at $18 billion delivered in 2010, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
The slump has affected jet manufacturers Cessna
During a trade show earlier this month held by the National Business Aviation Association in New Orleans, an undercurrent of optimism tinged the banter among agents showing off aircraft ranging from a seven-passenger, $8 million Embraer Phenom 300
The industry is taking heart from reports by Honeywell Aerospace, which noted in its latest Business Aviation Outlook that the business jet industry appears positioned to begin another period of expansion in 2012, and by aviation electronics company Rockwell Collins, which said its sales to business and regional aviation manufacturers increased 19 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.
In October, Honeywell forecast that deliveries of private jets would rise 3 percent to 5 percent in 2012. Textron Inc forecast 11 percent revenue growth for 2012, largely on the strength of its Cessna corporate jet and Bell helicopter units.
Analysts also point to healthy U.S. corporate profit growth and nearly $1 trillion of idle cash on the balance sheets of Standard & Poor's 500 companies alone.
Eli Flint, regional sales director for shared-ownership jet company Flight Options LLC, said in New Orleans his company's flights in and out of the city increased more than 30 percent last year. And we had a double-digit percentage increase in sales across the country, he said.
None of a half-dozen fractional owners contacted by Flint on behalf of Reuters would agree to be interviewed on the record, perhaps mindful of the criticism of the nation's wealthiest 1 percent from Occupy Wall Street protesters.
They may have taken their cue from President Barack Obama, who has evoked the image of the spoiled corporate jet owner ever since the Big Three auto executives in 2008 and then bank executives in 2009 committed a political faux pas by flying to bailout meeting in Washington in private jets.
Obama backed his rhetoric with a provision in his 2013 proposed budget that would repeal an accelerated depreciation tax break for corporate jet owners, which the White House estimates would raise $3 billion in tax revenue over a decade.
Things like that (accelerated depreciation) can help the industry get moving again, Foley said. It might make (potential buyers) think twice, but it's not going to kill the industry.
The proposal doesn't change our practices or our pricing, said Flight Options LLC's Regional Sales Director Eli Flint said.
The industry even took an unexpected hit from one of the Republicans seeking his party's presidential nomination. Rick Santorum, speaking in New Hampshire in January, took a shot at wealthy Republican presidential primary rival Mitt Romney as a jet flew overhead.
It's probably Romney flying in, Santorum said, according to the Los Angeles Times. A private plane, I suspect. It was a Southwest jet, the Times reported, and Santorum has since rented his own private campaign plane.
Even so, CEOs just seem to love stepping into a plush cabin, sliding into a soft leather swivel seat and enjoying a made-to-order meal during a silky-smooth ride somewhere above 40,000 feet -- especially considering the time it takes to fly commercial.
Time is the greatest luxury, and that's the beauty of private aviation, said Larry Bean, executive editor of ultra-affluent consumer magazine Robb Report, which recently featured a $10 million Bombardier Learjet in its aviation section. If you have the means to afford it, why wouldn't you use a private jet?
(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Daniel Trotta)