Editor's Desk: What business aviation's history tells us about its future

Business Jet Traveler » October 2010
Friday, October 1, 2010 - 6:00am

It's no coincidence that the first "business" airplanes took to the skies just as the era of the modern airliner arrived. Progress in engine technology and aerodynamics (resulting in faster speeds and longer range) made it possible by the mid-1930s for airlines to carry more passengers farther and in less time. The introduction in 1935 of the Douglas DC-3-which could deliver a full load of passengers from New York to Los Angeles in a single day-was a watershed moment because it finally made commercial air travel a consistently profitable business venture.

By the end of the 1930s, U.S. airlines were selling more than three million tickets a year, 90 percent of them on Douglas-built airplanes. But airline route schedules-even rapidly expanding ones-couldn't satisfy the needs of all travelers. In 1937, Beechcraft introduced the Model 18, or Twin Beech, as it was better known, one of the first airplanes specifically designed for transporting business executives. Beechcraft would manufacture the Twin Beech continuously for the next 32 years, until 1969, delivering more than 7,000.

Another milestone came in 1958, at about the same time that Pan Am started operating the Boeing 707 (the first commercially successful jetliner), when Grumman began selling the Gulfstream I twin-turboprop, the first business airplane with a $1 million price tag (in 1958 dollars). A few years later-just as the Lear 23, Falcon 20, BAe 125 and Gulfstream II were debuting in the early 1960s-business aviation gained notoriety as the preferred mode of transportation for many of the best-run corporations in America, which suddenly had an array of business aircraft models from which to choose.

Why the history lesson? It's important to realize that business aviation emerged in parallel with the airline industry to meet travel demands not easily served by regular passenger air service-or, for that matter, by Greyhound buses or Pullman rail cars. From the 1930s through the 1960s and beyond, businesses benefited from the flexibility that only airplanes like the Twin Beech, Gulfstream I and Lear 23 could provide.

It's also worth noting how inconvenient commercial air travel has become despite a century of technological progress-from the glamorous Golden Age of aviation and the first nonstop crossings of the Atlantic Ocean and continental U.S. to today's era of checked-bag fees, liquid restrictions, oversold flights and a cabin attendant jettisoning an emergency slide as his final take-this-job-and-shove-it gesture.

Since the beginning of aviation, successful people have recognized the advantages of flying privately. The companies and individuals that rely on business aviation today represent vastly different professions and locations, but they all have one thing in common: the need for fast, flexible access to destinations across a state, across a country or around the world.

In this issue of Business Jet Traveler we present a special 10-part section titled "The Bizav Advantage" that provides clear reminders of why private air transportation has grown and flourished over the decades-and why it's more important now than ever.

We start with a feature on page 12 about a recent study that documents the extent to which companies operating corporate aircraft are more successful than those that do not. Also in the section, you'll find tips on how to make the most of your time on board; a revealing look at three successful company flight departments; the reasons why many of the luminaries we've interviewed over the years say they fly privately; and much more.

We've come a long way since business aviation's pioneering days, thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of countless aircraft engineers, fabricators, machinists, test pilots and others. Today these workers are part of a multibillion-dollar industry that employs tens of thousands of people around the world. Business aviation will continue to evolve-and in all likelihood the changes will come more rapidly in the next 20 years than they did in the last 70. All of which is to say that business aviation will only widen the gap compared with lesser forms of transportation.

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“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”

-Howard Guy of Design Q, a UK-based consultancy