This is the fourth in a weekly series of UPI articles examining the forthcoming second century of human flight, which will begin on Dec. 17, 2003, with the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Though the second century of powered flight seems to be opening under economic dark clouds, it may not be too long before the skies clear -- at least on the radar scopes of the U.S. business aviation industry.
That is the consensus from the 56th annual gathering of the National Business Aviation Association, which drew about 30,000 visitors to the Orange County Convention Center to take in the latest offerings from 1,000 aircraft, engine and avionics manufacturers, as well as a plethora of related service providers.
"Business aviation is a critical factor in our national, integrated transportation system," said NBAA president Shelley Longmuir in opening the three-day conference. "We are an undeniable contributor to economic growth. As our economy continues to improve, demand for business aviation will only increase."
NBAA touts itself as a representative for more than 7,300 member companies that own, operate or are involved with general aviation business aircraft. Combined, NBAA members earn annual revenues of about $5 trillion -- about half the U.S. gross domestic product.
Several aircraft manufacturers apparently agree with Longmuir's assessment. Cessna Aircraft Co., Bombardier Aerospace and Gulfstream Aerospace all unveiled plans for new business jets. Cessna, of Wichita, Kan., is offering the nine-seater Citation XLS beginning next year, with a price tag of $9.9 million. It is the company's third new business jet announced within a year.
Bombardier, of Quebec, Canada, and owner of Learjet, unveiled its enhanced $45.5 million Global Express XRS, which is expected to enter service in 2006. An hour before Bombardier's announcement, Gulfstream, of Savannah, Ga., said it would build a $433-million G450 jet, with engine, cabin and flight deck upgrades. The new plane is to debut in 2005.
Also introducing new products and services were Boeing Business Jets of Seattle, Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Dassault FalconJet of South Hackensack, N.J., and Safire Aircraft of Miami.
"There is a fairly good level of pent-up demand for business jets," said Charles Park, director of planning and market analysis for Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix. The company predicts business will be flat for another year before slow but sustained growth begins in 2005. By the end if the decade, Honeywell expects sales to soar, with more than 7,700 business jets, worth upwards of $155 billion to be sold between now and 2013.
According to Honeywell's annual study, which is based on feedback from 1,000 corporate jet departments, manufacturers are expected to deliver 450 to 500 aircraft this year and another 450 to 500 in 2004. By 2005, deliveries should reach between 630 and 660 jets, then climb again in 2006 with 800 expected deliveries.
The rosy economic outlook is not as bright for commercial jet travel. A new survey by the Business Travel Coalition indicates companies plan to spend about 20 percent less on airfares next year. The poll, conducted between Sept. 10 and Sept. 26, surveyed travel managers and executives at 110 companies.
The companies surveyed said they spent $1.1 billion on commercial air travel last year. Almost 75 percent of the respondents said they planned to spend the same amount or less on air travel in 2004. That does not mean they plan fewer trips, however, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the non-profit advocacy group. Rather, business travelers are looking to save money by flying low-fare airlines, booking cheaper, non-refundable tickets and using price-comparison services offered by online travel sites.
Mitchell said the drop in business travel has apparently bottomed out, but the survey shows the firms don't plan on returning to their old ways of air travel. In the past, between 45 percent to 55 percent of the passengers on a domestic flight were traveling for business and these customers generated 60 percent to 70 percent of the passenger revenue, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.
"The revenue environment from this segment is as good as it is going to get for the foreseeable future," Mitchell noted.
A three-year slump in business travel has driven several major carriers into bankruptcy and others into deep deficits. Mitchell said no recovery is likely and the major carriers will have to revise their cost structures and capitalize on their extensive routes, scheduling options and other attributes.
As the NBAA wrapped up its convention and hundreds of planes prepared to depart from nearby airports, a few miles south travelers with their eyes on a higher frontier were making a trek to the holy grail.
Five years in the planning and a reported $100 million in the making, Walt Disney World picked up the legacy of the four-decade-old human space program with a realistic space flight simulation called Mission: Space. The attraction's debut lured a very public and enthusiastic support by NASA, which once sent people to the moon and currently, due to fallout from the fatal shuttle Columbia accident, is unable to send anybody anywhere off the planet, including to its own half-built space station.
"I find it incredibly ironic that at the beginning of the 21st Century, for the average Joe to experience spaceflight you have to come to EPCOT Center," said four-time shuttle commander Charles Bolden. "I never would have believed that 42 years after the first human spaceflights, this is where we'd be."
The attraction simulates a launch, lunar orbit and landing on Mars with centrifuge technology that subjects riders to between one-and-a-half and two times the force of gravity. NASA shuttle astronauts, by comparison, typically experience about 3.2 times the force of gravity during launch.
"It actually feels quite realistic," said Robert "Hoot" Gibson, another former shuttle commander who now pilots for Southwest Airlines.
Disney World, for one, thinks family space travel will happen well before the 100th anniversary of human space flight. In posters highlighting key moments in space history, the first family in space -- complete with its tail-wagging Dalmatian -- heads into the final frontier on Sept. 1, 2030.