Rich 100: One last fling?

The corporate jet set party before being grounded by financial reality.

The VIPs fall silent in their seats on the tarmac at Orlando Executive Airport as a giant overhead screen comes to life. Ringed by seven Bombardier (TSX: BBD.B) Learjet, Challenger and Global corporate jets parked nose to wing tip, the crowd watches a montage of Learjet inventor Bill Lear’s quest to create “the unexpected, to deliver the extraordinary.” The presentation then kicks into full throttle. A half-dozen male acrobats in black business suits poke up from behind a set of red banners mounted on risers, and start leaping around, performing stunts as an overhead voice talks up the new Learjet 85 — the largest, fastest, longest-range Learjet ever. The acrobats scatter and the risers roll away for the big finale: the unveiling of a mock-up of the plane, including full interior.

Attendees at the annual National Business Aviation Association convention — the largest gathering of America’s jet set — expect some razzle-dazzle, and this event doesn’t disappoint. Guests include Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, and Juan Montoya, a star of the NASCAR racing circuit. The 33-year-old Montoya is easily spotted: he’s not wearing a suit like the eagle-eyed jet salesmen peppered throughout the crowd, nor does he sport a tie-less polo shirt and chinos, the style favoured by flight directors of Fortune 500 companies. Instead, he’s in a black Boss T-shirt and white slacks. The rule in the private jet world is: the more casually you dress, the richer or more important you are. “He’s the best customer you could have,” says Mike Fahey, Learjet’s vice-president of sales — a James Carville look-alike in a sharp charcoal suit, dandy orange tie and shades — as an easygoing Montoya stands beside him at the mock-up a bit later. “He doesn’t complain, he signs, he pays. We go out and have a good time. Perfect,” Fahey, says lightheartedly. Montoya laughs along.

If only things were that easy. While the guests here enjoy champagne followed by a lunch of tournedos of beef tenderloin, some might look back at this event some day and say, “Remember what it was like to be rich?” For on this Monday in early October, the world’s stock markets have begun what will be a historic one-week tumble. The market’s timing is terribly inconvenient, coming at the start of an annual convention that has grown in tandem with the business jet industry’s fortunes during the past 12 years. Once a cottage industry that averaged US$4 billion in sales, it has more than quadrupled in size, notwithstanding a brief drop following the 9/11 attacks. By the dawn of the convention, industry experts are still holding to forecasts that sales will average US$30 billion a year over the next decade. By the convention’s conclusion three days later, spirits will be considerably diminished.

Strolling about the convention — a display of 139 planes at the airport plus another 525,000 square feet of booths in the cavernous Orange County Convention Center — it’s evident the jet set is hoping to squeeze in one last big party before reality sets in. Half the display turntables in Florida must be in use here, including one with a mounted HondaJet, flooded with showcase lighting and perennially surrounded by onlookers, snapping digital photos of the in-development plane. Bombardier is demonstrating a working shower it can install on its flagship bird, the long-range Global Express XRS, featuring a range of spray options and a back door that opens into the baggage department. Engine maker Pratt & Whitney Canada hosts a Roaring 1920s-themed cocktail party, where guests line up to pose for pictures with costumed flapper girls. Maybe not the wisest choice in retrospect: We all know what came at the end of that decade.

Outside in the real world (to the extent that Orlando resembles reality), the signs are hard to miss. “Foreclosure affects the whole family,” reads one billboard alongside the highway. “Call today 1-888-995-HOPE.” But inside, the booths and displays betray little of such macroeconomic concerns. “I’m struck by the fact this looks exactly like last year and the year before,” says Nigel Wright, managing director of Toronto-based Onex, co-owner of manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft Corp. “It’s the expression of a reality that has now changed.”

Every convention has its freebies, but the bling seems more decadent at NBAA. Every second booth seems to be holding a draw for leather bomber jackets, iPods, margarita machines, Wii video games, skis, motorcycles, Jeeps, Mini Coopers or plasma-screen TVs. At one Bombardier event, the company gives away two Sea-Doos. And sharp-eyed attendees know which booths offer a free freshly rolled Dominican cigar, cholesterol test or back massage. Fresh fruit and wine are stocked behind the bigger booths for serious clients, and a smattering of booth babes draw attention to otherwise unsexy displays of engine overhaul specialists.

This crowd’s expectations can test the notion that the sky is the limit. Airbus has announced that HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud has ordered a private version of its mammoth A380, which will feature 5,930 square feet of floor space and require about 24 months of labour just to complete the interior at an estimated cost of US$150 million. (The A380 lists at US$327.4 million.) Looking at the lush interiors and design options on display, you can only imagine what the prince will order. Ahmed Bashir, whose Aviation Systems Management handles completions of aircraft interiors, says a client once commanded that the interior of his plane be decked out in eel skin leather. “Eels are small,” he says. “We had a guy flying around the world, looking for eel skin.”

But Wright’s assessment proves to be apt. Attendance is down 2.5% from last year, to about 30,000. But the convention feels deader still. There is a dearth of big orders. Pessimism and worry abound. “This may be the last big show for a while,” says Scott Fortmann, head of aviation operations for Houston-based HCC Insurance Holdings Inc., which is downsizing to one Challenger from two. As he stands at the Bombardier reception, holding a beer and awaiting the Sea-Doo draw, he warns of what’s to come. “History shows [the economy] will hurt the industry. The people that have had the luxury of owning aircraft will start slowly selling them. Everything will stagnate.”

But first, it’s party time. A couple of thousand guests jam into a private event hosted by Honeywell Aerospace at the Hard Rock Café at Universal Studios, featuring music by Jimmy Buffett. The crowd isn’t quite Buffett’s diehard fan base of Parrotheads, but they are enjoying themselves, even as the high times they’ve enjoyed waste away in Margaritaville.