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Corporate jet sales set to climb despite turbulence

Stroll amid the corporate jets on display at the National Business Aviation Association's annual convention outside Las Vegas and you'll see a troubled industry trying to regain momentum after a crushing four-year run.

"In some economies we're doing well, some economies, not so well. Europe, as an example, we have actually seen a dramatic tailoff in business activity. So I think it's a spotted world," said Steven Ridolfi, president of Bombardier Business Aircraft.

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Bombardier and other jet makers are hoping, and cautiously optimistic 2013 is when their industry finally turns the corner. In its annual forecast for corporate jets, Honeywell forecasted industry sales will grow by 8 percent this year and top $18.4 billion.

"It [business jet sales] probably is the best that it has been since prerecession, but we're nowhere near where we were back at the market peak in 2007, 2008," said Ed Bolen, the association's president. "We're well off the bottom, but we're not quite back to the top."

Uncertainty weighing on customers
Executives who sell these business jets to other executives said the number one thing keeping corporations from placing orders for new planes is the uncertainty swirling around the economy and the politics in Washington.

"All the indicators are there to say that business should be better than it is — corporate profits are [at an] all-time high, more high net worth individuals today than have ever existed," said Ernest Edwards, president of Embraer Executive Jets. "What's missing is the lack of confidence, lack of confidence in the world economy, lack of confidence in the domestic economies, and in our business." 

Scott Donnelly, CEO of Cessna maker Textron, has seen that lack of confidence weigh on the bottom line. After reporting a greater than expected loss for Cessna in Q3, Donnelly said uncertainty about the U.S. economy is making potential customers think twice before buying.

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"Most of our customers are small to mid-size business guys. Most of them are doing fairly well. They're doing much better than they were doing in the darker days of '09 and '10, but they still have a lot of concerns on how the economy is going," he said.

Wealthy private buyers stepping up
Despite the caution among corporate customers, the jet makers are riding a wave of new wealthy individuals who want, and are buying, their own planes.

It's one reason the Gulfstream G650 is one of the hottest jets on the market right now. The backlog of orders for the $65 million jet stretches out through 2017. While the company won't break down how many private individuals are buying the G650, it's believed approximately 30 percent of the plane's sales are to wealthy individuals.

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"They [the rich] are buying more than ever before, driven by the fact that there are more high-net individuals than ever before," said Ridolfi. "Last year we added 200 billionaires to the world's population. Well, I love that. Everyone of those guys are one of my customers."

Follow CNBC's Phil LeBeau on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews