Demand for executive jets, a symbol of corporate excess in the late 1990s, has again reached record levels in a sign of rising business confidence after three years of falling sales.
General Dynamics, the U.S. defense group that makes Gulfstream aircraft, on Wednesday said it had seen a sharp recovery in demand for aircraft in recent months leading to a record 34 separate orders in the last quarter.
Second-hand jet sales were also strong, leaving only one aircraft available for sale at the end of the year.
The upbeat news from this small but symbolic market comes as U.S. business leaders show signs of the rapidly returning confidence that some commentators believe might herald a partial return to the deal-driven culture of the technology boom.
While merger and acquisition activity remains relatively low, the positive market reaction to last week's $58 billion deal between JP Morgan Chase and Bank One has encouraged others to consider large deals in such sectors as mobile telephony.
Strong earnings growth from such U.S. bellwethers as General Electric, IBM and Citigroup has also contributed to a sense that the profits recovery is in full swing.
The upturn in executive jet sales has been driven partly by the end of Concorde flights and the increased security delays at most airports. This has boosted the benefits of private jet travel for many international executives whose tight budget limits had constrained spending until now.
Manufacturers have always argued executive jets are a cost-efficient business tool but their proliferation in the 1990s raised concerns that managers were taking advantage of them for personal use.
Companies such as Tyco have begun making directors compensate the company for any occasional personal use.
Nicholas Chabraja, chairman of General Dynamics, hailed the Gulfstream order figure as proof of momentum seen starting in last year's third quarter.
The business jet market collapsed from the second half of 2002 into the first half of 2003. A surplus of used aircraft caused a glut the market, while some potential customers shied away or cancelled orders in the light of economic downturn.
Mr. Chabraja characterized the slump in that period as "walking through the valley of death". The rebound started only in the second half of last year. Gulfstream's total orders for 2003 fell to 66, from 72 in 2002.
Executive jets can cost about $40m but larger models such as the Gulfstream G550 are capable of carrying eight passengers from New York to Tokyo.
In December, NetJets, which sells partial ownership of executive aircraft announced it had placed an order for 58 Hawker jets from Raytheon Aircraft Company worth more than $360 million.