Oct. 26--Executives can fly to 10 different cities in a week, couples can whisk away to the theater in New York City for the weekend, friends can meet in Aspen on a whim. That is, if you happen to have access to a multimillion-dollar jet.
Business and private jet travel appears to be roaring back this year after falling off during the economic downturn in Houston and around the country.
It's an industry some analysts watch to glean the health of the economy, showing the well-to-do and some businesses are spending more. Luxury and business jet travel has improved this year, also reflecting updated jet offerings, increased business activity and more ways to buy time on jets, analysts and industry leaders say.
And the trend is even more true in Houston, where bustling energy companies, some of which have sprawling national and international footprints, are prime users of business jets.
Fuel sales data from Houston-area airports, including Sugar Land Regional Airport and Lone Star Executive Airport in Conroe, which are home to frequent business jet activity, back up the change.
Scott Smith, director at the Lone Star Executive Airport, which averages about 200 flights a day, said he has seen an increase in the use of the business aircraft over the last two to three years.
Last year's fuel sales at the Conroe airport surpassed the previous high in 2006. And this year, he said, is on track to meet or break last year's record.
The airport sold 1.3 million gallons of fuel last year. It was 1.1 million gallons in 2006 and 671,000 gallons in 2009. Through September of this year, the airport had sold 901, 363 gallons.
"That's a direct reflection of the economy. We've gone back to a little better than where we were," Smith said. "It's slowly increasing because more businesses are finding out the benefits of aviation to enhance business opportunities."
He said the airport serves a wide variety of companies, groups and individuals, from oil and gas companies to Native American tribes and state governments. The airport is also building 123,000 square feet of additional hangar space this year, which Smith attributes to increased demand.
Sugar Land Regional Airport handles about 80,000 takeoffs
and landings per year and 220 per day. Based on fuel sales, the airport saw private jet travel increase over the last several years. It sold 3 million gallons of fuel in fiscal 2013, which ended in September, said city of Sugar Land spokesman Doug Adolph. The airport reported
2 million gallons sold in 2009.
From September 2009 to this past September, jet operations increased by 23 percent at Hobby Airport, one of the five busiest airports for such activity, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. That figure has been steadily rising since the downturn.
Private jet companies are also benefiting from the renewed or new interest in jet travel.
New products, like Bombardier's Learjet 85, can attract buyers in addition to existing owners, said Deanna White, president of Richardson-based Flexjet, which plans to offer the jet next year. The company has a variety of options for jet use, including "fractions," which offer access for a certain number of hours on planes.
Texas is one of the top sales regions for the company, which has 1,000 owners nationwide.
According to Flexjet, 27 percent of its owners, who range from company presidents to retirees, are based in Houston. The company's new business has jumped 96 percent year-over-year.
A model of the new Learjet was recently on display at Space Center Houston.
The jet boasts Wifi, state-of-the-art flight deck design and a quiet, purring engine that maintains low noise and emission levels. It also sports an all-composite fuselage and wing, which give it a smooth, sleek look.
"It's the lightest and fastest Learjet ever built," White said.
It is doubling its recent Learjet 85 aircraft order of 30 aircraft by converting 30 options into firm orders for a total of 60 business jets valued at approximately $1.2 billion, and is procuring...