The Lapse of the Learjet in Today’s Saturated Business Jet Market

A Learjet 75 in Wichita (Photo: Ian McMurtry)

With the latest waves of business jets hitting the market over the last few years such as the Cessna Citation Latitude and Longitude, Dassault Falcon 7x and Bombardier Global 7000, there is one aircraft, however, that will not see a new model in the market, the Learjet.

Learjet was once one of the first to offer a business jet product and, for a long time, was a staple for small business aircraft. However, the brand has slowly seen a decline over the last few years.

History of the Learjet

LearJet was formed in 1962 when founder William ‘Bill’ Powell Lear moved the Swiss American Aviation Corporation from Altenrhein, Germany to Wichita, Kansas in search for lower production costs. Lear had one vision: to look at creating a business aircraft for corporations to use instead of relying on commercial jets to get the job done.

Upon moving to Wichita, the Swiss company rebranded itself into Lear Jet Corporation and started production on an assembly line on the grounds of the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

Learjet’s original product was the Learjet 23, which offered a six to eight seat aircraft with a range of 1,830 miles at 518 mph. While the aircraft was not the biggest success with only 100 orders, later versions of the jet titled the LearJet 24 and LearJet 25 saw much more success with the two variants selling 259 and 369 aircraft, respectively.

Although the Learjet 23, 24, and 25 would see early success in the 1960s, the jet builder would peak in the 1970s with the arrival of the Learjet 35. The original Learjet was already ten years old and competition from the Dassault Falcon 10 and Cessna Citation I would lead to a new variation of the Learjet 25. Flight testing the Learjet 35 started in 1973 and the aircraft became a huge success, outselling both the original Dassault and Cessna with 738 orders over 20 years.

Statistically, the aircraft was far superior to the opposition, offering the best range, highest service ceiling, and highest maximum takeoff weight. The only statistic that the Learjet lost in was maximum speed, which went to the Falcon 10 with a max speed of 566 mph.

A New Learjet

While Learjet had seen their original design sell over 1,000 frames since the company’s start, the jet builder wanted to create a new jet from scratch. With brands such as Beechcraft and Cessna providing plenty of business aircraft competition in the Wichita market alone, Learjet brought forward their new concept: the Learjet 55.

The aircraft would sacrifice range and speed for cabin comfort and fuel efficiency in hopes to compete with the larger fuselage of the Cessna Citation and BAe 125. The aircraft would also see changes to the wing structure, removing the wing tip fuel tanks by moving them into the wider portion of the wings and replacing the ends with winglets. The jet was officially launched in 1979 and would see 147 planes delivered.

While the Learjet 55 was not as popular as the Learjet 35, the company decided to move forward with the Learjet 55’s design and once orders for the 35s were nearing completion, brought forward their newest design, the Learjet 45.

The company needed to respond to the roaring success of the Cessna Citation, who had created the Citation II, III, IV, V Encore, VI, and VII through the late 1970s and through the 1980s, amassing a total of 2,887 orders over a 13-year period.

With Learjet certain that the 55’s design was the future of the company, design work began in the late 1980s to produce a new aircraft that would feature upgraded powerplants and three extra feet of fuselage. The jet, titled the Learjet 60, would make its first flight in 1990 and deliveries would start in 1993. The jet was still not as much of a roaring success as the Learjet 35 was, only seeing 400 orders over its 20-year build window.

One of the reasons for the Learjet 60s struggles was the flood of business jets offered in the 1980s and early 1990s with their cross-airport rivals creating the Citation Excel, Mustang, X, and CitationJet and accumulated another 2,000 orders for those jets. Other aircraft that sold well around that time were the new Hawker 800, Bombardier Challenger and new Dassault Falcon 900 and 1000.

While the Learjet 45 would underperform, the next design would revitalize the company one last time. Bombardier Learjet had modified the Learjet 60 with new winglets and replacing their Pratt & Whitney PW305A turbofans with specifically designed Honeywell TFE731-20 turbofans. While the Honeywell engines were not as powerful or offered the range of the Pratt & Whitney’s, they were more reliable with fewer engine overhauls needed and also offered a better fuel consumption than the older jet.

These changes would lead to the company’s newest jet, the Learjet 45, and the first of 642 aircraft would start service in 1995. The jet was more attractive due to the high fuel prices of the Gulf War as well as the decreased unit cost compared to the Learjet 60, with the 45 being over a million dollars cheaper than the 60 at $13.2 million.

Under Bombardier’s control, the Learjet 45 soared and the aircraft would be altered to create the Learjet 40 in 2003, which offered a shorter fuselage and extended range models of both the Learjet 40 and 45. The Learjet 45XR was far more popular due to its increase in range and maximum takeoff weight as well as new cockpit screens.

The Rise and Fall of Learjet

Unfortunately, the Learjet 45XR would start the downfall of Learjet. The jet builder would offer a similar Learjet 60XR in the late 2000s that would sell poorly due to the economic crisis and would lead to Learjet “pausing production” of the Learjet 45 and 60 in 2012.

Although Learjet was struggling, they were not alone. Cessna, Beechcraft and Hawker had all merged into Textron Aviation and in 2013, Textron opted to discontinue the Hawker brand. Furthermore, sales of the Cessna Citation Sovereign slowed and the Cessna Citation Columbus was canceled before it even left the drawing board. Furthermore, sales for other business jets including the Embraer Phenom and Dassault Falcon slowed as demand diminished.

However, Learjet would never rebound like others would. The company would start flight testing on the Learjet 75 in 2013 in hopes of producing multiple hundred order listing like earlier models had. However, the Learjet 75’s only changes saw a new nose and Bombardier Global Express style winglets, as well as an improved Honeywell TFE731-40BR engine and extra range. Outside of the small changes, the jet was exactly the same as the Learjet 45.

The Learjet 75 didn’t sell well early. The company’s newest jet was type certified in 2013 and in its four years on the market, it just cracked 100 deliveries last summer and deliveries have already been surpassed by the rival Cessna Citation Latitude, who entered the market a year and a half after the Learjet. Meanwhile, Bombardier has struggled to get jets airborne as the C-Series and Global Express flight test programs have cost the company dearly.

One Last Hope

With cash running low and demand for the Learjet 75 struggling, the company made one final attempt to sell the current Learjet with a modified aircraft called the Learjet 85 being announced in 2010. Bombardier had turned back to Pratt & Whitney’s PW307Bs to power the jet, which would be the first Bombardier business jet made mostly of carbon fiber. Due to the aircraft’s light design and power design, it would offer an extra 300 miles of range over the Learjet 75.

The Learjet 85 would make its debut flight in the summer of 2014, but its time in the sun would not be that long. Heavy losses in Bombardier’s profit would see the program suspended in late 2014 and canceled in 2015. As a result, Bombardier would also slash 1,000 Learjet associated job as well as slow the Learjet 75 production rate in hopes of extending the Wichita assembly line’s lifespan.

While Learjet’s situation looks bleak, their competition has seen some better times. Cessna has already seen success with the Citation Latitude and started flight testing on its sister jet, the Citation Longitude. Long-range jets have been increasingly popular, with Cessna designing the long-range Citation Hemisphere and Dassault and Gulfstream both having the Falcon 6x and G500, respectively, in development.

Furthermore, new smaller and versatile jets like the HondaJet and Pilatus PC-24 provide new faces to the already crowded business jet market.

With no designs in the works and Bombardier hoping to get the Global 8000 project off the ground soon, Learjet will just have to hope that the Learjet 75 can trickle in orders until a new small business jet is needed. But in the crowded world of business jets, that task is much easier said than done for one of the oldest business jet builders around.

This story was updated on March 18, 2018 at 8:37 p.m. ET.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry