That honor belongs to Cessna, now part of Textron (NYSE:TXT), for the Cessna 172 Skyhawk; an aircraft that has produced and sold over 43,000 units and remains in production today. Between Boeing and Airbus, the most popular model is the Boeing 737 which has received about 12,600 orders and delivered just over 8,000 units.
The private aviation market
The market for private aircraft spans a vast range, from small aircraft decades old costing little more than an average car, to corporate jets from Boeing and Airbus costing tens of millions of dollars.
However, unlike the commercial aviation market for large jets which is controlled almost entirely by Boeing and Airbus, the market for smaller private aircraft is much more fragmented. Compared to the two dominant players of the large jet market, small aircraft sales can be broken out across at least 10 companies that each represent a decent percentage of sales.
Last year, Textron completed its acquisition of Beechcraft; another private aircraft maker. In 2013, both Cessna and Beechcraft were in the top five for general aviation sales and the integration of both manufacturers into Textron's aviation unit helps to cement Textron's position as a top private aircraft manufacturer.
Cessna competes in the lower end of the market offering single engine, turboprop, and small jet aircraft. Despite its wide variety of offerings, its best selling plane ever remains the 172 Skyhawk which originates from the 1950s and has remained in production for most of the time in between.
Besides the vast name recognition of the aircraft, the Cessna 172 has a major structural advantage as well. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, "The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is one of the most common airplanes used by flight schools."
AOPA cites reasons such as easy boarding and ventilation while on the ground as well as widespread availability due to the popularity of the aircraft. With many new pilots learning to fly on this aircraft, it provides a boost to sales from those who tested and enjoyed the 172 during training.
Investing in Cessna
Besides the 172, Cessna has several other offerings that target the lower end of the private aviation market. A line of turboprops fulfill the needs of buyers requiring more capacity for passengers or cargo or even the ability to land on water as is the case with the Cessna Amphibian.
Cessna also taps into the business jet market with the Cessna Citation series offering seating for anywhere from five to twelve passengers. And in following the path of the Cessna 172, the Cessna Citation XLS has taken the title of the best selling business jet in the world.
As part of Textron, investors cannot buy into Cessna by itself. Like Boeing and Airbus, Textron not only makes private aircraft but also has defense and finance businesses. In its most recent 10-Q filing, Textron breaks its revenue down into four segments: Textron Aviation, Bell, Textron Systems, and Industrial. Textron Aviation, which includes both Cessna and recently acquired Beechcraft, makes up about 31% of Textron's total revenue.
This does add some diversification to the company making it more likely to be able to weather a downturn in private aircraft sales, however, it makes it so investors cannot get a pure play investment on Cessna.
But for those who like Textron's other lines of business as well as the Cessna unit, Textron could serve as another way to diversify an aerospace manufacturing portfolio.
The bottom line
Cessna has created the aircraft with the most units sold ever and holds a structural advantage of Cessna aircraft being popular teaching tools in flight schools. For aerospace investors searching for more options besides Airbus and Boeing, Textron may be worth a look.