For most people, private jets are a symbol of luxury on their own but one plan by Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) could have made everyday private jets look cheap by comparison. Alas, it appears this jet will never take to the skies.
Here I'll look at what this jet could have been, what its cancellation means for Airbus, and where to look for the next most expensive private jets.
Typical private jets are cramped in comparison to most buildings on land, but owners are willing to tough it out for a few hours of flying. Not so with the Airbus Flying Palace plan.
Featuring such things as five bedroom suites, a steam room, and a grand spiral staircase, the Flying Palace lives up to its name. In looking for a plane that could be the ultimate private jet, the original buyer looked to the Airbus A380, which was the largest plane then and remains so today.
Although there was not an officially released price, Business Insider estimated a price tag of around $500 million.
Only the richest of the world's elite could afford a plane such as this and there are only reports of one being drawn up. Unlike private aircraft from Textron (NYSE:TXT) subsidiary Cessna where thousands of units have been produced, the plan to create the ultimate luxury jet wrapped around the Airbus A380 was a one-time design for one buyer.
But finding even one buyer to close the sale proved too difficult for Airbus as Bloomberg reports the order for the Flying Palace version of the A380 was cancelled late last year.This marked about seven years since the original order was placed by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and two years since the prince transferred the order to an undisclosed buyer.
Impact on the A380 program
Although one cancellation is not going to sink the A380 program, the program has underperformed as sales of the jet have remained slow. Alongside the Boeing (NYSE:BA) 747-8, the Airbus A380 is suffering from low demand for jumbo and superjumbo jets. For now, Emirates is helping to keep A380 orders on the books but sales this superjumbo are well behind those of its twin-engined counterparts.
Concerns over fuel usage and maintenance for four engine aircraft have held back their sales in favor of large twin engine aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350, which are now seeing strong sales numbers as airlines look to upgrade their fleets. Although there are some signs of potential for the Boeing 747-8 and Airbus A380, investors should look for more orders before considering these programs turned around.
Other top private jets
Since the Airbus A380 was designed for commercial airlines rather than for use as private jets, the loss of the Flying Palace order is not damaging to the primary goal of the aircraft. But both Airbus and Boeing make business jet versions of their aircraft so anyone with enough money could order an Airbus or Boeing airliner as a private jet.
Compared to the commercial and cargo orders for Airbus aircraft, orders for governments, executives, and private individuals are significantly smaller. While total Airbus orders number over 15,000, orders for the government, executive, and private category number less than 200 aircraft. There are also significantly fewer of these private Airbus aircraft in operation at 183 compared to 8,150 in total.
Boeing also has business jet versions of their large airliners and, unlike Airbus, Boeing has sold several of its large double decker aircraft through the business jet category. But like Airbus, Boeing's business jet sales make up a relatively small part of total orders with only 228 in total.
But since the aircraft at Airbus and Boeing have already been developed, the additional costs of making private aircraft are reasonable and if offering private aircraft can generate more sales, Airbus and Boeing have both decided it's a market worth pursuing.
Airbus sells far more A320 private aircraft than A380 private aircraft (now zero A380 private aircraft due to the Flying Palace cancellation) so private aircraft sales have little to do with covering the program costs or making up for slow sales. Since the vast majority of the costs have already been spent on developing the body of the aircraft and setting up manufacturing, changing the inside for specific customers is a less costly endeavor. Neither manufacturer makes its final sales prices of these aircraft public but each one has sufficient demand from commercial sales so that if private sales proved unprofitable, they could be dropped with little consequence to the bottom line.
In the case of the cancelled A380 Flying Palace, it caused a disruption to Airbus but did not result in wasting a fully made plane. The original aircraft was a test aircraft that had already been built and the cancellation of the Flying Palace order means it will be remarketed for alternative use.
Due to the high costs of Airbus and Boeing private jets compared to smaller aircraft from Cessna, Airbus and Boeing private jet sales are likely to continue to comprise a relatively small part of total sales.
Private aircraft sales at Airbus and Boeing are still worth watching, but since commercial sales represent a much larger part of total sales, the commercial segment deserves a larger part of investor attention. Investors looking to profit from private aircraft sales rather than commercial ones should take a look at Textron, which receives about 31% of its revenue from Textron Aviation -- the segment that contains Cessna and Beechcraft.
For investors heavily invested in commercial aircraft manufacturers, private aircraft manufacturers like Textron can provide diversification to a portfolio. Additionally, private aircraft sales are tied closer to consumer demand so manufacturers of these planes can serve as a way to bet on an increase in demand from individuals.
On the commercial side, near-record backlogs still exist for both Boeing and Airbus but sales of four engine aircraft continue to struggle. With the airline industry collecting even more profits from lower oil prices, investors should watch for new aircraft orders to see how well these higher profits translate into aircraft purchases.
One of the biggest questions facing the A380 today is whether to update it with new engines as Airbus has done with its A320 and A330. Recently, Emirates offered to give the potential A380 neo a boost by offering to order 100 of the aircraft if it enters production. With no decision yet from Airbus, the manufacturer is likely running its own internal calculations as to whether it's worth the development costs (Yan Derocles of Oddo Securities estimated them at 2 billion euros) to upgrade the A380. Investors should watch for Airbus' decision as it will provide insight into how much Airbus is willing to invest into selling the A380 and what the manufacturer sees in terms of sales potential.
The bottom line
The cancellation of the Airbus Flying Palace order does not mean a major change for the A380 program but it is a minor blow to a superjumbo jet program that continues to have slow sales. Since Airbus continues to offer the A380 as a private jet option, there remains the possibility that another high-paying customer may order their own version of the Flying Palace in the future but at this point it seems unlikely a Flying Palace will ever be sold.
However, Airbus and Boeing investors should see these companies more as commercial aircraft sellers since only a slim minority of total sales go to the private individual market. Investors interested in the private aircraft market would be better off looking at Textron which has an extensive private aircraft business through its Cessna and Beechcraft brands.
Alexander MacLennan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Textron,. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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