ORLANDO — Customers and prospects were showing a lot of interest in business jets Wednesday, but few were buying.
And Jack Pelton, CEO of Cessna Aircraft Co., said it's difficult to determine how soon that interest might turn into sales.
"People are researching; they're not negotiating," he said between appointments at the National Business Aviation Association's static display at the Orlando Executive Airport.
Through the first two days of the convention, attendance is down 25 percent from last year's record. That led to fewer "gawkers" and "tire kickers" and more serious shoppers, planemakers report.
"I have been very pleased with the traffic through the static display," said Shawn Vick, Hawker Beechcraft's head of sales, marketing and flight operations. A significant number of international customers and prospects turned out for the show.
Rather than a show for sales and big news, manufacturers are banding together to make sure word gets out on how essential the industry and its products are.
"This is a critical and important time for us," Pelton said.
Cessna will evaluate its decision not to have its large booth inside the exhibit hall after the show is over, but it was the right thing to do this year, Pelton said.
"It's been a good thing to just be at the static," he said.
With the aircraft on display, people can check out the planes and their features.
"That's why we're here — to showcase our products," Pelton said.
Hawker Beechcraft is working on two transactions for jet sales at the show — one for the Hawker 4000 and one for the Hawker 750. The buyers were already in the pipeline, Vick said. But the customers took advantage of the show to view the planes.
Interest also was high for Bombardier Learjet's new Learjet 85. The company had an updated mock-up on display. With delivery slated in 2013, the later time frame works out better for buyers in this economy, said Larry Thimmesch, the Learjet 85's program manager. The procession of people walking through the mock-up has been steady.
The company also showed off the new choice of interiors for its Learjet 60XR models, with updated lighting, galleys and other refreshed features. The changes were made in response to customer feedback.
Cessna Aircraft's new Citation CJ4, which is in flight test, was on display and also gained a lot of interest. The plane is slated for delivery next year.
In other show news
* The downturn led to cancellations and order deferrals, but just how severe the economy hit the market was underscored by Cessna's Pelton. In some cases, buyers with jets on order walked away from deposits totaling more than $1 million. In one case, the deposit was $2.5 million.
Many people from outside Wichita have come up to Pelton at the show to ask how Wichita is faring in the downturn. They've heard of the layoffs and are concerned, he said.
* The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has made Fort Worth's Mike Casey a happy man.
Casey, a general aviation operations inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration, won a Wichita-built Big Dog Motorcycle. He had a one-in-47,000 chance of winning. To win, he had to roll dice and spell out W-I-C-H-I-T-A. He was the 348th person to attempt to do it.
GWEDC officials report that they've had good conversations with people interested in Wichita over the past two days.
* With the economic downturn, some big displays were missing from this year's show. Spirit AeroSystems, Bell Helicopter, Mooney Airplane, Vought Aerospace and Sino-Swearingen were some of the exhibitors noticeably absent. Many others downsized the size of their displays. NetJets, for example, had a much smaller presence in a corner of the exhibit hall.