Jet-setters eager to get glimpse of new Learjet 85

Updated plane will have newest technology, longer range

As the debut of the newest iPhone creates a giant buzz among the general public, Chicago's most elite jet-setters are agog over a different sort of consumer toy.

The subject of their fascination is the upcoming release of a new personal business airplane, the Learjet 85.

Sipping estate wines, nibbling on tiny ice cream cones filled with goat cheese puree and chasing it down with artisan bonbons that sell for $25 a piece, invitees last week climbed aboard a full-size mock-up of the jet, which soon can be theirs — for about $20 million.

Some of the nearly 100 people at the event, held at Adler Planetarium, said they already own or lease Learjets or competitor airplanes. They said they were drawn to the sneak peek because the cabin of the Learjet 85 is almost 50 percent larger than earlier Learjet models, affording more room for tall passengers to stretch their legs and stand up without hunching over.

The Learjet 85 will be capable of cruising at about 600 mph and also have a longer range, enabling it to make transcontinental trips carrying up to four passengers, and up to eight passengers on shorter flights, according to the manufacturer, Bombardier Aerospace.

The plush aircraft is also decked out with the newest avionics, including a synthetic vision system for use in low-visibility conditions and a paperless cockpit that relies on iPads to call up navigation charts. For passengers, the airplane will have high-definition in-flight entertainment and wireless Internet systems as well as a roomier lavatory and a larger storage hold, Bombardier said.

In addition, the aircraft structure consists mostly of carbon fiber composite materials, making the plane lighter and more economical to fly than traditional aluminum-skinned, mid-size aircraft that have a higher fuel bill, officials said.

It's this "clean sheet" design of the largest Learjet ever made and the anticipated "gate appeal" when the airplane rolls up at an airport that are causing a stir among CEOs and entrepreneurs who are looking to trade up.

"It's like owning a yacht or a Ferrari. These folks get it in their blood," said Christopher Bero, marketing director for Flexjet, a division of Bombardier that sells, charters and offers fractional ownership of Bombardier business jets.

"When Ferrari holds a special event, they immediately go to Italy to see the new car that essentially they cannot get for a few years," Bero said. "It's the same reason they are here tonight."

The Learjet 85 and two other new Learjet models, the smaller Learjets 70 and 75, are expected to be available next year, according to Bombardier. The aircraft is being assembled at Bombardier's plant in Wichita, Kan. It still must undergo flight tests and certification by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The mock-up of the fuselage is on an 11-city national tour, from New York to Los Angeles, aimed at creating excitement among potential customers. Invited guests are also offered the opportunity to test drive new Rolls-Royce cars, a Phantom and a Ghost, which are parked alongside the Learjet 85 model.

Learjet, a legendary brand of business aircraft, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2013. It has been the plane of Frank Sinatra and other Hollywood stars, as well as heads of state and Wall Street titans. In recent years, though, Bombardier has faced stiff competition from manufacturers of other business jets.

"The Learjet 85 has been the talk in aircraft (circles) for the last year and we just had to see it," said Margaret Duhon, of Chicago, a partner in a lighting manufacturing firm who with her banker husband, Chris, purchase "jet cards" containing a set number of hours to fly on Learjets.

They buy membership cards from Flexjet that sell for about $100,000 and cover 25 hours of flight time. The cards work like a debit card. "You just refill the card when the hours run low," Margaret Duhon said.

"We are really busy people and a lot of times we need to get to places quickly," said Chris Duhon. "This beats waiting for security at O'Hare and waiting for the aircraft and having to make connections. We get on and go, although we still sometimes fly on Southwest (Airlines) with everybody else too."

Asked how much it costs to use the Flexjet service for a typical two- or- three-hour flight, compared with flying commercial, he said, "The cost is similar to a first-class ticket."

"If you fill up the plane," Margaret Duhon added.

Flexjet has ordered 21 Learjet 85s, said Fred Reid, president of Flexjet, which is the launch customer of the new aircraft.

Despite the slow U.S. economic recovery, he said, the plane has "many firm orders," but he declined to be more specific.

"Generally speaking, when the first plane takes to the air, that's when interest spikes," Reid said. "But the good news for us is that Bombardier sells planes all over the world. India, China, Russia and the Middle East, these places are booming."

The market for high-end personal and corporate airplanes has stayed relatively steady, said Jim Bunke, sales director for Bombardier business aircraft.

"There is a certain strata of people who are not going to be without their transportation," Bunke said.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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