Photo: David McIntosh
Photo: David McIntosh

Why Business Aircraft Have a Homelessness Problem

For starters, some hangars simply aren’t big enough for today’s jets.

An acquaintance recently bought a business jet. The requirements of his growing company, coupled with increasingly sparse, expensive, and unreliable commercial flights where he lived, had made flying the airlines an inconvenient and untenable time suck. 

Owning an airplane has solved that problem, but it has introduced another: where to keep the jet. Although he lives in a rural area, no hangar space is currently available at his sprawling home airport. Permitting and planning approvals to build a hangar could take a year. And then there is the matter of finding a company to construct it—they’re all fully booked, some for up to two years. So, meanwhile, my acquaintance has to keep his airplane sheltered more than 100 miles from home in a rented hangar at another airport—a major inconvenience and added expense that takes a bit of luster off his purchase.

He’s not alone. A hangar shortage exists at many of the approximately 5,200 public airports in the U.S. And no, it’s not a new problem brought on by pandemic-related supply-chain glitches. We’ve known about it for a while. But several factors have exacerbated it in recent years.

Globe-girding Girth

Topping the list of reasons for the shortage: our airplanes are getting bigger. In the early 1960s, the biggest business jet you could buy was a four-engine Lockheed JetStar. It carried eight to 10 passengers in a cabin that was six feet wide, six feet tall (if you count the dreadful trenched center aisle), and 28 feet long. With seats full, capacious it was not. The airplane had a wingspan of 54 feet. 

Today, we have gargantuan so-called bizliners like those from Airbus and Boeing, and even some regular business jets have wingspans of 100 feet or more—with bigger ones on the way. The Gulfstream 650ER, which has a wingspan of 99 feet, seven inches, can seat 19 passengers in a cabin that measures six feet, three inches tall; eight feet, two inches wide; and 46 feet, 10 inches long. Bombardier’s Global 7500 has a wingspan of 104 feet. Dassault’s Falcon 10X, currently under development, will have a wingspan of 110 feet. This is wider than the wingspan of a Boeing 727—an airplane that can carry 189 passengers—and near that of the latest iterations of the world’s most widely flown, narrow-body airliners, the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, which both feature 117-foot wingspans.

The longer wings are required to generate lift and carry more fuel, as an increasing number of private jet fliers have a need to gird the globe. Gulfstream’s G650ER, for example, has a range of 7,500 nautical miles—nearly triple the JetStar’s range, and requires 5,784 gallons. 

Sydney to Detroit nonstop is great. But, especially in the winter, where can you park indoors when you arrive? 

This is more than just a problem for the billionaire class. In pursuit of aerodynamic efficiency, wingspans—either as originally designed or as the result of bolting on aftermarket winglets—have gotten wider on almost everything, rendering 40- to 60-foot-wide hangars obsolete for a big chunk of the business and general aviation aircraft fleets. 

The wingspan of the Beechcraft 200 series has grown by 3.5 feet in recent years. The wings of a new HondaJet are more than four feet longer than those on a 1960s vintage Learjet. Diamond Aircraft’s line of piston-engine aircraft have considerably longer wingspans than competitive but older aircraft. The wingspan of a single-engine Diamond DA50 is 10 feet longer than that of a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Thinking about adding winglets? That will increase the span of a Cessna Citation CJ2 light jet by six feet to 55 feet, 10 inches. The span increase is nearly seven feet if you want to bolt the winglets onto a super-midsized Dassault Falcon 2000. 

While all this girth growth was underway, the number of turbine-engine business aircraft in the U.S. increased dramatically, reaching 21,900 in 2019. In May, business aviation intelligence service Jetnet reported that demand for new aircraft “remains robust by almost any prior-year standard.” Jetnet noted that between 2010 and 2020 the required ground space for the nation’s growing business aircraft fleet grew by 27.5 million square feet. The new normal for business jet hangar doors is a width of at least 130 feet. 

As the nation’s business aircraft fleet has grown, the number of public-use U.S. airports has declined from 5,858 in 1985 to 5,211 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The main reason: suburban sprawl triggering increased land values. And there’s another variable to throw into the stew: tighter zoning and building codes for new hangars—with mandates for things like automatic foam fire-suppression systems and hurricane wind resistance—things that dramatically increase their time to permit and build and boost overall costs. 

Scarcity and Higher Prices

So, we have more and bigger airplanes at fewer airports, many of which are in markets with increasing land values. And even if you slept through Econ 101, you know what this means: scarcity and higher prices

Pennsylvania provides a good microcosm of the situation. Last year, the Airport Support Network sent a survey to 700 users of 116 airports across the state. The survey found that 71 percent of those airports had hangar waiting lists and that 72 percent of aircraft owners had been on such lists for upwards of six months—and in some cases, for more than two years. At the nation’s most popular business aircraft airports, the wait can be more than a decade and hangar rent for even the smallest single-engine piston airplane can top $1,000 a month. 

More than six years ago, our sister publication, Aviation International Newsreported that business aviation airports in the New York City area—Westchester and New Jersey’s Teterboro—were at 150 percent of hangar capacity and that plans to expand space at nearby airports were mired in approval processes that had dragged on for six years. 

Despite these obstacles, new business jet hangar projects were recently completed or are proceeding in markets including Chicago; Denver: Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Palm Beach, Florida; Scottsdale, Arizona; Seattle; and Westfield, Massachusetts. But the shortage remains acute. 

New York-based Sky Harbour Group sees this as an opportunity. The company plans to develop what it calls “home-base” solutions for the business aircraft market, renting out turnkey private hangars complete with adjoining lounge, office, and concierge-level services. The company’s first “campus” opened last year at Houston Sugarland Regional Airport, and it plans to add facilities in Dallas, Nashville, Miami, Denver, and Phoenix. Other players in the market could soon follow. The Technavio consultancy estimates that the airport hangar market will grow by $1.04 billion by 2025. 

But this market expansion won’t immediately solve the storage problem for buyers of new and/or larger aircraft. Industry experts advise starting a hangar search or construction project well before the aircraft arrives, even if that means paying for empty space for a few months or even longer.