By Allison Lampert
MONTREAL, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Learjet, the sleek private jetused by celebrities for decades, is ending production this year,following a slump in demand due to competition from newer andless-expensive rivals.
Long before COVID-19 hit demand in 2020, the arrival ofless-expensive similar-sized models from Embraer SAand Textron Inc's Cessna eroded Learjet demand.
Created by American entrepreneur Bill Lear, the Learjet 23first took off from Wichita, Kansas in 1963, forging a newmarket for modern business aircraft with owners like FrankSinatra, while shattering speed records.
Some 3000 Learjets, which seat up to nine passengers, havesince taken to the skies with a bullet-shaped nose, capable offlying close to the speed of sound at Mach 0.81.
Bombardier, which acquired Learjet in 1990, saidlast week production would end this year. But it will servicethe plane, which accounts for about 42% of its in-service fleetof just under 5,000 business aircraft, according to JETNETdata.
Learjet's performance, described by some private pilots asthe closest they'd ever get to flying a fighter jet, couldn'tbeat rivals' lower cost.
"Less equipped aircraft at smaller price points drovedemand," Bombardier spokesman Mark Masluch said.
Embraer's Phenom, for example, listed for about $9 million,compared with a Learjet 75, at around $13 million.
"Customers want a nice Mercedes in that segment, but I don'tknow if they want a Ferrari anymore," said aerospace analystRolland Vincent, comparing Learjet to the Italian sports car.
Meanwhile, wealthy buyers increasingly sought larger-cabinjets, like General Dynamics Corp's Gulfstream andBombardier's own Global series with showers, beds and rangesconnecting far-flung cities without refueling.
Keeping older planes relevant through upgrades in anindustry that covets the latest model is a useful lesson forplanes like Bombardier's Challenger 650, said Vincent.
Masluch said the 650 remains competitive in its market spaceand appeals to certain segments.
"It's been a cash cow for them," Vincent said of the 600plane family which first flew in 1978. "But cash-cows have a wayof getting fat."
Bombardier's plans for a larger Learjet 85, made oflightweight composites, didn't materialize, ending in a $1.2billion write-down in 2015.
Bombardier tried to compete on price in 2019, by launchingthe Liberty Learjet 75 at $9.9 million.
The plane nabbed an order as an air ambulance, a nichevocation for the Learjet.
Still, Learjet lost ground, with just 11 deliveries lastyear, compared with 112 deliveries in 2001, according to JETNETdata and Bombardier.
"At the end of the day there were more current options outthere," said Guardian Jet managing partner Don Dwyer.
But the fast and sleek Learjet will always have itssupporters, said Adam Twidell, chief executive at Private Fly.
The global booking service for charter flights still getsrequests from passengers to "'keep my Lear waiting,'" he said.(Reporting By Allison Lampert in MontrealEditing by Denny Thomas, Diane Craft and Franklin Paul)