It’s the end of an era for one of Wichita’s most well-known aviation brands.
Production on the Learjet, the first mass-produced business jet, will end later this year. More than 3,000 Learjets have been sold since its first flight in 1963.
Bombardier, Learjet’s parent company, made the announcement Thursday as part of its 2020 earnings report. Bombardier said in a statement that the move will allow it “to focus on its more profitable Challenger and Global aircraft families and accelerate the expansion of its customer services business.”
The company only delivered 11 Learjets last year, about 10% of its aviation sales.
Bombardier spokesman Mark Mansuch said the move will lead to 250 layoffs over the rest of this year and into early 2022. He said the company projects employment at its facility near Eisenhower National Airport to remain between 900 and 1,000 people.
Bombardier said Wichita will continue to serve as its primary flight-test center for all of its aircraft. It also will continue its role as a service center, providing service to existing jets, including Learjets.
Bombardier said it also plans to focus in 2021 on its special mission aircraft business, which remains in Wichita.
Learjet became synonymous with “business jet” during the 1960s and ‘70s. Its customers included entertainers, athletes and celebrities, many of whom came to Wichita to visit Learjet. Among them: Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Danny Kaye and Mickey Mantle.
More recently, the plane has struggled against strong competition in the business jet market. So the news of its demise wasn’t unexpected, said Molly McMillin, the managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network who has covered Wichita’s aviation industry for decades.
“Something's been coming for a long time,” she said. “There've been lots of talk circulating about them trying to sell the Learjet line for many years.”
She said Bombardier’s other lines of aircraft were a higher priority for the company.
“That's their bread and butter: the Challenger and the Global, especially the Global 7,500, which is their flagship aircraft,” McMillin said. “So the Learjet is down at the bottom of the line, and there's a lot of competition in that space.”
Retired advertising executive Al Higdon worked on marketing the Learjet when it was launched. He said the plane faced several challenges.
“The economy has not been strong, obviously. Headwinds all the way the last several years,” Higdon said. “The Learjet, I think, was probably falling behind competitively with others in the light jet business jet industry.
“So when you have factors like that, I think the … plan to shut down the production line by the end of this year was pretty inevitable.”
Bombardier is the latest of several companies to own Learjet since Bill Lear moved the company to Wichita from Switzerland in 1962. Bombardier, which is based in Montreal, bought Learjet in 1990.