The strength of the large business jet market has returned industry billings to near the record-high level of 2008, but unit shipments are still almost half of what they were before the economic downturn, according to the latest General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) report.

GAMA, which released its 2013 yearend aircraft billings and shipment results on Feb. 19 during its annual State of the Industry press conference, reports billings jumped 24% from $18.9 billion in 2012 to $23.4 billion last year, marking the second-highest level on record. The highest level was reported in 2008, when billings totaled $24.8 billion.

General aviation aircraft shipments overall were up 4.3% over 2012, reaching 2,256 in 2013. And in welcome news to industry leaders, GAMA-tracked shipments were up over 2012 levels, even if slightly, across pistons, turboprops and business jets.

“While it’s nice all elements of fixed-wing are up … it’s still not stabilized on the light and midsized end [of business jets],” GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce says.

Despite the surge in billings, unit deliveries are still substantially down from the 2008 levels of 3,970 shipments. This dichotomy reflects the wide, ongoing divide between the large business jet market and that of midsize and light business jets.

For the year, the business jet deliveries, as reported by GAMA, were up just 0.9% in 2013 to 678. But the overall billings improvement skewed heavily toward large business jet makers in 2013; Bombardier’s and Dassault’s billings each were up by about $500 million, while Gulfstream’s increase was more than $3 billion.

Bombardier posted that increase on the strength of its Challenger and Global family. Its light business jet deliveries were down by 10 units, or by about one-quarter of the 2012 deliveries. Cessna’s business jet deliveries were also down by 25% in 2013. This weakness was reflected in billings; Cessna’s billings were down by about $200 million.

The weakness in the mid and light categories are still a drag on the overall business jet delivery numbers, which are still down by almost half of the 1,313 reported in 2008. The heads of Bombardier, Cessna parent Textron and Gulfstream parent General Dynamics all recently reported encountering a continued hesitant market in the mid and light end of the business jet market.

The piston market again continues to improve, up 2.7% over 2012 to 933 shipments in 2013. This has been a slow climb from the recent trough of 770 logged in 2009, when the industry hit bottom. Most years since have had incremental improvements. But the 933 shipments are still only a third of the “post-GARA” high of 2,755 that was reported in 2006. GARA, or the General Aviation Revitalization Act, adopted in 1994, implemented a rolling, 18-year statute of repose on general aviation aircraft, jump-starting an end of the industry that was slowly dying.

The recent incremental improvements reflect a growing world demand for commercial pilots and a need for trainers, Bunce says. But the piston market still struggles as the population of recreation pilots continues to diminish, he says. The used market is also a major drag, with a number of lower-priced aircraft still available.

Beechcraft’s booming King Air business helped provide a substantial boost for turboprops, which were up 10.4%, from 584 shipments in 2012 to 645 last year. Beechcraft’s turboprop deliveries were up 52% on the year.

Also up were the civil helicopter shipments that GAMA tracks. GAMA began tracking civil helicopter deliveries for the first time at the end of 2012. Piston deliveries improved 2.1% in 2013 to 335, while turbine helicopters were up 9.2% to 782. Bunce noted that growth in the energy business has provided the helicopter industry with a significant boost.

“The industry’s positive numbers across all categories fuel cautious optimism as we move into 2014,” Bunce says. The industry is poised to continue that momentum, he believes, with the slate of new products that either just entered the market or will in the upcoming year.

“The introduction of new products will be key to strong future growth, which is why GAMA continues to work with authorities across the globe to streamline certification processes,” Bunce says. “It is also why GAMA pushed so hard for adoption of the Part 23/CS-23 Aviation Rulemaking Committee Recommendations.”

Light and midsized business jet deliveries were bolstered at the end of the year with the introduction of Bombardier’s Learjet 75 and Cessna’s M2 and Sovereign+. The Learjet 75, certified in the fourth quarter, accounted for almost two-thirds of all Learjet deliveries in 2013, while Cessna’s M2 and Sovereign+ combined for 20 deliveries in the fourth quarter.

The market should further be fueled by the introduction of Embraer’s Legacy 500 and Cessna’s new Citation X in the first half of this year, the return of the Eclipse very light jet and possibly a late certification of Bombardier’s Learjet 85.

While company executives remain cautious about the continued softness at that end of the market, they are all predicting increases in deliveries on the strength of the new products.

Pricing remains a pitfall, they say. Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for GAMA, notes both buyers and sellers remain wary of new product as they watch residual values plummet fast. Sellers also have a hard time competing against the much lower priced, relatively young used aircraft on the market.

Bunce also notes that government policy matters. Past negative remarks made toward industry have hampered growth, he says, and improvements can take years to implement. “We hope 2014 brings an even stronger commitment by policy makers and aviation authorities to make it easier for general aviation manufacturers to introduce new, safety-enhancing products to market and allow our industry to continue to grow.”

But exactly when the market will return to 2008 levels in terms of shipments remains unknown. Bunce questions whether the market was “hyper-inflated” at the time, but says true growth remains contingent upon a number of factors, including continued improvements in the North American and European markets that rely heavily on smaller jets and sustained improvement in the gross domestic product.

“When will we see that? I don’t know,” he says. He also questions when the industry will see financing become more accessible. “My crystal ball is no clearer that anyone else.”