Upgraded Pilatus PC-12 makes European debut

 - May 17, 2008, 11:39 PM

At the Pilatus shareholder meeting earlier this year, triumphant chairman Oscar Schwenk declared, “In 2007, we sold more aircraft, we achieved a higher turnover, we attained a better operating result and we have a larger order backlog than ever!” With sales of the PC-12 pressurized business utility single turboprop aircraft peaking above output capacity for several consecutive years and trainer sales picking up, the Swiss manufacturer is truly in top shape.

But, as Schwenk cautioned, “complacency is not part of our makeup,” noting that this was demonstrated by the fact that the Swiss manufacturer did not wait for PC-12 sales to slump before launching an upgraded version called the PC-12 NG (Next Generation).

The company displayed the NG version at the National Business Aviation Association convention last September. Last month both U.S. and European authorities certified the new version, and this week at EBACE, the new model is on public display for the first time in Europe. The first of the new-generation PC-12s left the company’s factory at Stans, Switzerland, late last month.

All future PC-12s will be NGs, and Pilatus has informed holders of delivery positions that they will receive the new version. The price difference between a typically equipped standard PC-12 and the NG model is about $400,000. The price of an executive-configured NG is around $4 million.

Some of the improvements to the PC-12 were introduced progressively and installed on late previous models. They included more efficient winglets and a 530-pound increase in maximum takeoff weight to 10,450 pounds. Initially, only the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration accepted the weight increase, but the European Aviation Safety Agency has since validated it.

Major improvements of the PC-12 NG include the new Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P engine with a power output of  1,744 shp versus 1,605 shp of the previously fitted -67B version. The engine remains flat-rated at 1,200 shp at sea level but provides substantially more power during climb and at cruising altitude, resulting in a maximum cruising speed of 280 knots compared with 270 knots for the previous model. The new engine cannot be retrofitted to older PC-12s.

Another highly visible improvement in the PC-12 NG is the Honeywell Primus Apex integrated avionics suite optimized for single-pilot operation. The new cockpit suite is not just an add-on feature, but has been installed in an entirely revamped flight deck created by BMW Group Designworks USA, which also reconfigured the PC-12 cabin. Other improvements include a dual-zone environmental control system and a fully automatic cabin pressurization control system requiring no input from the pilot.

As in the past, the main selling points of the PC-12 NG include a roomy, 330- cu-ft cabin accommodating up to nine passengers with a multitude of possible configurations, including club-seating and mixed four- or six-seat passenger/cargo versions. A large aft cargo door is standard on all PC-12s.

According to Pilatus, direct operating costs of the PC-12 NG are substantially below those of a twin-turboprop of comparable size and amount to only about one third of those of a jet with a similar-size cabin. Over the years, the manufacturer and third-party suppliers have developed several items of specialized equipment for the PC-12–for instance, a sliding door that can be opened in flight for parachuting.

With a backlog reaching to late 2009 at the factory level, it is not easy to get
a PC-12 NG quickly. The annual capacity of the PC-12 assembly line was limited to 92 aircraft last year. A new $27 million hangar at Stans just about completed covers 79,000 sq ft and will house two assembly lines, bringing a substantial capacity increase. However, because of the model change, output is projected to increase only marginally this year to 96 aircraft, but to 105 in 2009.

According to Pilatus, the availability of components and subassemblies is a limiting factor for an increased production rate. The Swiss manufacturer also builds military trainers, including the new PC-21 sold to Singapore, and continues producing five to 10 PC-6 Turboporters, a venerable high-wing utility airplane that first flew in its initial piston version in 1959.

Overall, Pilatus produced 115 aircraft in 2007: 92 PC-12s, 17 PC-21s and six PC-6s. The company announced total sales of SwF 655.8 million for 2007, up from SwF 571.5 million the year before. Earnings before interest and taxes amounted to SwF 59 million, up from SwF 53 million the year before.

The Americas–North and South–generated 40.3 percent of total sales, compared with 31.2 percent for Europe, 19.2 percent for Asia and 5 percent for Australia. The PC-12 accounted for 57 percent of total sales, trainers for 32 percent and maintenance stands at 10.2 percent, compared to 15.8 percent before the sale of its Transairco subsidiary at the end of 2006. The sale saw the Pilatus payroll cut by about 100 jobs from 1,399, but newly hired personnel helped this number climb back to 1,372 by the end of 2007. Of this total, 72 staff work in the U.S. at Pilatus Business Aircraft in Broomfield, Colorado, and six in Australia.  

While 2007 was an exceptional year and the outlook for 2008 remains excellent, Pilatus–along with other European manufacturers–is also facing a serious problem with the low dollar exchange rate. The U.S. currency has lost more than 20 percent in value against the Swiss franc within a year and about 15 percent against the euro. This is partially compensated by components and subassemblies purchased in dollars, including the engine and avionics. Still, with an order backlog labeled in dollars and valued at more than $900 million, the Swiss manufacturer will have a hard time maintaining its earnings at an acceptable level given that most of its costs are in francs.

Other problems blemishing the outlook are high fuel prices, generally increasing cost of raw materials and a complete lack of new orders for trainers in 2007–the 17 delivered in 2007 were ordered in 2006 and there is a backlog for 10 more.
However, Pilatus management believes that the recognized value of its aircraft, their versatility for many tasks and the manufacturer’s outstanding reputation for worldwide support of these single-engine workhorses will allow the company to survive possible hard times to come.