In 2007, deliveries of business aircraft surged

 - February 26, 2008, 5:46 AM

General aviation manufacturers enjoyed another record-breaking year last year, with billings totaling $21.9 billion, up 16.5 percent from the previous year, and worldwide shipments reaching 4,272 airplanes, up 5.4 percent. For the first time ever, shipments of jets exceeded the 1,000-per-year milestone, climbing to 1,138 last year. Turboprops were also a bright spot, up 11.1 percent, while piston airplane shipments declined 2.9 percent but still recorded their second best year in more than two decades.

While the 2007 numbers are good news for the general aviation industry by any measure, manufacturers face three big challenges: difficulty finding qualified personnel, continued contraction of the pilot population and delays in modernization of the ATC system.

GAMA chairman Alan Klapmeier, chairman and CEO of Cirrus Design, praised GAMA members’ current $58.1 billion backlog and added that he hoped general aviation is finally breaking out of the mode where it follows closely the ups and downs of the economy. “These are products that really do drive tremendous value to their operators,” he said, “from low-end piston airplanes, which I represent, to large heavy airplanes such as the BBJ.”

The strong showing in jet shipments, Klapmeier said, “is driven by the recognition that these are essential business tools. It’s frustrating to have them described as perks…These are essential products, and we’re seeing that corresponding with this kind of growth.”

The major business jet manufacturers reported gains in 2007, as Airbus, Bombardier, Cessna, Dassault, Embraer, Gulfstream, Hawker Beechcraft, Pilatus, Piper and Socata all posted improvements over the previous year.

Adam Aircraft, which shut its doors last month, delivered one fewer A500, three, last year than in the previous year. The news was rosier for Eclipse Aviation, which delivered 98 Eclipse 500s last year, a dramatic increase from the one airplane it delivered the previous year. The company has not yet ramped up to its full production rate.

The turboprop market remains strong and generated the most shipments in one year since 1981. Of course, in 1981 the airplanes shipped were primarily twin-engine turboprops, and in that year, 918 were delivered. Interestingly, that number is more than twice the number of business jets shipped in the same year (389). Two trends are evident: single-engine turboprops have gained a large share of the market, now 59 percent, and business jets continue to be a shining star in the aerospace industry, as well as in general aviation.

The piston market, down 2.9 percent in shipments from 2006, might be cause for concern, and Klapmeier said, “I think we need to modify how we discuss [that market]. These are personal aviation products that are still used for business. Let’s not call them private airplanes, let’s not call the other ones private jets. Personal and business is the better way to describe it.”

The business jet community, Klapmeier said, has done a great job of demonstrating the value of jets to businesses and this message should spread to potential buyers of piston aircraft who, while not aviation enthusiasts, realize there might be a benefit to flying small aircraft. “There is a large population of people who would be candidates to be in this market,” he said, including those who have disposable income and transportation needs, with widely distributed business locations, second homes or family members spread across a large area. “It really comes down to the industry and how we effectively market to those people. By market, I mean properly educate them about the benefits. This isn’t about spin–this isn’t pet rocks–these are products that have true value and we need to demonstrate that value so that they understand it.”

The piston-aircraft shipment statistics show a decline in some specific types, mostly in traditional airplanes made by the old-line manufacturers such as Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Piper. Cessna’s purchase of Columbia last year clearly shows that Cessna leaders recognize the trend toward high-performance fixed-gear singles, and it will be interesting to see next year how many Cessna 350s and 400s are delivered.
Last year’s 17.8-percent decline in shipments likely had more to do with Columbia’s financial problems than the state of the market. Piper suffered a fairly steep decline in piston shipments last year, possibly because it has no offerings that compete with the more modern all-composite Cirruses and Columbias. What is interesting about the piston market is that high fuel prices have not affected sales appreciably, especially of the high-performance airplanes.

Key to helping all markets but especially the piston segment is expanding the pilot population. “We’ve had a long-term decline in the number of private pilots,” Klapmeier said. “It’s not a good-looking trend. We need to turn this around. As an aviation community, we need to make sure the low end is growing so we have the pilots that we need as workforce and customers that we need to be expanding this industry in the long run.”

The Sport Pilot market is growing, and Klapmeier said he expects that to continue. Cessna and Cirrus are debuting Light Sport models. “We’re both committed to the same thing,” he said, boosting pilot starts and “making sure we’ve got a healthy industry. They’ll be fun, also.”

The aerospace industry is expected to grow by 30 percent in the coming decade, requiring 20,000 new workers, including many engineers. “We need to train more people to work in this industry,” Klapmeier said. “We’ve got an expanding industry, and I’m optimistic that it will continue to expand significantly. We need to make them aware first that this is a great industry to work in and make sure they get the right education.”

The inability of Congress to agree on reauthorization of FAA funding “is a huge disappointment,” Klapmeier said. The recent extension of current funding through June is a good start, he added, but President Bush’s 2009 budget proposes the same user fees that Congress rejected last year. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, “and one of the disappointing parts about it is that it’s focused on the wrong problems.”
The budget proposal’s reduction of Airport Improvement Program funds by 22 percent is even worse. “I think everyone would agree, the problem we have is a lack of runways. We don’t need to be taking away from expanding airports, whether they’re reliever airports for general aviation or the main hubs.”

Klapmeier remains opposed to user fees, mainly because they would promote the growth of a monopoly. “Monopolies do not drive efficiency,” he said. “We need to focus on modernization. This ought to be the single most important effort in the industry and the effort that brings us back together.”

ATC Modernization
GAMA president and CEO Pete Bunce echoed Klapmeier’s concerns about FAA funding and modernization plans. “There’s tremendous capacity out there,” Bunce said, “but we’re not focused on being able to get together and work the capacity issues [or] the modernization issues because everybody is fighting each other over issues like user fees and passing costs on to general aviation. It is important that this entire industry keeps its eye on the ball, and that ball is modernization.”

RNP, which is slowly being adopted by general aviation, and ADS-B can work together, Bunce said, to enhance airspace capacity and modernize the ATC system. RNP allows more precise navigation, which means less airspace has to be “sanitized” to allow for aircraft to fly safely around obstacles or other aircraft. “With RNP approaches,” he explained, “we fly a precise tube so, not only horizontally but vertically, that ability for pilots to tell where they’re straying just a minute amount opens up new runways and capacity that is truly phenomenal. We’re asking the FAA to accelerate this process. RNP is a true building block and is the key to the future.”

ADS-B depends on installation of ground stations, which dramatically lower the FAA’s infrastructure costs compared to radar installations, Bunce said. “But to be able to move forward, we have to make some critical decisions. We as manufacturers have to act on requirements. We can’t get requirements until we know the end result of the plan. What is going to be the role of the aircraft? What is the pilot’s function going to be? The avionics or the computer on board, what functions do they have?
[On the] ground, we have to know what the roles of dispatchers are or the control center, what the role of the computer is on the ground and the roles of controllers. Are we going to have self-separation? Is the computer in one airplane going to talk to the computer in the other airplane and adjust its interval so that the speeds are compatible and we can optimize the spacing between those [airplanes flying near each other]? We don’t have answers yet.”

Bunce closed his presentation with his take on the environmental issues facing the general aviation industry. General aviation’s contribution to generation of greenhouse gases is about two-tenths of one percent, he said, “a sliver.” But that doesn’t mean that the industry doesn’t care about the environment, and general aviation aircraft and engine manufacturers have been working for many years to improve the efficiency of their products. “Because fuel costs money,” he said, “we are driven to efficiencies in our industry.” FAA modernization could improve aviation efficiency by between 6 and 12 percent.

“We need to get on with the modernization program and we need to spend this year focusing on [uniting] this entire industry, because we are all in this together. The environmental challenge is not just facing the airlines. It’s facing us all,” he said.