FAA: long-term outlook rosy for business aviation

 - March 25, 2008, 6:55 AM

While the FAA is calling for “significant” continued growth “over time” for commercial aviation, it sees “strong growth in business aviation demand continuing, driven by a growing U.S. and world economy as well as a growing fleet of very light jets (VLJs).”

In releasing its “FAA Aerospace Forecast” for Fiscal Years 2008-2025, the agency acknowledged that VLJs, with their relatively inexpensive operating costs, might redefine “on-demand” air-taxi service. “Next year, we project that 400 units will join the fleet, with that figure growing to 450 to 500 a year through 2025,” the FAA said. “Partly because of the influx of new VLJs, the number of general aviation hours flown is projected to increase an average of 3 percent a year through 2025.”

The FAA acknowledged that high fuel prices and concerns about the economy are dampening the near-term prospects for the general aviation industry but added that the long-term outlook remains favorable.

NextGen Testing

In a speech to the attendees at the forecast conference, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced that the DOT would move key elements of NextGen from design to delivery this year. She said Florida will begin serving as the testbed for the new system this summer, with the introduction of NextGen at Daytona Beach and the use of continuous descent approaches at Miami International Airport (MIA).

“The Southeast has a good mix of traffic and a good mix of weather–just the kind of place to put NextGen through its paces,” she said. “Flying to the home of Tomorrowland doesn’t have to be a lesson in today’s traffic tie-ups. By putting the latest technology in our towers instead of the state’s theme parks, we’re going to make getting to and from Florida a model for the future.”

Peters explained that the continuous descent approaches being introduced at MIA save fuel while reducing noise and emissions. Meanwhile, introduction of automatic dependent surveillance-broad- cast coverage in the Gulf of Mexico will allow airplanes to fly closer together without compromising safety,” she said. “Today, we have to keep airplanes far apart–anywhere from 10 to 15 miles,” she told the gathering in Washington. “But with ADS-B, we can reduce that to five miles, freeing up capacity.”

According to the FAA, the market for GA products and services showed mixed results in Fiscal Year 2007 (Oct. 1, 2006 to Sept. 30, 2007). Although total shipments and billings were up 4.2 percent and 15.2 percent, respectively, compared to 2006, piston aircraft shipments by U.S. manufacturers were down 4.9 percent.

“The increase in shipments and billings seen in the jet fleet was stimulated by growth in the U.S. and world economy,” the FAA forecast said. “Despite the higher shipments and billings, general aviation activity rose a scant 0.1 percent in 2007.”

In a preface to the annual aviation forecast report, acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell wrote that as the aviation market stands now, trends suggest an industry continuing to change over the next several years, with international markets growing twice as fast as domestic markets. “In addition, we expect the number of larger regional jets flying to increase while smaller regional jets are retired,” he wrote. “There will be increases in corporate jet flights, fractional ownership and very light jets.”

As the demand for business jets has grown over the past several years, the FAA said, the current forecast assumes that business use of general aviation aircraft will expand at a more rapid pace than personal/sport use. The business/ corporate side of GA should also continue to benefit from a growing market for VLJs. In addition, safety/security concerns for corporate staff, combined with increasing flight delays at some U.S. airports, have made fractional, corporate and on-demand charter flights practical alternatives to travel on commercial flights.

VLJs Arrive on the Scene
The active general aviation fleet–an active aircraft flies at least one hour during the year–is projected to increase at an average annual rate of 1.3 percent over the 18-year forecast period, growing from an estimated 225,007 last year to 286,500 aircraft by 2025. The more expensive and sophisticated turbine-powered fleet (including rotorcraft) is projected to grow at an average of 3.7 percent a year over the forecast period, with the jet fleet increasing at 5.6 percent a year.

The FAA noted that at a Transportation Research Board/FAA workshop in October 2006, industry experts suggested the market for new VLJs could add 500 aircraft a year to the active fleet by 2010.

“The relatively inexpensive twin-engine VLJs (priced between $1 and $2 million) are believed by many to have the potential to redefine the business jet segment by expanding business jet flying and offering performance that could support a true on-demand air-taxi business service,” the agency reminded.

While the actual number of VLJ deliveries in 2007 fell short of the FAA’s assumption in last year’s forecast (143 versus 350), the current forecast assumes they will continue to enter the active fleet at a rate of 400 to 500 aircraft a year, reaching 8,145 aircraft by 2025.

The number of active piston-powered aircraft (including rotorcraft) is projected to decrease from the 2006 total of 167,008 through 2008 and then increase gradually to 181,345 by 2025. (Because the FAA relies on the General Aviation and Air Taxi Activity and Avionics Survey [GA Survey] and the survey is on a calendar-year basis, the 2006 statistics are the latest available.)

Over the forecast period, the average annual increase in piston-powered aircraft is 0.5 percent. Although the number of piston rotorcraft is projected to increase rapidly (4.7 percent a year), they are a relatively small part of this segment of GA aircraft.

The number of single-engine, fixed-wing piston aircraft is projected to grow at a much slower rate of 0.5 percent, while multi-engine, fixed-wing piston aircraft are projected to decline 0.9 percent a year.

In addition, it is assumed that relatively inexpensive VLJs and new light sport aircraft could erode the replacement market for traditional piston aircraft at the high and low ends of the market.

The number of GA hours flown is projected to increase by 3 percent yearly over the forecast period. Much of the increase reflects increased flying by business and corporate aircraft as well as steady if relatively small annual percentage increases in utilization rates for piston aircraft.

Hours flown by turbine aircraft (including rotorcraft) are forecast to increase 5.3 percent yearly over the forecast period, compared with 1.1 percent for piston-powered aircraft. Jet aircraft are forecast to account for most of the increase, with hours flown expanding at an average annual rate of 7.7 percent over the forecast period.

The large increases in jet hours result mainly from the introduction of VLJs, as well as increases in the fractional ownership fleet and its activity levels. Fractional ownership aircraft fly about 1,200 hours annually compared to approximately 350 hours for all business jets in all applications.

Finally, because of the anticipated pause in the growth of domestic commercial aviation in the near term, the prediction that U.S. airlines will be boarding one billion passengers per year by 2015 has slipped slightly to the right, to 2016.