Piaggio Avanti picked for fractional startup

 - May 6, 2008, 10:00 AM

The final day of the NBAA convention in Orlando, Fla., last month opened to gray clouds and gathering rain. But for the Piaggio Aero team, there was nothing but sunshine and broad smiles.

For the Italian aviation company, the three-day show was highlighted by a record-setting flight, orders for 11 new airplanes, entry into the fractional-ownership market and a 600-hr engine TBO extension.

Piaggio kicked off the convention with a record-setting Avanti flight. On opening day, September 10, under a humid central Florida sky, an Avanti flown by director of engineering and standards Bill Hauprich settled to the runway at Orlando Executive Airport, setting a speed record for twin turboprops weighing between 6,614 lb and 13,228 lb.

The 865-nm flight from Fort Worth (Texas) Meacham International Airport, with executive v-p of sales and marketing Jim Holcombe along as crew, took 2 hr 25 min. Hauprich said the twin-turboprop pusher averaged 361 ktas takeoff-to-touchdown and reached a cruise altitude of 29,000 ft. The record awaits official ratification by the National Aeronautic Association.
Hauprich added that the flight might have been faster yet, had it not been for initial 29-kt headwinds, courtesy of tropical storm Fay. “Everybody thinks you always have tailwinds when you go from there to here. And you do, except when I’m flying,” said Hauprich with a chuckle.

The big order at NBAA came from fractional-ownership startup Skyline Aviation Services, which chose to make Piaggio’s Avanti its launch aircraft. Skyline CEO Steven Santo said Skyline, based at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., had earlier made nearly a dozen demonstration flights in the sleek Avanti and subsequently bought one aircraft. Every demo flight thereafter, said Santo, led to a fractional share sale. He added that Skyline has already sold out that first airplane and is close to selling out a second. Skyline has six Avantis on firm order and has taken options on two more.

Santo said a number of factors drove the decision to launch the program with the Avanti, including the $4.95 million price tag; a max cruise speed only slightly slower than that of the smaller business jets and 20- to 25-percent faster than that of other twin-turboprop competitors; short-field performance superior to that of jets; and a relatively spacious cabin equaling that of many midsize business jets. All this, he said, will allow Skyline to price its one-sixteenth  shares, good for 50 flight hours a year, at $325,000 each. A monthly fee of $5,000 covers “all operating and support costs and management fees.”

Healthy and Getting Healthier

Also at NBAA, Piaggio announced a firm order for two Avantis and options for a third from UK-based Euroskylink. Adrian Munday, director of sales for UK and Ireland Avanti representative Sloane Aviation, said multi-configured interiors will allow Euroskylink to operate the aircraft in an air ambulance or VIP/executive charter role. The first delivery is scheduled for next April. In the air ambulance role, the cabin will permit access for up to two patients on Lifeport stretcher systems.

Piaggio America, the Greenville, S.C.-based marketing and support subsidiary of the Genoa, Italy-based parent company, announced that it is in the final stages of an agreement with Pratt & Whitney Canada to extend the 3,000-hr TBO for the PT6A-66A engines on the Avanti. The agreement, said Piaggio America president and CEO Stephan Hanvey, will “benefit Avanti owners and operators by extending the TBO by 600 hours.”

There is an episode of the television series M.A.S.H. in which one of the doctors, informed of a patient’s miraculous recovery, remarked, “I thought he was dead.” To which the other doctor responded, “He was. But he got better.” And so it was with Piaggio. A venerable company that had gotten into aviation in 1915 had fallen on bad times in the mid-1990s. In 1998 the company delivered just one Avanti, and its only major customer was the Italian government. In bankruptcy, it appeared all that remained was to shovel in the dirt. But as the doctor said, “He got better.”

The company was rescued from bankruptcy that year by a consortium that included Piero Ferrari, son of Enzo Ferrari of race-car fame, and the new Piaggio Aero began a struggle to return to success.

First on its list of life-giving projects was a revival of the flagship  Avanti. Then, in 2000, there was the establishment of Piaggio America to take advantage of the world’s largest market for business aircraft and improve the service and support structure.

Last month in Orlando, Piaggio Aero chairman Piero Ferrari and Piaggio America’s Hanvey made it clear that the prescription has worked. The patient has not only survived the crisis but is thriving.

“Piaggio has survived two world wars and numerous economies,” said Ferrari, while adding, “I have two grandsons,” making it clear that he has every intention of seeing that the company grows into that generation.

Sixteen years after its first flight, the Avanti remains the twin-turboprop standard for business aircraft. It has a max cruise speed of 395 kt, a ceiling of 41,000 ft and max range of 1,582 nm, comparing favorably with such competitors as the Citation CJ2, with a max cruise of 400 kt, ceiling of 45,000 ft and max range of 1,680 nm. In fact, Skyline’s Santo said he had considered but rejected the CJ2 as his company’s fractional launch airplane.

It Looks Different, It Is Different

“If the Avanti looks different, it’s because it really is different,” said Hanvey. “And it’s better because it’s different.” Apparently, the market is beginning to agree. In 1998, when the company was pulled from the grave, only two aircraft were delivered. In 2000, when Piaggio America was formed, there were only two Avantis on the entire production line. Now the Genoa production facility is rolling Avantis off the line at the rate of two a month. And based on current projections, Piaggio expects to turn out 21 Avantis next year and 27 in 2004. And if additional fractional orders come in, the line has the capacity to turn out as many as three aircraft a month “without retooling,” said Hanvey.

Hanvey illustrated the growing market awareness of the Avanti’s value by describing the recent sale of a used Avanti–the second flying aircraft to be delivered. New, it sold for $3.8 million. Used, it sold for a respectable $3.5 million.

The Avanti currently sells for $4.95 million, typically equipped and with an interior by the Stevens Aviation completion center at Donaldson Center Air Park in Greenville.

At this time, slightly more than half of the existing Avanti worldwide fleet of 56 airplanes are in service in North America. Hanvey said he expects the U.S. to continue to be a major market for the airplane.

Of the worldwide fleet, he said, only about a half-dozen are in charter or fractional service, “and that’s changing.”

There has been considerable discussion, both by Piaggio executives and by industry observers, about the company’s next airplane–will it be a derivative of the Avanti or a completely new airplane, perhaps a jet? Hanvey offered little in the way of enlightenment, other than to say that the Avanti is Piaggio’s “baseline airplane” and that efforts at this time are focused on “understanding the market.” He did say that a new cockpit avionics upgrade is in development for the Avanti and will come to market “in the near future.”

In the meantime, Piaggio is intent on improving support of the Avanti, something Hanvey admits has needed attention. With the recent agreement signed with Mather Aviation at Mather Field in Sacramento, Calif., Piaggio now has five authorized service centers in the U.S. and is considering a center in the Pacific Northwest and another in the Northeast.

To further enhance North and South American marketing, Piaggio recently dipped into the staff at Gulfstream Aerospace and came up with Jim Holcombe, formerly senior v-p of marketing at the Savannah, Ga.-based manufacturer. Now at Piaggio America, he is executive v-p of sales and marketing and is also responsible for supervising flight demonstrations, sales contracting, advertising and corporate communications.