In the Works: Outlook good for major OEMs’ programs, but the future is hazier for smaller firms

 - December 31, 2008, 3:38 AM

In many ways, last year was an extraordinary year for business aviation, with a record of more than 1,000 jet deliveries but also a large number of new jet programs launched. Last year, Cessna kicked off the Citation Columbus, a more than three-quarter billion dollar program that brings Cessna into the large-cabin long-range jet market. Dassault is upgrading the Falcon 900 with winglets to make
the 900LX, but the company has still not firmed up plans for the so-called advanced-technology “SMS” jet. Embraer launched two new models, the midsize Legacy 450 and 500, also a program that is slated to cost around three-quarters of a billion dollars. Gulfstream is bringing two new models to market, the G250 in the super-midsize arena and the company’s largest long-range jet, the G650. Hawker Beechcraft is taking a more conservative road with upgrades to existing jets, announcing the new Hawker 450XP and the Premier II. There is even a new entrant in the very light jet market, the single-engine composite Stratos 714. Although Eclipse Aviation formally launched the Model 400 single-engine VLJ earlier last year, the company’s financial problems have put a halt to the program, for now.

There were other new aircraft programs, too, but some of these–such as the Dornier Seastar amphibian and Gippsland Next-Generation Nomad– are resurrected versions of existing programs. Comp Air is working on three single-engine turboprops, but it remains to be seen if the company has the financing and the expertise to make it to certification. Epic Aircraft is somewhat in the same boat, now planning to make its first attempt at certification with the Escape single-engine turboprop. The record of manufacturers transitioning from the experimental market, which Comp Air and Epic Aircraft serve actively, to the certified market is not full of success stories, but both companies offer aircraft that they expect will offer clear performance advantages. Nevertheless, clearer progress on the certification efforts will have to take place for these programs to mature.

Hawker Beechcraft also announced the King Air 350i, basically an updated King Air 350 with new soundproofing and Rockwell Collins Venue cabin entertainment system.

Prospects Dim for Some Manufacturers
There are some notable changes to this year’s list, airplanes that previously seemed to have a strong chance of making it to production but that have either moved to the On The Shelf list or whose prospects have dimmed. If the current state of the economy has done anything, it is underscore the historical likelihood of established manufacturers fulfilling promises made during program launches, and thus the positive outlook for the big manufacturers’ programs.

A big surprise last year was Grob Aerospace’s insolvency. Grob’s financial problems make the SPn utility jet program an unlikely endeavor at this point. Although Grob was supposed to build the first three prototype Learjet 85s, Bombardier now plans to do all the all-composite Learjet 85 development work in-house.

While the Russian investors’ purchase of the assets of Adam Aircraft in May seemed to breathe new life into the A700 program, the company retrenched and laid off most of its employees and isn’t offering any projections for when the aircraft might ever be certified. Having put the airplane on the back burner, AAI is now offering engineering and composite manufacturing services to other companies. Aviation Technology’s Javelin program also went bankrupt last year, and although there was speculation that other companies were interested in picking up the program, the Javelin appears to be yet another interesting idea that isn’t going to germinate.
Eviation has not responded to requests for information and has no active Web site any more, so this program–which originally launched as the single-engine VisionAire Vantage–appears to be dormant. Excel-Jet is building its second prototype but
is more focused on its lawsuit against the government over what the company claims was incorrectly assessed wake turbulence that caused the crash of the Sport-Jet prototype.

Farnborough Aircraft went bankrupt in September, closing down the F1 Kestrel single-engine turboprop program. There has been no activity on the Ibis Ae270B program. And given the recession, it is unlikely that Maverick’s SmartJet or the Millennium Foxjet II will ever become viable products.

The former Sino Swearingen SJ30, now called the Emivest SJ30 after the program’s new majority owner, has a new lease on life. Estimates of the cost of ramping up production of the SJ30, of which only two have been delivered, are in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars. Emivest said that it still has orders for about 200 copies of the SJ30, but it remains to be seen if those hold steady while the company  rebuilds its production capability.

Despite the recession (and perhaps because of it, in view of the economies they offer), single-engine jets seem strong. Diamond’s D-Jet is still scheduled to be first to market this year, then it’s a tossup between Cirrus’s Vision and Piper’s PiperJet. Cirrus says it has the needed funds to bring the Vision to market, while Piper has acknowledged that it needs another $100 million for the PiperJet program. With piston sales down, Cirrus reportedly temporarily laid off 700 employees since September. Although financial experts say that the recession has been under way for at least a year, it is too early to know how the economy will affect the huge backlogs that most of the OEMs have racked up. There is some scuttlebutt that buyers are walking away from their non-refundable deposits, but there isn’t much evidence, yet, to support those assertions. If backlogs take a hit, this could affect some of the manufacturers’ new programs, but jet development takes so long that by the time this recession is over, their launch timing might turn out to be right on target. That has historically been the pattern.

One segment that deserves comment is that of the supersonic business jet. Will the Aerion or Supersonic Aerospace QSST ever get off the drawing board? Aerion seems to be farther ahead, accepting deposits and letters of intent from prospective buyers. But neither company has managed to persuade a manufacturing concern or a deep-pocketed financier to step in, and public pressure on the concept of business jet ownership could shrink the market for an $80 million jet.

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'Airplanes on the shelf' PDF