NBAA Convention Report 2009

 - October 28, 2009, 12:36 PM

For Cessna Mustang owner Jeff Greenberg, NBAA’s 62nd Annual Meeting & Convention just wasn’t long enough. Attracted to the event held last month in Orlando by NBAA’s more than 1,000 exhibitors and the Light Business Airplane Conference sessions, Greenberg said he really wished the show lasted one more day. On the first day, Greenberg tried to visit all the exhibitors on his to-do list, then he spent the second day attending LBA sessions and the third day at the first Single-Pilot Safety Standdown (sponsored by Cessna). That left him no time to go to the static display, hence his desire for the show to go on for another day.

By many accounts, NBAA’09 was as good a show as many earlier NBAA shows, although not as well attended as last year’s blockbuster. By the end of the show, attendee numbers totaled 22,920, a 25-percent drop from last year’s three-day total of 30,811. But exhibitor numbers were stronger at 1,075, down 9 percent from last year’s 1,183, and those companies were accommodated on 84 percent of last year’s floor space.

Those attending this year’s NBAA Convention were expecting an event that reflected the economic crisis, which took hold of the business aviation industry in a serious way last year as the Dow Industrial Average plunged during the 2008 convention. But most business aviation participants seem to have adjusted to the recession’s effects and came to the show with more modest expectations and a certain amount of optimism.

Rob Harshaw, president and CEO of Heads Up Technologies, said the show “exceeded my expectations, particularly in terms of business-to-business activity.”

Severine Cosma, head of marketing and communication for Zurich-based aviation group Comlux, had a similar take. While attendance was down, she said, “We had a lot of suppliers stopping by to talk with us about our next A320 completion project.”

Luis Carlos Affonso, senior v-p of Brazilian OEM Embraer Executive Jets, said he was “curious about the level of activity as an indicator of the state of the industry. It [was] a good show given the current economy.” As for interest being translated into contracts, Affonso pointed out that deals are not done in a moment. “It takes time to translate interest into reality.”

Martina Wellman, head of customer service for Sky Harbour Aircraft of Goderich, Ontario (Canada), would have liked to see more traffic, but on the other hand, she suggested that the economic malaise might have been beneficial, at least in one respect. “It seems to have weeded out the tire kickers,” she said.

Million Air CEO Roger Woolsey wasted no time voicing his evaluation of NBAA’09. “I am thrilled with the show,” he declared. And while he acknowledged that the numbers are down, he maintains that it’s not necessarily bad. “In the past, working one of these shows was a little like ‘speed dating.’ This year, we have more time to spend with serious customers.”

No one expected big announcements of new aircraft programs at the show, but Embraer did come through with one addition to its business jet lineup, the Legacy 650. The newest Embraer melds the EMB-135 fuselage with EMB-145 wings, Honeywell Primus Elite avionics and Rolls-Royce AE3007A2 turbofans. At the show, Embraer announced an order for two Legacy 650s by Germany’s Aircraft Asset Management.

Another significant NBAA announcement was Garmin’s unveiling of its new G3000 avionics suite with touchscreen controls. Honda Aircraft and Piper Aircraft have selected the G3000 for the HondaJet and PiperJet.

Hawker Beechcraft chairman and CEO Bill Boisture, when asked at the show about the status of the Hawker 450 program, provided a small amount of new information about a project on which the company has been quiet of late. “We are going to introduce another version of that fine light jet,” he said, adding that there will be a follow-up Hawker 400 timed “to meet the economic updraft, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.” Hawker Beechcraft brought its entire product line–including a T-6 military trainer–to the NBAA static display at Orlando Executive Airport.

Piaggio Aero’s next airplane will definitely be a jet, CEO Alberto Galassi told AIN. He expects India’s Tata Group, currently a major Piaggio Aero shareholder, to play a significant role in the new jet’s development and production. He declined to reveal any further details on the jet until closer to its first flight and after market conditions improve. “The world is not ready for it–yet,” he said. “We will be ready at the right time with the right airplane.”

Gulfstream came to NBAA’09 with two recent rollouts to its credit, those of the 7,000-nm G650, the largest airplane in the company’s product line, and the Israel Aerospace Industries-built G250, which will eventually replace the G200. Both new jets are expected to fly by year-end.

Cessna took its newest airplane, the CitationJet CJ4, out of flight test for a brief visit to the NBAA static display, arriving on October 21. Flight testing has validated improved performance specs on the CJ4, including a higher maximum cruise speed of 452 knots, 1,963-nm range (NBAA IFR, 100-nm alternate) at max cruise speed and a direct climb to 45,000 feet in 28 minutes at the 16,950-pound mtow. “We were able to maintain a full-fuel payload of more than 1,000 pounds,” said Mike Fuhrman, director of technical marketing. Certification to FAA Part 23 commuter regulations is planned by year-end.

At the Honda Aircraft booth in the NBAA exhibit hall, the company again brought its gleaming prototype HondaJet along with the news of the Garmin G3000 avionics selection. Good news for HondaJet buyers is that the new avionics do not raise the aircraft’s price tag above its current $3.9 million. Both the HondaJet and the GE-Honda Aero HF120 turbofan that powers it are scheduled for certification in 2011.

Dassault Falcon held its traditional Falcon breakfast on October 21, highlighting the company’s continued investments in technology. Attendees were treated to a live demonstration of Dassault Falcon’s new online E-Maintenance tool. On two large screens, viewers watched as a Falcon technical center specialist in the U.S. ran an autothrottle test on a Falcon 900 in Paris. The technician in Paris had a Panasonic Toughbook computer plugged into the Falcon 900’s central maintenance computer, with a Web cam positioned so everyone could watch the throttle move during the test. “This will be a valuable tool,” said Olivier Villa, senior v-p of civil aircraft. Falcon is still testing the system, and it is expected to be live next year. All new Falcons will include the Toughbook computer.

Villa explained that Dassault’s investments in technology will help improve performance of Falcons while at the same time meeting new regulatory requirements for lower emissions and noise. “As time goes on, regulation becomes more severe,” he said. “We’re doing our part by investing.” New technologies that Dassault engineers are exploring include more laminar control on lifting surfaces, smart control surfaces and active wings, an all-composite wing box structure and a “copper bird” that eliminates hydraulic and pneumatic systems in favor of electrical control.

The normally active discussion about very light jets was muted at NBAA’09, although single-engine jet programs remain well represented yet in slow-going mode. Stratos Aircraft was a first-time NBAA exhibitor, with its fuselage mockup for
the all-composite model 714 generating attendee interest. Stratos is working on raising the $15 million needed for its first phase, which includes building two prototypes. New Stratos CEO Alex Craig said he had received an informal commitment from a leading investment bank to provide what is expected to be more than $100 million for the 714’s development and certification.

Development Programs
Cirrus Aircraft is trying to move ahead with the SF50 Vision jet program but conceded that it is facing financial challenges, including more recent layoffs of engineers on the program. “We are in engineering refinement mode on V1 [the first prototype],” said Jon Dauplaise, v-p of domestic sales. “The next step is to go with the conforming prototype, and that is the one that requires capital.”

Piper is in a solid position, said CEO Kevin Gould, thanks to strong support by the company’s new owner, Imprimis, which remains committed to the PiperJet program.

Amid the ongoing promotion of new single-engine jets was JetSet Aviation Holdings’ announcement that it has purchased the type certificate for the MS760 Paris Jet and plans to offer refurbished Paris Jets with glass avionics for those who can’t wait for a new very light jet. JetSet’s newly formed MS760 Corp. already owns 30 Paris Jets and is offering them for $550,000 each. Along with new avionics, the company is looking into installing a more modern turbofan engine in the MS760.

At the other end of the performance spectrum is Aerion, the engineering group formed in 2002 “to reintroduce commercial supersonic flight.” Aerion chairman Robert Bass was at the show and still working hard to partner with a major OEM to see the Aerion supersonic business jet achieve certification. “I am committed to the Aerion program as long as we see progress in our discussions with OEMs,” said Bass. “We are seeing progress. If fact, we are quite encouraged by our discussions.”

There is no question that the recession has dramatically affected business aviation, and Honeywell’s annual forecast of business jet deliveries acknowledges that and lowers last year’s outlook by a significant amount. Although last year Honeywell predicted deliveries of 1,139 business jets for 2008, the number was higher at 1,313. But last year’s forecast of 17,000 jets during the next decade was revised this year to 11,000 jets through 2019. Rob Wilson, Honeywell president for business and general aviation, attributed the 2009 reduction in output to the speed with which available credit dried up during the past year.

Another prognosticator, analyst Brian Foley, president of Brian Foley Associates, believes that the tough market might result in some consolidation among aircraft manufacturers. “New sales aren’t going to gain steam until the middle of next year,” he said during an interview with AIN at the show, “because of the extraordinary inventory of late-model, new-production airplanes. You have white tails that are still parked out there and delivery positions for sale. That puts manufacturers in the position of having some pretty heavy cash outflows without inflows. Some of the OEMs are leveraged today. Can they hang out until the middle of this year and keep taking hits like this? We suspect there will be some news with regard to [OEM] sales and mergers. There are six OEMs for business jets now and once the dust settles there will be fewer than that.”

The 2009 NBAA Convention made a strong showing in a challenging economic environment. “Even in the tough climate we’re in,” said association president and CEO Ed Bolen, “the support for this show proves that it remains an absolutely essential venue for the buyers and sellers in our industry to connect and promote a true and positive image of business aviation.”