FAA: industry rebound on the horizon

 - February 28, 2011, 10:35 AM

While the general aviation industry has suffered recently, demand for GA products and services will continue to grow, paced by new business jets and light sport aircraft, the FAA told attendees at its annual aerospace forecast.

"Business aviation shows signs of rebounding," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. "And weπre projecting growth in general aviation sectors, particularly in the jet and light sport aircraft sectors."

Overall, as the economy continues to recover, the FAA expects commercial passenger totals and operations totals to continue to climb, with international markets growing faster than domestic markets.

Large airports will continue to outpace their smaller counterparts in terms of growth in number of passengers and number of flights, and the agency continues to project that the numbers of larger regional jets will increase, while most of the smaller regional jets are retired from the fleet.

"Previously, we had projected that U.S. commercial carriers would serve a billion passengers by 2023," Babbitt wrote in this yearπs FAA Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2011-2031. "The activity of 2010 has [brought] that milestone forward two years to 2021."

But he cautioned that the forecast is not without risk. Environmental constraints could lead to reductions in demand, while the volatility of fuel prices and the continued presence of congestion loom. Despite signs of economic recovery, shipments of general aviation aircraft declined for the third consecutive year in 2010.The FAA forecasters noted that after growing rapidly for most of the past decade, the demand for business jets has slowed over the past few years. While new product offerings, the introduction of very light jets and the increasing foreign demand helped drive growth in the earlier part of the decade, the past few years have seen the hard impact of the recession on the business jet market.

Long-term Growth Projected

Nonetheless the FAA forecast calls for robust growth in the long-term outlook, driven by higher corporate profits and continued concerns about safety/security and flight delays, increasing the attractiveness of business aviation relative to commercial air travel.

Meanwhile, over the 20-year period from 2011 to 2031, the general aviation fleet is predicted to increase from 224,172 aircraft in 2010 to 270,920 in 2031, growing by an average of 0.9 percent a year. Projected growth rates are 3.1 percent per year for fixed-wing turboprop aircraft, 0.2 percent per year for fixed-wing piston aircraft and 2.6 percent per year for rotorcraft.

General aviation hours flown are projected to increase at a rate of 4 percent per year, fixed-wing piston aircraft hours at 0.7 percent per year, and rotorcraft hours at a rate of 3 percent per year.

Babbitt pointed out that the annual forecast looks at how many airplanes and how many people will fly in the future. "We want to see a picture of air travel in the next 20 years, free from constraints," he said. "We want to know what we should strive to meet and conquer."

NextGen Transformation

The FAA is transforming the U.S. aviation system from radar to satellite-based systems. In addition to helping passengers reach their destinations more quickly and increasing capacity and safety, the new, more precise routes will reduce fuel burn, carbon emissions and noise.

"We are already seeing the tangible safety and efficiency benefits of NextGen," Babbitt said. "Only a modernized air transportation system will be able to keep up with our forecast demand." By the end of the forecast period in 2031, this is anticipated to be 1.3 billion passengers each year.

Many airlines in this country are already seeing the benefits of NextGen, he said. Southwest Airlines started using GPS-based arrival procedures at a dozen airports in January.

"A lot of carriers have done the math and see the business case," said Babbitt. "Southwest Airlines estimates it will save $60 million a year in fuel once it uses these procedures system-wide in its network. We all benefit from fewer emissions and fewer delays."

Alaska Airlines has been using these procedures at Juneau International Airport since the mid-1990s. Equipped aircraft can fly precisely through mountainous terrain in low visibility, thanks to the higher accuracy of GPS. And the pinpoint precision means direct approaches to the airport with less fuel, less emissions and less noise.

"Alaska Airlines estimates it would have cancelled 729 flights into Juneau alone last year due to bad weather if it were not for the GPS-based approaches," Babbitt said. "Those were passengers who got in. No diversions. No ground holds."