As the global economic recovery slowly builds, a combination of new jet designs and block changes of existing ones is taxiing for takeoff across the size spectrum into ever-narrowing and fiercely competitive niches. Development schedules for several programs in both the brand-new and block-change categories have been pushed back anywhere from several months to more than a year so far this year, as OEMs struggle with the development of a new generation of avionics, composite structures, engines and fly-by-wire flight controls. Attempts to wring cost from programs, via sometimes complicated global supply chains, have also fostered some delays. To a lesser degree, some programs have been hampered by corporate cash-flow aerobatics that have produced schedule lags. Several major OEMs with multiple development programs under way are clearly stretched, both in terms of finance and manpower, in the battle to defend and expand market share.
Aside from these engineering, manufacturing and finance challenges, the slow rate of economic recovery and growth continues to cause concern. In the U.S., most of this new jet output appears destined for the export market, although the anticipation of sustained double-digit growth in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and with it a surge in new jet orders there, appears, for the moment, to be something of a mirage. While demand in those countries is growing, it is substantially lower than optimistic projections just a few years ago. China in particular, seen as potentially a large consumer of private lift, continues to struggle with balancing the challenge of private flying in state-controlled, communist skies and the attendant bureaucracy. Private aviation is expanding in these countries, but it is taking longer than first thought to build critical mass.
Despite this uncertainty, OEMs remain confident that the increased value presented by their new designs will resonate with both their existing and future customers. New designs feature more passenger and baggage space, better man-machine interface in the cockpit, and engines, airfoils and materials that produce more range, greater speeds and improved fuel economy. In the age of $100-a-barrel oil, the magnitude of the improvements is such that operators who fly their aircraft more than 300 hours per year almost cannot afford not to upgrade. Large fleet operators, particularly industry-leading NetJets, recognize this and are already placing aggressive new aircraft orders in a strategy aimed at locking down prices. Last year NetJets placed orders potentially worth $17.6 billion from Bombardier, Cessna and Embraer for 225 new airplanes and options for 445 more over the next decade. The company already operates more than 500 airplanes and manages another 170.
This kind of demonstrable demand for value will continue to drive new programs and designs for the remainder of the decade.