The business aviation industry, as well as the associated companies, grow when confidence is high and retract when it’s low. As the economy slogs along for the third year in a row, with matching weak confidence, the time is now for the business aircraft manufacturers to announce bold plans for new models at the 2011 NBAA Convention next week in Las Vegas.
After all, models announced today won’t be in service for several years–upgraded variants being about two or three years away, while clean-sheet designs are five to seven years out into the future. The economy will most likely be better in this future time frame, so the manufacturers will need new models to compete–and win–in the marketplace.
Following are some general comments about the six major OEMs, as well as what I would like to see them announce at the show:
• Bombardier. While Bombardier made a splash at NBAA 2010 with its Global 7000 and 8000 jets, it must do more. Its super-midsize Challenger 300 is definitely ripe for an upgrade, and its large-cabin Challenger 605 is in need of outright replacement. It should do both post-haste. Bombardier is addressing the upper end of its Learjet line with the in-development Model 85, but it has all but abandoned the lighter end. The Montreal-based aircraft manufacturer must either double down on announcing new clean-sheet light jets to replace the Learjet 40/45 and 60, or just cease production of these struggling models.
• Cessna. In the jet segment, Cessna Aircraft has placed all of its chips on light and midsize jets, and its bet has certainly not paid off over the past few years. These two segments have been pretty weak since 2008, not to mention that, in the meantime, Embraer butted in with a pair of clean-sheet light jets (the Phenom 100 and 300) and the in-development Legacy 450 and 500 midsize jets. At NBAA, Cessna must finally diversify its product line upward by announcing that it is reinstating development of a clean-sheet large-cabin jet (i.e. the Citation Columbus). Cessna parent Textron really dropped the ball when it forced the Wichita-based aircraft manufacturer to abandon the Columbus in 2009, and it’s time to correct that error. It must also do more than continue incremental refreshments of its light and midsize Citations. It needs an all-new light jet family that can replace the just-announced M2 (a warmed over CJ1+, mind you), CJ2+, CJ3 and CJ4, as well as a midsize/super-midsize family of jets that would supersede the XLS+, Sovereign and X/Ten. Bonus points if it has the vision to announce a single or twin turboprop “King Air killer.”
• Dassault. Simply stated, Dassault should announce the super-midsize Falcon 5X (aka SMS) at the NBAA show or it should just stop talking about it. The French aircraft maker has been discussing the SMS for almost five years now. And for the past three years Dassault has continuously hinted that the SMS is nearing a launch, but the green light has never yet come. The company has also hinted at a Falcon 3X light jet and an ultra-long-range Falcon 9X, but these too are nothing more than dreams at present. Yes, the Falcon 7X is a great airplane, but it’s now time to stop dreaming about making follow-on models and start doing it.
• Embraer. Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer has impressively stormed into the business aviation market, with its Phenom 100 and 300 light jets, Legacy 600 and 650 super-midsize jets and Lineage 1000 bizliner already in service. And while it has its hands full with the in-development Legacy 450 and 500 midsize jets, the company certainly should not stop there. What’s blatantly missing in its line-up is an ultra-long-range business jet, and the OEM could quickly plug this gap by offering a longer-legged Lineage based on the company’s E-Jet series (like the Lineage 1000 is), but with bigger aft central fuel tanks and new geared turbofans to push well beyond the 4,500-nm range of the Model 1000.
• Gulfstream. Savannah, Ga.-based Gulfstream perhaps has been the boldest of the OEMs during the downturn, launching and continuing unabated the development of its super-midsize G280 and its flagship, globe-girdling G650. Those aircraft are pending certification, so it’s now time for the company to place even more bets. At NBAA, the company should announce replacements for the G450 and G550, borrowing the wide-cabin fuselage from the G650 but marrying them with clean-sheet wings and the latest fuel-efficient engines. On the upper end, Gulfstream must match Bombardier’s Global 7000 and 8000 offerings by launching the Gulfstream G750 and G850, with the former a longer-range version of the G650 and the latter a stretched version with even longer–circa 9,000 nm–range.
• Hawker Beechcraft. Sadly, Hawker Beechcraft doesn’t have the backing from owners Goldman Sachs and Onex to announce anything remotely bold at NBAA. While its parent company sits on a pile of cash, Hawker Beechcraft has been left to fend for itself financially, and the weak market for its light and midsize jets has taken a toll on the Wichita-based company. It continues to eke out upgrade programs for its existing models, but, given its financial straits, no one can expect Hawker Beechcraft to announce anything grand at the show. But if it did have the money, its nearly 50-year-old King Air line needs a wholesale new model refreshment, with sleek, clean-sheet, modern cabin-class twin turboprops made possible with computer-aided design, lightweight composite materials and new fuel-sipping engines. Its Hawker models (the Hawker 400 and Hawker 750/900XP) also need similar treatment.
NBAA 2011 will be a defining moment for the OEMs. Those that choose to gamble in Vegas by announcing bold new models will be rewarded richly later on during the sure-to-come recovery; those that merely sit on the sidelines as spectators will be left scratching their heads wondering why their sales are still anemic while the business jet market is on the upswing. In other words, the business aircraft manufacturers should go bold or just go home.