There is a line in an old episode of the television series “M*A*S*H” in which one of the doctors, informed of a patient’s recovery, remarks, “I thought he was dead.” To which the other doctor replies, “He was. But he got better.”
And so it was with Piaggio. A venerable company that got into aviation in 1915 fell upon bad times in the mid-1990s. By 1998, the patient appeared to give up the ghost. That year, the company delivered only one aircraft, and its only major customer was a benevolent Italian government.
But as the doctor said, “He got better.” Rescued that same year from bankruptcy by a consortium that included Piero Ferrari, son of Enzo Ferrari of racecar fame, Piaggio Aero began its return to success. First on its list of life-giving projects was a revival of the P.180 Avanti, a sleek twin-turboprop pusher with a cabin as large as that of many midsize business jets and the speed of a small business jet. Another part of the Avanti revival strategy was the establishment in 2000 of Piaggio America, a Greenville, S.C.-based extension charged with marketing and support of the Avanti in North America.
In a press conference here Monday, Piaggio Aero chairman Piero Ferrari and Piaggio America president and CEO Stephan Hanvey made it clear that the patient has not only survived the crisis, but is thriving.
“Piaggio has survived two world wars and numerous economies,” said Piero Ferrari. “I have two grandsons,” he added, making it clear that he intends to see that the company grows into that generation.
Piaggio is riding the growing success of the Avanti, an airplane that is only now beginning to find mass appeal, despite having made its first flight in 1986. It was too radical, some said of the design. With a main wing aft, on which two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6 turbine engines were mounted backwards, and two canard-like lifting devices extending from either side of the nose, it was radical. But by some standards, it was a design ahead of its time, and it proved to be quite efficient.
Not only is it 20- to 25-percent faster than competing twin turboprops at a max
cruise of 395 kt, said Hanvey, it does it using 10 percent less fuel.
Hanvey drew laughs when he described the usual one-word reaction of a client on a demo ride as “Wow!” followed by, “I had no idea.”
Apparently the market is beginning to agree. In 1998, when the company was pulled from the grave, only two aircraft were delivered. In 2000, when Piaggio America was formed, there were only two Avantis on the entire production line. Now, the Genoa production line is rolling Avantis off the line at the rate of two a month. Based on current projections, Piaggio expects that production line to turn out 21 Avantis next year and 27 in 2004. If efforts to find a major fractional ownership niche come to fruition, the production line has the capacity to meet demand at the rate of three aircraft a month “without retooling.”
Hanvey described the growing market awareness by recounting the recent sale of a used Avanti–the second flying aircraft to be delivered. New, it sold for $3.8 million. Used, it still commanded a respectable price of $3.5 million.
The Avanti lists for $4.95 million, with interior completion by Stevens Aviation’s completion center on the opposite side of Donaldson Center Air Park in Greenville.
There has been considerable speculation, both at Piaggio and by industry observers, about the company’s next airplane–whether it will be a derivative of the P.180 or a completely new airplane. Hanvey offered little, other than to say that the P.180 is Piaggio’s baseline airplane, and efforts at this time are focused on understanding the market. He did say that an avionics upgrade is in the near future.