The past year has been challenging but also marked a turnaround for Piper Aircraft. CEO Simon Caldecott has been on the job for a year, and the first decision he was faced with was huge: what to do about the single-engine PiperJet Altaire program. While just before last year’s NBAA show Piper had given every indication that the Altaire would continue, Caldecott used the occasion to announce that the program was being put on indefinite hold, although Piper has retained all the intellectual property developed for the Altaire.
“I was originally hired as chief of production of that program,” he said. “Once I started digging into the business case for it, it didn’t make sense in the current market. Demand for single- or twin-engine VLJs is just not there.” When the PiperJet was announced in 2006, Eclipse Aviation founder Vern Raburn was still predicting a market for 1,200 VLJs a year, Caldecott said. “Last year 106 or 107 were delivered. The market is less than one tenth [of the prediction], we’re not going to get those volumes. It’s a heavy investment. The economy of a single-engine jet does work out better, but anyone developing one now has got to have deep pockets.”
Since taking over at Piper, Caldecott has built on Piper’s strengths, focusing on its most popular products and adding sales and support talent in promising parts of the global marketplace. “The main focus for me since taking over has been about stabilization of the company,” he said. “We’ve started to focus on the longer term and what we need to do with the products we currently manufacture.”
The training industry has proven to be a robust consumer of new piston-powered aircraft, and as one of the few companies selling a piston-twin trainer—the Seminole–Piper is in a good position. “I firmly believe we need to be very focused on the training market,” he said. “There is a global demand right now for a lot more pilots. Asia has an extremely big demand for student pilots. And we’re talking to multiple flight schools about renewing their fleets.”
Caldecott is optimistic that China will continue to make more airspace available for civilian flight operations. “There’s more interest [there] in getting into the aviation business,” he said. “We as a team are very focused on that. The majority of pilots requiring training in China are being shipped overseas. I believe that will change in five years, and more training will be done in-country. We recognize that and we’re very focused on the Chinese strategy, of how Piper gets its share of the market.” That said, Caldecott has no plans to manufacture Pipers in China.
Another segment that has remained relatively strong is the cabin-class single-engine market, what Piper labels its M-class airplanes, the turboprop Meridian, pressurized piston Mirage and unpressurized Matrix. Year to date, Piper delivered 69 M-class singles–up from 59 in the same period last year–while its entire production line made 47 aircraft in the first quarter, 39 in the second and 40 in the third. “To me that’s fairly level-loaded,” he said, “from the point of view of that helps stabilize the business. Basically it’s running the production line on a steady drumbeat.” The 500th Meridian was delivered in September.
Third quarter revenues climbed to $37.9 million, up from $35.2 million in the same quarter last year. Production during the fourth quarter is expected at about 40 airplanes.
Also in September, Piper announced improvements to the M-class airplanes, including upgraded interiors with new fabrics and restyled seats. NBAA convention attendees can see these improvements at the Convention Center static display, where three Pipers are parked, a Meridian, Mirage and Seneca twin, plus a Meridian mockup with a 2013 interior.