The day is always darkest before the dawn, says Richard Aboulafia, one of business aviation’s most respected analysts. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “it’s a very murky dawn.”
And what is concerning, he adds, is that the economy that drives the fortunes of the industry is growing increasingly dreary. When the private aviation sector started to follow the rest of the world into the downturn, Mr Aboulafia sounded like a prophet of doom when he insisted that an upturn would be at least two years off. But now, with the broader global economy experiencing a bad case of nerves, the vice-president for analysis at the Virginia-based Teal Group consultancy is sticking to his guns – and looking like an optimist.
“It will be 2012 before there’s an uptick,” he says, but adds: “I still think that this is an unpleasant hiccup. This doesn’t seem to be a double-dip recession, and I’m not concerned there won’t be an uptick.”
Fleet availability and rates of use support the view that the sector is steadily recovering, he says. Improved sales of business jets in the first half of this year also back that up, reaching 2,031 compared with 1,888 in the same period last year, according to Ascend, the aviation consultancy. The bad news is that the number of deliveries in the first six months of this year, at 255, were markedly down compared with the 343 recorded in the first half of 2010, says Ascend.
The General Aviation Manufacturers Association says deliveries of turboprop aircraft also fell in the same period, from 157 in the first half of 2010 to 143. Taking into account jet, turboprop and piston aircraft – deliveries of which also fell – total billings for general aviation aircraft worldwide in January to June 2011 were $7.3bn, says the association, representing a year-on-year fall of 22.3 per cent.
Within the overall delivery figures, however, there is good news and bad. Bombardier’s super-midsize Challenger 300 and its large Challenger 605, Gulfstream’s large-cabin, long-range G550 and Cessna’s entry-level Citation Mustang jet flew out of the door in large numbers.
Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft, which makes jet, turboprop and piston aircraft, saw just one more aircraft delivery in the first half of this year than in the same period a year ago, with supply-chain issues expected to continue to depress output in the rest of 2011. However, it also logged the ninth consecutive quarter in which the value of orders exceeded that of cancellations. Piper Aircraft, the US manufacturer of turboprop and piston aircraft, also saw a rise in billings by nearly 16 per cent to more than $57m.
By contrast, deliveries of Embraer’s entry-level Phenom 100 and Dassault’s long-range Falcon 7X slowed in the first half of this year, says Eddy Pieniazek, head of consultancy at Ascend.
Dassault, the French maker of executive and military aircraft, delivered 19 Falcon business jets compared with 45 in the first six months of last year. But the difference in orders was even more striking – 22 this year, from just two in the first half of 2010.
Embraer is another interesting case. Despite substantial interest from fleet operators, including a $1bn-plus order from fractional company NetJets last October, the Brazilian aircraft maker has not been having such a happy time recently with its entry-level Phenom 100 and light 300 jets.
The company aims to deliver about 100 Phenoms this year, but output slowed in the first half and it put only 26 into the hands of their new owners. The brake on production was to deal with essential alterations that would otherwise require aircraft to be taken out of service. Among the alterations required by the US Federal Aviation Administration were changes to instrumentation to enhance safety in slow phases of flight.
According to Mr Aboulafia, though, “one thing that unites all the manufacturers is that investing in new products pays dividends”.
“Everyone’s focused on when the recovery is coming,” he says. “But this industry has seen consistent growth over five decades. What I’m looking forward to is a wave of new products.”
That could well include the mega-speed concepts that have been lurking in the wings of business aviation since the time when Concorde showed what could be done. More recently, aircraft innovators from Aerion and HyperMach to Airbus and Reaction Engines have tantalised with exciting ideas that could be turned into supersonic business jets.
“It’s a matter of time before you get a market that’s mature and positive enough to support a new niche,” says Mr Aboulafia.
It may be tempting to play safe for the moment, but this is an industry with a history of taking flights of fancy and turning them into tomorrow’s reality – and making money out of them.
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