Business Aviation - Forecast

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It's been another gloomy 12 months for the business aviation industry. As the economic downturn tightened its grip on the world's economies, demand for business aircraft and services - especially in the established markets of Europe and the USA - remained soft. While the large, long-range and VIP airliner sectors are showing signs of recovery - boosted by demand from the emerging markets of China and Russia - the lower end of the business aircraft spectrum remains in the doldrums. This sector's traditional customer base - high-net-worth individuals and corporations - has declined rapidly over the past three years, forcing a glut of unwanted aircraft on to the used market. Here, prices have hit a historical low and the pre-owned inventory is at a record high.

Given the market conditions some airframers opted last year to halt or mothball aircraft programmes. Cessna and Dassault stopped production of their respective Citation CJ1+ and Falcon 2000/900DX in March. They were followed in November by Piper, which mothballed its Altaire personal jet and in December by Hawker Beechcraft which made the decision to "slow development" of its Hawker 200 light jet for the second time in two years.

Embraer, meanwhile, pushed back first flight and certification of its Legacy 450 and 500 business jets to 2014 and 2013 respectively, blaming software problems with the fly-by-wire control system for the delay.

On a positive note, 2011 did play host to new programme launches.

Cessna unveiled its new light jet, the M2, which will span the gap between the $3.1 million Mustang and the $7 million CJ2+. The Williams International FJ44-1AP-21 first flight is scheduled to follow in the first quarter of this year, leading to service entry in 2013.

Dassault, meanwhile, returned to the super-midsize market - a sector it vacated with the closure of its 50EX line - with its Falcon 2000S. The 10-seat aircraft is earmarked for certification later this year, leading to service entry in 2013.

Arguably, the most surprising launch was made by Eclipse Aerospace and its minority shareowner Sikorsky. The new very light jet - dubbed the Eclipse 550 - is based on the current 500 model 500 but with significant modifications, including synthetic vision and auto throttles. The $2.95 million twin jet will feature a fuselage, wing and empennage all built by Sikorsky subsidiary PZL Mielec in Poland, and shipped to Eclipse's Albuquerque facility. Service entry is earmarked for 2013.

This year was widely predicted to be the one when the economic crisis subsided and the business aircraft sector emerged from the gloom. These predictions now seem wildly optimistic. As the financial crisis sees no signs of abating, the business aviation community is bracing itself for another gloomy 12 months.

"Back in 2008 this looked like an unusually painful three-year downturn," said aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. He continued: "But along with the broader economy, there's a strong risk of a four year downturn. The Mideast revolutions, the Eurozone's financial troubles, and Japan's difficult year have all created an environment of economic and political uncertainty. Some leading indicators, such as air-cargo shipments, are quite concerning. They could be evidence of another stagnant year, or perhaps even a double-dip recession."

Given this backdrop, Aboulafia conceded: "It's hardly surprising that the recovery in business aircraft utilisation and used-jet availability has stalled out. Everyone is watching and waiting before spending, so you could easily see a rather flat 2012 in terms of new shipments."

Aboulafia is keen to stress that employment and consumer confidence and spending in the US are showing signs of life, "which could mean some kind of recovery in the beaten-up bottom half of the market". There's also the prospect, he continued of strong and sudden demand producing impressive recovery numbers once confidence returns. "Corporate profits, the key driver in this business, remain at record high levels. Also, cash holdings by corporations remain at record levels, both in absolute numbers and as a percent of total assets. The second half of 2012 might be a pleasant surprise."

Whether Aboulafia's cautious optimism is borne out or not, this year will mark a number of key milestones for many airframers. Gulfstream looks set to have a memorable 2012 as its two new business jets finally cross the finishing line. The super midsize G280 will take the lead with US certification and first deliveries scheduled for the first quarter. It will be followed a few months later by its larger ultra-long-range stablemate - the G650.

Cessna high speed Citation Ten is set to take to the skies for the first time this quarter, although service entry of the revamped and rebranded CX is not expected until the second half of 2013.

This month, Bombardier is planning to deliver the first Global 5000 and XRS Vision - dubbed the Global 6000 - equipped with the Rockwell Proline Fusion flightdeck,

At the other end of the spectrum, Honda Aircraft is hoping to clinch certification in the latter half of the year for its HF120 turbofan - developed in partnership with GE to power HondaJet, a light business jet that is earmarked for certification and service entry in 2013. Fellow light-jet owner Allied Aviation Technologies will be hoping to secure a future for its SPn business jet this year with French aircraft and aerostructures company Daher Socata. The venture, based in Tarbes, south-west France, has been evaluating the SPn for more than a year and says the trials will determine whether it acquires the programme. The seven-seat, all-composite SPn was formerly developed by German airframer Grob Aerospace.

There should be some activity in the fragile, nascent personal jet sector too. Cirrus, now recapitalised by its new China-based owner - China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA) - should this month reveal certification and production plans for its SF50 Vision. With orders almost topping 500, the company, which has its headquarters in Duluth, Minnesota, USA, has made no secret of its desire to bring this four-seat jet to market as soon as possible. With its new financial backers on board, fellow personal jet developer Diamond will be also hoping to make great strides this year with the much delayed five-seat D-JET programme.