Europe has been relatively slow to embrace business aviation. But, as a buoyant EBACE showed, this could be changing

Predicting a rosy future for an industry sector or market region solely on the success of a trade show is probably unwise. But given the positive statements by industry executives and aviation officials alike at last week's EBACE show in Geneva, it is easy to believe that business aviation in Europe is achieving new levels of success. Business aviation is not new to Europe, the world's second biggest market after the USA, but it has yet to realise the potential implied by the region's demographic, economic and geographic statistics. The reasons are manifold, among them the cultural, operational and regulatory differences between the two sides of the Atlantic.

But signs of change were in abundance at EBACE. First was the show itself, which has continued to grow and this year filled the exhibition hall adjacent to Geneva airport to capacity. Allied to the industry-leading NBAA show in the USA, EBACE is proving to be an event to which European, and Middle Eastern, customers come to talk to vendors.

Then there were the manufacturers, with Dassault noting that European buyers represent a larger share of business aircraft deliveries because of the weak US dollar. Cessna, Raytheon and new exhibitor Piper all said the European market is becoming more important to them. Bombardier chose EBACE to launch its new corporate shuttle family, noting that a disproportionately high share of the shuttles flying today are operated by European companies.

European industry is also on a high. Dassault has begun flight testing its long-range, high-speed Falcon 7X and is leading a European-wide team in a study that could lead to the development of a quiet supersonic aircraft. Airbus is upbeat about selling VIP versions of its giant A380 airliner, choosing Lufthansa Technik as its preferred partner to complete aircraft sold into this sector.

Operators were also making positive noises. Europe's only fractional-ownership operator, NetJets Europe, seems to have gained European acceptance for the concept and is growing fast. Skyjet International, Bombardier's charter management arm, says demand for ad hoc and block charter is growing rapidly.

Even the regulators look like getting the message. European industry is again hopeful of overcoming opposition to commercial instrument flight rules operations by single-engine aircraft sooner rather than later. And prospects are good for an agreement that fractionals in Europe would be regarded as private, not commercial, operations and should be governed by rules similar to those in the USA.

There is always a risk, after a success like EBACE, of being over-enthusiastic about the prospects for a market or region. Business aviation in Europe still faces challenges. It will be a constant battle to ensure that business aviation is recognised as being different to commercial aviation – a unique sector with specific needs in airworthiness and operational regulation, airport and airspace access, costs and taxes. European air traffic management organisation Eurocontrol has acknowledged this uniqueness by launching a study into the impact of business-aviation operations on the European airspace system.

Anyone in search of rapid growth would be better off looking at India or China, where the business aviation market is essentially untapped and demand is potentially huge. There are massive impediments to market emergence in those countries, but strong prospects that those barriers could come down soon, and quickly.

But many at EBACE argue that Europe's market remains largely untapped for cultural, economic and operational reasons. They point to business aviation's relatively low penetration of multinational companies and high net-worth individuals in the region. Low, that is, compared to the USA, when there are fewer cultural barriers to aircraft ownership, lower financial burdens on aircraft use and greater flexibility in operations.

If business aviation was able to achieve the level of acceptance enjoyed in the USA, the European market would be huge. And it is that potential that brought the community to Geneva in larger numbers then ever. If the momentum in evidence at EBACE can be sustained, and perhaps accelerated, Europe could take its rightful place in the league of business-aviation nations.

Source: Flight International