Its best-known airframer, Piper, is threatening to leave, but Florida is home to many other big names in business and general aviation

When Florida's iconic general aviation manufacturer Piper threatened to leave Vero Beach, its home for 50 years, it caused uproar in the Florida resort. At the launch of its single-engine PiperJet at 2006's National Business Aviation Association convention, the company announced it was looking for a new factory for the programme. Within days it was swamped with 60 offers from cities outside Florida, sparking a debate in Vero Beach as to whether local taxpayers should end up paying Piper to stay. Eventually, the local Indian River county stumped up a $32 million incentives package.

Piper has narrowed its options to three: Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and remaining at Vero Beach. Chief executive Jim Bass says there is "no deadline or timeline" for a decision and that, even if it moves, certification could still be carried out at Vero Beach before the jet's entry into service target of 2010. The first 100-200 aircraft could also be built in the existing facilities, a former Second World War naval air station. The rest of the business would "gravitate over time".

Bass says the option of leaving Vero Beach, where it employs 1,100 people, is nothing against its home town, but that the company has a duty to shareholders to consider incentives on the table - incentives that start-up rivals, such as Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque, have snapped up. "The sort of high skill jobs on offer are attractive to many communities," he says, adding that the company has hired consultants to weigh up the offers to make an "apples and apples comparison".

The business remains robust after a traumatic period early this decade when the factory was hit by two hurricanes  and current owner American Capital Strategies rescued the company. "We're now a $200 million-plus business and we're profitable," says Bass. The company, which supports a fleet of 90,000 aircraft, is forecasting 240 deliveries this year, up on 216 in 2007. It offers nine models, although production of its smaller trainers has dried up. The top-of-the-range PA-46 Meridian makes up the bulk, with airline recruitment fuelling demand from flying schools for the PA-32 Saratoga II.

The ageing range, however, makes the PiperJet essential to the company's future. "It takes us upscale and means we can meet demand in the jet market," says Bass, who describes the aircraft - which has the same fuselage dimensions as a Meridian - as a "hybrid" that addresses the owner-flyer and business operator segments.


Up the coast in Melbourne is another general aviation manufacturer that has no intention of leaving Florida, Liberty Aerospace. Unlike its neighbour, Liberty is a new name in general aviation, setting up in 2001 and delivering the first all-composite, single-engine XL2 from its new factory at the city's airport in 2005. The start-up has been 75% owned by a Kuwaiti finance house since 2004 after a fruitless effort by founder Anthony Tiarks to get the US investment community interested in a factory-built, Part 23, two-seat aircraft that was easy to fly and maintain.

The investment appears to be paying off. Production of the aircraft - based on an earlier composite kit-built design, the Europa - is ramping up, with plans this year to build 120 XL2s in Melbourne. That is currently the factory's capacity, although chief executive Keith Markley says a new shift system and tooling could see that figure reach 240 by next year. The company employs 160 people, with a further 90 contractors, but the workforce will grow by 50 this year.

Overseas demand has been strong, with non-US customers representing 70% of the orderbook. Late last year, Liberty announced a $150 million deal to deliver 600 XL2s to a flight school in China, with the possibility of a further 200 orders from the Science and Technology University's flight school in Anyang, Henan. A factory at the city's airport, operated by Chinese company 3A, will assemble 100 XL2s a year.

Markley, who joined Liberty in 2005, acknowledges that the history of general aviation start-ups is littered with failures. "Designing an aircraft and having a dream is easy, but building a facility and funding certification and production is a multi-year, expensive proposition," he says. The XL2 succeeds because it fills a niche and can be produced efficiently. "It's a sporty, cool airplane, with a modular design with removable wings that allows for ease of maintenance. It can be shipped in a 20ft [6m] anywhere in the world, so it is ideal for developing markets."

Although Liberty faces all the challenges of a growing technology company - recruiting "talented, enterpreneurial engineers" and skilled craftspeople in a "very active labour market" for one - Markley does not forsee being tempted out of Florida. "We never rule out possibilities down the line, but part of building a company is creating a knowledge base of employees who just get better at what they do," he says. "It would take a pretty significant event to have us leave where we are."

Florida is home to several other big names in business aviation. Jet Aviation has its North American headquarters in West Palm Beach, which it shares with Piaggio Aero. Emerging air taxi giant DayJet is in Boca Raton. Embraer has its business aviation sales, marketing and support centre for North America at Fort Lauderdale airport - where the manufacturer will open a service facility for the Phenom 100 and 300 and Legacy ranges this year, alongside centres being built in Arizona and Connecticut, in time for the Phenom 100 very light jet's first delivery into the US market. Embraer will also open a 3,070m² (33,000ft²) parts warehouse at Fort Lauderdale.

Although half of Legacy operators are in the USA, the small jets will bring hundreds of new owners from the region to the Embraer brand, says Bob Davis, chief operating officer of Embraer Executive Jet Services. He says the intention is to deliver a "BMW service" to the owner pilots, small corporations and independent fractional operators which will form the bulk of the Phenoms' customer base.

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Source: Flight International