For an industry that has struggled for years with overcapacity and cut-throat competition, the state of commercial aviation cannot be encouraging to simulator manufacturers. But some sectors look less discouraging than others and, overall, the commercial flight simulation industry is fitter than it has been for several years.

Manufacturers' figures show external orders for 38 commercial full-flight simulators (FFSs) last year. Internal orders for company-owned training centres accounted for another 32 machines, for a total of 70 - down on last year's 80-plus, but respectable.

This year does not look as healthy. Airlines have slashed capital expenditure, on simulators as well as aircraft, and the recent expansion of independent training centres may have run its course for now. Industry hopes orders for regional and business aircraft training devices will hold up better.

The 23 external orders for airliner simulators reported by CAE and Thales Training & Simulation (TTS) combined were split roughly equally between Airbus and Boeing types, and between narrowbodies and widebodies. But the mix for each manufacturer was different. CAE's 14 airliner FFS orders included nine for widebodies - five of them Airbus A330/A340s.

TTS's nine airliner FFS orders included seven for narrowbodies - four of them Boeings. North American carriers accounted for just nine of the 23 aircraft simulator orders.

The Airbus A320 and Boeing Next Generation 737 families have dominated recent simulator manufacturers' orderbooks as North American airlines re-equipped their short-haul fleets. Last year, non-US customers accounted for a total of 18 FFS orders. While US customers exercised options for additional simulators, others placed multi-machine orders.

While CAE secured a three-simulator order from Air Canada, TTS landed a similar deal with Qantas. New Algerian airline Khalifa Airways picked CAE to supply four FFSs, including an ATR 72 regional turboprop.

CAE's almost total domination of regional and business aircraft simulator orders last year ensured the Canadian company still dominated the commercial flight simulation market. Of the combined total of 38 FFS net external orders reported by manufacturers, CAE accounted for 28 - nine of them for regional aircraft and five for business jets - a market share of 74%. TTS did not book any new orders in the regional or business market, while newcomer NLX booked one in each segment - but lost its first regional-jet simulator order when BAE Systems cancelled the Avro RJX.

CAE's regional-airliner FFS order total included two ATR 42/72s, two Fairchild Dornier 328JETs and four Embraer products - three ERJ-145 machines and the first simulator destined for an Embraer 170 customer. Business-jet FFS orders comprised three for aircraft manufacturer Bombardier and two for Emirates, a Gulfstream IV and V, part of a three-simulator deal which includes setting up a jointly owned training centre.

Simulator backlogs were bolstered last year by internal orders for company-owned training centres. CAE ordered 11 machines into production for its global aviation-training venture, while FlightSafety International (FSI) started work on 21 FFSs for its network. FSI's total is missing several machines for airline training joint-venture FlightSafety Boeing, believed to be on hold after 11 September.

On the visual system side of the equation, CAE held on to its dominant market position for another year - 22 of the 28 FFSs ordered from CAE last year (and all those for its internal use) will be fitted with the company's own visual systems. The other six will have Evans & Sutherland (E&S) visuals, as will the 10 simulators on order with TTS and NLX.

All of the regional and business aircraft simulators ordered from CAE last year will feature the company's visuals, but only eight of the 14 airliner simulators will be so equipped - E&S took a 65% share of that market.

PC technology, meanwhile, is making its presence felt in simulators and visuals. FSI has so far shipped 17 FFSs using its new Wintel PC-based host computer, with another 27 in production, and the other manufacturers have made the transition. CAE's latest SIM XXI machine, for the regional and business market, is based around Pentium processing and the company's new Tropos PC-based visual system. Tropos uses graphics chips from Canada's ATI Technologies and E&S has selected the same supplier for its next-generation PC-based visual systems.

Source: Flight International