Turboprop manufacturers are enjoying a surge in sales as high oil prices prompt business jet owners to downgrade to slower but more fuel efficient aircraft. "We're haven't sold this many King Airs since 1982," says Hawker Beechcraft president commercial sales Brad Hatt.
Hawker Beechcraft unveiled at NBAA the King Air 350i, which features a package of interior upgrades for the 350 that Hatt believes will appeal to business jet owners as well as owners of older King Air variants and lead to a surge in sales. The 350i marks the debut of the Beechcraft FlexCabin, offering improved lighting, reduced cabin sound levels, more space, more luxurious seats and more configuration choices.
The $6.5 million 350i is also the first turboprop to offer the Rockwell Collis Venue integrated cabin management system, supporting the complete gamut of in-flight entertainment and connectivity options. First flight is scheduled for later this month, with US Federal Aviation Administration certification set for the third quarter of next year and service entry by the end of 2009.
"The King Air 350i will revolutionise the light turboprop and light jet sector. We're raising the bar for everyone in the business. We truly revolutionised the back end of the aircraft," Hatt says.
While the new King Air interior is designed to give passengers the same level of comfort as business jets, the aircraft is 30-50% more efficient on a fuel cost per kilometre basis than small jets. Hatt says the economics of the King Air family, which has been around since 1964 with more than 6,000 aircraft delivered, is particularly appealing in today's high fuel cost environment.
While the King Air captured more attention at NBAA, single-engined turboprops are also enjoying in many cases an unprecedented surge in sales. "We're getting a lot interest from jet owners - especially after fuel costs spiked this summer - looking to offset some of the costs," says Pilatus Business Aircraft vice-president marketing Mike Haenggi. "We've seen demand coming up from all over the world and it's outstripping supply."
Haenggi says there is now an 18-24 month backlog on the PC-12. In response, Pilatus is increasing production to a record 120 aircraft in 2010. Pilatus will deliver 100 PC-12s this year and 110-115 aircraft next year.
Pilatus attributes the increase in demand to higher fuel prices as well as a product refresh. The PC-12 NG, which features a new cockpit and engines as well as slight improvements to the cabin, was certificated in March. Haenggi says all new PC-12s are now being delivered in the upgraded configuration and several early PC-12 customers who had upgraded to jets are now returning to the PC-12.
EADS Socata is also citing the combination of high fuel prices and a product upgrade in a surge of sales for its TBM 850 single-engined turboprop. "A large part of our sales are people coming down from jets. This is new to us," says EADS Socata North America president Nicolas Chabbert.
EADS Socata introduced in January a new avionics suite for the TBM 850 featuring the Garmin 1000 as standard equipment and synthetic vision as an option. "We've changed the aircraft with the exception of the airframe," says EADS Socata chief executive Jean-Michel Leonard. "The market is reacting like it is a new programme."
Chabbert says a record 60 TBM 850s will be delivered this year and next year another record will be reached with 65 aircraft set for delivery. He expects the current economic downturn will lead to a further surge in sales. "With a single engine you really have an advantage on costs," Chabbert says.
It is the same story at Cessna, which is reporting record sales for its single-engined Caravan line. Cessna has already increased production from fewer than 60 Caravans in 2006 to 115 this year and is planning a further increase to an all-time high of 150 in 2010.
Like the PC-12 and TBM 850, an upgrade along with high fuel prices are fuelling the demand. Since the beginning of this year Cessna has introduced a new glass cockpit, de-icing equipment and a lighter executive cabin for the Caravan. Cessna's Caravan sales manager for the eastern USA and Canada, Tom Kraft, says the new Oasis cabin, supplied by Yingling Aviation, is 55kg (120lb) lighter than the existing Oasis product.
Oasis is designed to give Caravan the comforts of a jet and is chosen by a majority of executive customers, which account for about one-third of Caravan sales worldwide and 40% in the USA.
Finally, Piper has seen increasing demand for its single-engined Meridian turboprop. Vice-president sales and marketing and aftermarket support Bob Kromer says Piper will produce 53 Meridians this year, up from 50 last year, and will build 55-60 next year. Demand is mainly from piston owners upgrading to turboprops, but Kromer says "we are starting to see movement down to the Meridian as well" from less fuel efficient twin-engine turboprops.