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OPINION: Why business jet builders must keep their nerve

Business jet buyers are a fickle lot. Most airlines expect a new commercial aircraft to provide reliable service for at least 12 years before a replacement is even considered. But the average owner of a corporate aircraft starts looking for an upgrade in about half that time.

It is no coincidence that business jet manufacturers seem in unison to be entering a new phase in the product development cycle. A five-year wave of launches appears to have crested, with the industry now focused on programme execution.

The EBACE convention in Geneva highlights the shift. For the first time in five years, no veils were lifted on new aircraft projects (discounting Airbus’s launch of the ACJ320neo). More glaringly, a normally reliable stream of rumoured imminent launches ran dry.

Instead, the manufacturers seem to be focused entirely on, well, manufacturing, as they attempt to make good on the promises of the last five years.

The static display outside the Palexpo centre emphasised the change in focus. There were three types – the Cessna Citation Latitude, Embraer Legacy 450 and the HondaJet – making show debuts ahead of scheduled certification milestones later this year. They should be followed in 2016 by another wave of pre-certification arrivals, and again the following year.

With so many false starts and cancelled projects in the previous, recession-scarred product cycle – Cessna Citation Columbus, anyone? – the industry cannot afford another wave of cost and schedule overruns.

Although the industry projects cautious optimism about improving market conditions, including some new assertions of a quiet revival in Europe, there are still many concerns about the depth and quality of order backlogs.

Therein lies the industry’s biggest risk. Inside its laboratories and research and development centres are a crop of innovations. New tools are coming that could reduce workload on pilots. And manufacturing technology in aerospace is nearly ready to catch up with the robotics used in the automotive industry.

More than any other segment of the aviation industry, business jet makers understand the risk of market cycles. While Boeing and Airbus increased production through the last recession, some business aviation companies vanished completely.

The discipline the industry learned in the last recession must not stop manufacturers from investing in the innovations that will allow them to be successful when the next wave of product launches comes.

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