GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINTON DC
General aviation manufacturers hope to gain from increased interest in personal aircraft as an alternative to airline travel
Underlying concern over general aviation after the 11 September attacks and 5 January copycat suicide crash, there is a mood of optimism. If interest in alternatives to airlines can be converted into sales; if security demands do not cripple general aviation's flexibility; and if the economy recovers later this year, the industry could emerge in good shape.
From light pistons to light jets, GA aircraft manufacturers tell similar stories. Since 11 September, interest in personal transport has sky-rocketed at the same time as available finance has evaporated. Manufacturers hope the interest will turn into orders, and the finance will flow again, once the economy recovers.
The decline of the USGA industry has been well documented, as has its steady recovery since the General Aviation Revitalisation Act (GARA) became law in 1994. Steady until 2001, that is. After six straight years of growth, aircraft deliveries fell last year as 11 September exacerbated the economic slowdown. Final figures have not yet been tallied, but shipments of piston- and turboprop-powered aircraft are expected to have dropped to under 2,000 units, from 2,230 in 2000.
The major producers of piston- and turboprop-powered aircraft, Cessna and New Piper expect their deliveries to be flat or down this year. But the wider picture may be rosier, as manufacturers with new light-aircraft designs ramp up production to work off substantial backlogs.
The steady climb in deliveries since GARA reduced manufacturers' product liability exposure was largely due to established companies increasing or restarting production of existing piston singles. It has taken new firms longer to bring their clean-sheet designs to market - but the production lines are now rolling.
Cirrus Design delivered 183 of its SR20 and SR22 all-composite four-seaters last year, up from 97 in 2000, and the company plans to produce "double or better" that number this year. "We are still production limited, and our backlog is still above 500 aircraft," says Duluth, Minnesota-based Cirrus. "We are building a new facility to provide more capacity, and move from a production-limited situation to building what the market demands."
Lancair is still increasing production of its Columbia 300 and 400 all-composite four-seaters. Only 35 had been delivered by the end of last year, against a backlog of 180 aircraft, but the Bend,Oregon-based company plans to produce 100-125 this year. Output will increase from five a month to 14, on the way to Lancair's goal of delivering over 200 aircraft a year.
In Canada, Diamond Aircraft plans to step up production of its new DA40 all-composite four-seater around mid-year, around a year after US certification and first deliveries of the Austrian-designed aircraft. A diesel-powered variant is under test, and first deliveries of a pressurise dversion, the DA44, are planned for 2003.
While Europe remains its largest market, France's EADS Socata is eyeing the USA as it increases production of its revamped TBGT series of four-seaters.
The market for four-seaters now well-served with existing and new designs, attention is turning to two-seaters, acost-conscious sector with seemingly tremendous pent-up demand to replace ageing aircraft.
The first serious assault on this market is being mounted by Liberty Aerospace, a European-backed, US-based company which is developing the XL-2, a composite-and-metal two-seater derived from the UK's highly successful Europa kitplane. "We are targeting the four-seat market, but at people who don't need four seats, just room for their golf clubs or bags. The XL-2 has the room and the payload," says president Tony Tiarks.
Taking a liberty
Certification of the $105,000 aircraft is scheduled for the third quarter. Montrose, Colorado-based STW is responsible for building the composite fuselage and assembling the XL-2, and is gearing up to produce 150 aircraft in the first year and "a minimum of 250 aircraft" annually from the second year onwards, says Tiarks. The company has 72 aircraft on order.
Liberty is fully financed by Europa's original investors, and has since been sold to its management. "The investor group is now based in Europe, but we want to develop that into the USA," says Tiarks.
It was the US market for two-seaters that enticed Diamond to produce its all-composite DA20 in London, Ontario. With Canadian backing, AMD began making CH-2000 all-metal trainers in Eastman, Georgia, building 50 last year and planning "at least double that this year".
With Taiwanese finance, Tiger Aircraft has returned the AG-5B Tiger all-metal two-seater to production, delivering its first aircraft last month. Output is running at two a month, but is planned to reach nine a month. Latest to enter the market is OMF Aircraft, which hopes to sell "at least 10 to 20" German-built OMF-160 two-seaters into the USA this year through dealers.
The next niche which looks set to see a similar expansion in offerings is the single-turboprop utility aircraft. Here the Cessna Caravan is king, with 100 delivered last year and the same number expected to be shipped this year. Pilatus delivered around 75 PC-12s last year, 56 into North America, but instead of production increasing this year, as intended, the Swiss company now predicts deliveries will be flat.
EADS Socata raised deliveries of its TBM700 to 35 last year, from 24 in 2000, and plans another hike this year.
With increased interest in personal transport, single-turboprop manufacturers believe they are well positioned, with affordable turbine-powered aircraft. To capitalise on this interest, Pilatus's US arm is targeting "concept buyers" with a turnkey management programme. In contrast to typical PC-12 buyers, who are owner-fliers, "these people have never owned an aircraft, and are not interested in flying one," says vice-president marketing Tom Aniello, Under the programme, PC-12 operation will be handled by company dealers.
Established manufacturers will not be alone in the market for much longer, though firms wanting to enter the field face financial challenges in the current capital market. The latest to declare its hand is Minneapolis, Minnesota-based AeroCourier Group, which is looking to raise $50 million to certificate and produce the AeroCourier, a simple, unpressurised, single-turboprop utility aircraft to rival the Caravan.
To keep down costs, AeroCourier has outsourced design and planned production to Indonesia Aerospace, with final assembly in Wichita, Kansas. The projected price is less than $1 million, says president Paul Jackson. But the company needs to raise $20 million in the next six months to stay on schedule for a first flight by year-end, and certification by mid-2004.
Although the AeroCourier is designed to carry containerised freight, Jackson says there has been increased interest in the aircraft as a low-cost executive transport since 11 September. Atlanta, Georgia-based fractional-ownership company AirShares Elite has ordered 20 aircraft in executive configuration, he says.
Another newcomer seeking funding is Explorer Aircraft, which plans to build the Explorer 500T, an Australian-designed utility turboprop single, in Jasper, Texas. The company needs to raise $35 million, in addition to a $10 million loan from the US Department of Agriculture in return for bringing jobs to a rural area.
"We hope to start the programme within 90 days," says Sam Ketchum, director of flight standards. The schedule calls for certification in mid-2004. Priced at just over $1 million, the mixed metal and composite Explorer is designed to fill a niche between the Cessna 206 utility piston single and the Caravan.
This is the same niche at which Vancouver, Canada-based AWT is aiming the Australian-designed Gippsland GA-8AirVan. The company has signed an agreement to manufacture the single-piston utility aircraft, initially from kits, for sale in the Americas, priced at around $400,000. The main markets are cargo and tourism, says AWT, with the GA-8 seen as a suitable replacement for the still-popular de Havilland Canada Beaver.
AWT, like AeroCourier, is trying to catch the attention of package carriers FedEx and UPS, arguing that growth in on-line ordering of goods will require overnight delivery from small sub-hubs using inexpensive cargo aircraft.
Collapse of the Ayres Loadmaster turboprop freighter programme for FedEx may have helped their cause, but it may also have had the effect of making financing sources more wary.
Other niche markets remain to be exploited. Englewood, Colorado-based Adam Aircraft Industries is one of a few companies developing a new piston twin. The all-composite, centreline-thrust CarbonAero is scheduled to fly in June, leading to certification in the first half of 2003, says president John Knudsen.
With 38 orders for the $995,000 aircraft, the company is planning for production of 100 a year.
The CarbonAero programme is being fully financed by Denver industrialist Rick Adam - "but we are looking at bringing in a couple of outside investors in response to customers who would be more comfortable with another source of financing," says Knudsen.
Despite the events of 11 September and 5 January, manufacturers remain convinced that the underlying demand for aircraft is strong, and that general aviation will once again resume its post-GARA growth path.
Source: Flight International