As the business aviation community prepares for its annual get-together in Orlando, indications are that this hard-hit sector is finally picking up. Will next week's show provide further evidence of recovery?

The world's largest business aviation meeting returns to Orlando, Florida, from 7-9 October for the 56th National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Convention.

The annual event has not only become a showcase for this influential sector of aerospace, but has emerged as an effective barometer of the health of business aviation as a whole.

This year faltering economies and political instability continue to challenge the industry as it awaits a return of consumer confidence. According to the US General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), business jet deliveries fell almost 37% in the first half of the year from 352 to 222, while turboprop deliveries were down almost 11% to 99 aircraft. Total industry billings fell 14.4% to $11.9 billion in 2002 from an all-time high of $13.9 billion in 2001.

But GAMA says signs of optimism are emerging. Flying activity by business jets in the USA grew by 13% last year and the number of corporate operators worldwide by around 5%. The new US accelerated depreciation tax rules, which allow buyers to write off half the value of an aircraft in the first year, are stimulating orders for some manufacturers.

Record-breaking year

To this end, NBAA is already heralding this year's convention, held in the centennial year of powered flight, as a record breaker, having secured over 1,000 exhibitors and 84,000m2 (900,000ft2) of exhibit space in the Orange County Convention Center. The static display at the nearby Orlando Executive Airport is also expected to house over 130 aircraft. Around 30,000 visitors are anticipated.

"Although the industry is flat, companies realise they have to get out and hustle and put their limited resources where the market is," says NBAA senior vice-president, operations, Bob Blouin.

He suggests that many business aviation companies are turning their backs on the large international air shows, such as Farnborough and Paris, and sharpening their focus on dedicated business aviation shows, namely NBAA and its annual sister exhibitions, the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) and the Latin American Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (LABACE). "Companies are looking for quality of visitors and not quantity," he says.

The many seminars will provide a backdrop for debate on security, airport access, implementation of reduced vertical separation minima in domestic US airspace and regulatory issues. Debate on the latter will focus on the recent and long-awaited publication by the FAA of the Part 91 Subpart K rule governing fractional ownership operations and the ensuing clash with UK over the operation there of US-registered fractional aircraft. The rewrite of Part 135 for ad hoc charter will also come under scrutiny.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey's timely approval of the rule prior to NBAA, although unwelcome in parts, should, however, serve to remove potential conflict with long-suffering operators during her first appearance at the show.

Both the exhibition halls and static display are expected to reveal a few surprises with several new aircraft making their first appearances.

Cessna will launch a new aircraft at the show. Although the Wichita-based manufacturer remains tight-lipped, Flight International can reveal the aircraft will be a jet, called XL2 (Excel 2), powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PW547s turbofans. Cessna traditionally uses NBAA as a platform for product launches; at last year's show it took the wraps off the Citation CJ3 and Mustang light jets. The Citation Sovereign, first unveiled at the 1998 convention, will also be shown in mock-up form as the mid-size aircraft heads for certification by year-end.

Gulfstream is expected to launch the G450 - the next generation GIV large cabin business jet - continuing expansion of its rebranded product line, which in the last 12 months has seen the introduction of the large-cabin G300 and G400, formerly the GIV-SP and long-range G500 and G550, formerly the GV-SP. First deliveries of the G550 began earlier this month, soon after type and production certification in August. With the exception of the G500, Gulfstream says its full product range will be on display.

The Savannah, Georgia-based manufacturer is expected to provide a programme update on the BAE Systems ALQ-204 Matador infrared countermeasures (IRCM) system for protecting the G500 and G550 against missile attack. The supplemental type certificate also allows it to be retrofitted on the GV. The IRCM has been available for both the G400 and G300 since they were introduced at last year's NBAA show.

One year after it announced its new organisational structure, with separate Beechcraft and Hawker divisions, Raytheon says it will launch a "significant" product upgrade within the Beechcraft product line. Likely contenders include a stretched or widened Premier I and a cockpit avionics upgrade for the King Air 350 turboprop.

Raytheon's entire product line will be on display, including the 400XP, launched at the EBACE show in May, and the super mid-size Hawker Horizon which is scheduled for certification and deliveries next year. Raytheon says its emphasis at NBAA will be on customer support as it strives to improve aircraft on-the-ground times and parts availability. Raytheon says although its business remains flat, sales are no longer declining. "We're seeing increased interest, and the challenge is to turn that interest into sales," the company says.

Bombardier's super-large Global 5000 will debut and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of first flight of the Learjet 23, its latest model, the Learjet 40 light business jet will also make its first appearance.

The first certificated Challenger 300 will make its NBAA debut ahead of first delivery in December, while Bombardier will formally hand over to a Canada-based corporate operator Challenger 604, marking the 600th delivery of a Challenger 600 series aircraft. This milestone could provide the platform for Bombardier to launch the much anticipated derivative of the Challenger 604, with improved cockpit and engine technology.

Dassault also plans to display its full line-up with the Falcon 2000EX making its first appearance in the USA. In addition, the French manufacturer will show at the static display the Falcon 900EX EASy, and at its stand, a Falcon 7X simulator. The flightdeck will be equipped with integrated side-stick controllers and a projection screen tied to the controls that shows a moving sky/horizon out of the windscreen, says Dassault. The long-range trijet is on target for first flight in 2005 and will be the first production business jet with fly-by-wire flight controls.

Small jets on the up

At the lighter end of the market, the independent manufacturers of low-cost small jets will be keen to encourage interest in this exciting and vibrant sector. Adam Aircraft Industries will display for the first time its twin-boom A700 fresh from its first flight, while its smaller A500 piston - from which it is derived - will also make an appearance. The $2 million all-composite A700 looks set to be first to market in this emerging sector with certification and first deliveries scheduled for late 2004, more than a year ahead of rival light jets.

Eclipse, having cleared the final funding hurdle, will tout its market-leading Eclipse 500 for which it has secured over 2,100 orders. First flight of a production-conforming aircraft is set for late next year, following delivery of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F engines. Certification and first deliveries are planned for 2006.

Safire Aircraft, developer of the Williams FJ33-4-powered Safire Jet will publish the results of a much anticipated study into the potential size and suitability of the personal jet market to the international transportation system.

Source: Flight International