Single-engined turboprops are weathering the economic storm better than their business jet counterparts, largely because of their lower operating costs - fuelled by rising oil costs- mass market appeal, greater utility and versatility. However, the makers of these niche aircraft have not been immune to downturn.
"This is a time of great uncertainty," says Daniel Kunz, director of sales and marketing for Pilatus Aircraft, maker of the PC-12NG, which entered last year as a revamp of the original PC-12 with a new cockpit and engines as well as slight improvements to the cabin. "A year ago we were saying 'the only way is up', but now we are experiencing one of the worst recessions we have seen for decades," adds Kunz.
Pilatus plans to deliver around 97 of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-6P-powered types this year - the same as its 2008 delivery tally but fewer than the 105 aircraft originally predicted for the 12-month period, due to a handful of cancellations and deferrals. Production at Pilatus's headquarters in Stans, Switzerland has been rising steadily Kunz says since 2005.
"The Swiss are cautious, so we decided to ramp up slowly," says Kunz. This strategy seems to have paid off as production is remaining steady and Pilatus has not been forced to make and jobs to date.
Kunz says the current economic situation has hit Pilatus's fleet customers - JetFly of Luxembourg and PlaneSense in the USA - particularly hard. "They have been trying hard to find customers who themselves are having difficulty getting their aircraft financed."
Socata has seen an upsurge in deferrals but not cancellations of its TBM 850 high-performance turboprop as a result of the economic downturn, says its new corporate owner Daher. "Roughly 50%" of scheduled deliveries so far this year have been deferred "without any cancellation", says the French industrial group, which completed acquisition of a 70% stake in Socata in January.
Nonetheless, Socata's sales strategy remains "very much focused on a pilot-owner type of customer", notes Nicolas Chabbert, a senior vice-president at Daher-Socata, the division in which Daher's aerospace activities have been grouped.
"The commercial activity, in terms of prospects, is pretty much in line with a typical year," he adds. "Not 2008 - that was an extraordinary year." A total of 60 TBM 850 turboprops were delivered last year, establishing a new record. "In normal years for Socata, we're at 30, 35 aircraft," cautions Chabbert.
A recent trend has been a decline in the proportion of business generated by US customers, with European customers growing their share. However, one previously important European market has dried up. "The UK is at a stop," admits Chabbert. Economic turmoil in Russia, meanwhile, has quelled optimism about its prospects.
The mass appeal of the turboprop single is driving demand for Cessna's Caravan utility turboprop family, which has a global fleet of around 1,700 aircraft and has prompted a production increase at Cessna's Independence, Kansas plant. "The Caravan appeals to a range of markets," says Cessna senior vice-president for sales and marketing Roger Whyte.
Piper Aircraft, meanwhile, has cut back production across its fleet by more than 50% and slashed its workforce by about 40% in response to slow sales. The Vero Beach, Florida-based airframer declines to comment on orders for the Meridian or this year's projected delivery tally for the seven-seat aircraft, but it has revealed that only 110 will be handed over this year, down from the record 268 delivered in 2008. It says that 100 of these will consist of its luxury models - Meridian, Mirage and Matrix - because "there's no demand for low-end aircraft".
Piper is concentrating on bringing the PiperJet to market and regards it as the company's lifeline.
Quest Aircraft is continuing to deliver its niche single-engined turboprop, the Kodiak. The 10-seat aircraft, which is largely funded by missionary aviation groups in exchange for receiving aircraft at cost, entered service last year and the company now boasts a backlog of around three years of orders for the all-metal aircraft.
Source: Flight International