Hit hard by recession, general aviation (GA) manufacturers suffered one of their toughest years in 2009, but signs indicate the market is reversing its downward trajectory. So said General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA) board chairman Rob Wilson at GAMA’s Annual Industry Review and Market Outlook Briefing, held Feb. 16 at the Four Seasons Hotel near GAMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “The worldwide economic crisis … included major constraints on credit, cutbacks in flying hours, and downsizing and divestiture of business jet fleets,” reported Wilson, who is also president of Honeywell Business and General Aviation (Morristown, N.J.). The industry’s 2009 billings dipped to $19.5 billion (USD), a 21.4 percent decrease from 2008’s record-high $24.8 billion, yet still ranked as its third-highest yearly posting ever. Worldwide shipments of GA planes declined for a second year, with a total of 2,276 deliveries, a 42.6 percent drop from the 3,967 in 2008. The piston-engine segment suffered the worst, declining 54.5 percent as shipments dipped to 965 airplanes in 2009 after 2,119 units shipped in 2008. Turboprops best weathered the economic storm, with a 17.6 percent slide. After five years of growth, the business jet sector (hurt, in part, by negative public perceptions of corporate jet ownership) regressed by 33.7 percent, with 870 airplanes shipped, compared to 1,313 in 2008. These realities “forced manufacturers to take difficult steps in 2009,” lamented Wilson. “General aviation manufacturers had no choice but to cut production and announce painful layoffs and furloughs.” Wilson went on to say, however, that declining inventories of used aircraft, an increase in flying hours and inquiries about new orders indicate the crisis has passed. The fastest-expanding markets, he added, are outside North America.
The worst might be over, but not soon enough to prevent bankruptcy proceedings for two notable GA startups, Eclipse Aviation (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Epic Aircraft (Bend, Ore.). Eclipse, whose Eclipse 500 very light jet (VLJ) generated significant buzz before the company’s late-2008 slide into bankruptcy, re-emerged as Eclipse Aerospace in late 2009, and on March 29 this year, the restructured airframer introduced its Total Eclipse program, under which its certified Eclipse 500 is now available for $2.15 million. Less fortunate, Epic Aircraft shut its doors in August 2009 (Epic’s Elite, an all-composite-airframed light jet, was featured on HPC’s May 2008 cover). Three bidders recently vied in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy auction for Epic’s assets. According to a series of articles published in The Oregonian by reporter Richard Read, bids were submitted by Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC, Beijing, China), Harlow Aerostructures (Wichita, Kan.), and LT Builders Group, a consortium of the owners of the 15 partially built planes locked inside the company’s former facility. On April 2, the judge in the case ruled that AVIC could buy Epic for $4.3 million, provided that it agrees to allow LT Builders to restart and manage the manufacturing efforts at the Bend site.