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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Editor’s Note: The Business Case

Bill Carey

As we report in our preview of the 62nd National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual meeting and convention this month (page 22), organizers and exhibitors alike are bracing for a reduced event as the crisis continues in business aviation.

There was some cause for optimism, if not puzzlement, in that other business and general aviation events this year — EBACE in Geneva in May, EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., in late July and LABACE in Brazil in August — were well attended. NBAA in July said it was tracking at 80 percent of where it was the previous year in exhibitor and booth sales, which was interpreted as a good thing given that 2008 was a record year. The association was said to be making convention passes available for exhibitors to distribute in an effort to pump up floor traffic.

But there’s no denying the year-old global recession has taken hold in the business aircraft segment. This reality was reflected in the fiscal 2010 second-quarter results announced Sept. 2 by Canada’s Bombardier, which is seeing cancellations outpace new aircraft orders. The manufacturer of Learjet, Challenger and Global business jets logged 38 negative net orders for the quarter — 27 new orders and 80 cancellations of business aircraft, with 15 new orders for commercial aircraft. For the same quarter in fiscal 2009, it logged 175 net orders. Bombardier’s firm-order backlog eroded from $23.5 billion in January to $19.6 billion in July.

It is by now a well-known litany: Bombardier, Gulfstream, Hawker Beechcraft and Cessna Aircraft have laid off thousands of workers. Dassault is furloughing workers in France and earlier this year laid off 111 workers at its completions center in Little Rock, Ark. There would have to be a sharp carom off the economic backboard to restore these jobs anytime soon.

Of course, none of this bodes well for avionics manufacturers, which have seen layoffs and furloughs of their own. But the flurry of activity by avionics OEMs leading up to NBAA suggested that technological innovation, at least, continues apace. For example, Dassault Falcon and Honeywell partnered to fly reporters to Phoenix — comfortably in a Falcon 900EX — where Honeywell discussed progress on the EASy Phase II cockpit with synthetic vision announced at last year’s NBAA convention. Details of that briefing remained embargoed until Oct. 20, too late for this column. But it’s safe to say progress is being made.

At this writing, I also looked forward to a late September visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Rockwell Collins planned to demonstrate its new Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics suite, unveiled two years ago at NBAA in Atlanta. Flight tests of the system began this year on the company’s Challenger 601-3A business jet. In August, the system completed its first customer test flight on the launch platform, Bombardier’s Global Express XRS, as the basis of the airframer’s Global Vision flight deck.

The next aircraft to begin flight tests will be the Gulfstream G250 this fall, according to Kelly Ortberg, Rockwell Collins Commercial Systems vice president and chief operating officer. Ortberg described Pro Line Fusion in a podcast interview, available at www.nowgennext.com.

"We’re very excited about the introduction of our new Pro Line Fusion flight deck," Ortberg said. "It will come equipped with all the latest features to support NextGen, which include things like ADS-B, data link communications, advanced nav capabilities such as RNP and RNAV [and] synthetic and enhanced vision.

"Key to the system, we’ll also be delivering some important building blocks for future environment changes, what we call gate-to-gate 4D trajectory-based operations," Ortberg added. "That will include things like surface management capabilities, required time-of-arrival functions in our FMS and a traffic computer that will incorporate ADS-B In applications when they become available."

Another event I anticipated was the scheduled Sept. 29 roll-out of the new Gulfstream G650 in Savannah, Ga. — attesting yet again to the industry’s forward momentum in hard times. This ultra long range business jet, described in our July issue (page 20) features the new PlaneView II flight deck based on Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics. It’s got all the bells and whistles.

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