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By Emily Feliz | October 1, 2009
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Avionics manufacturers, and the association itself, have put a positive spin on this year’s National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention, despite the dour economy and scaled-back plans by some major OEMs.

The biggest trade event in the business aviation sector will take place Oct. 20-22 at the Orange County Convention Center and Orlando Executive Airport in Orlando, Fla. The NBAA convention traditionally breaks attendance records each year, but organizers have set lower expectations for this year’s event.

"We are currently tracking at about 80 percent of where we were at this point last year, which is outstanding, since last year’s show set all-time records for the number of exhibitors and booth sales," NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen said in a July press release.

"We fully realize the state of the economy and its effect on our industry, so we are taking a number of steps to make this year’s convention as cost-effective for exhibitors and attendees as possible."

Major avionics OEMs downplayed their presence at the convention and predicted a subdued mood on the exhibition floor. Companies expect this year’s event will be short on big, splashy product launches, with exhibitors focused on upgrades and existing product lines.

That trend could be a silver lining for some avionics manufacturers. Innovative Solutions & Support (Booth #3881), based in Exton, Pa., sees the economic downturn as an opportunity to highlight its line of glass cockpit upgrades. Such upgrades are "very attractive in this kind of market," said IS&S President Roman G. Ptakowski.

"People will spend some capital money, some maintenance money to keep their existing aircraft current, provided with enhanced capabilities," Ptakowski said. "There’s a different expectation for the show, but we still anticipate a lot of interest in our offerings as the number of platforms for which we offer products grows. We expect to see more of that at this particular show."

IS&S will emphasize its Vantage Cockpit/IP flat-panel display system upgrade, known as AdViz on a range of Cessna aircraft. The system is Technical Standard Order (TSO)-approved for Part 23/25 aircraft, Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) capable and available in configurations of two or three 10-inch displays. Available upgrades include engine instrument display, XM Weather and electronic charts.

The bankruptcy of Eclipse Aviation last year and the discontinuation of the Eclipse 500 very light jet caused ripples throughout the industry. IS&S produced the flat-panel displays for the aircraft’s Avio NG avionics suite. The company was in the middle of retrofitting earlier models of the Eclipse 500 with the new avionics, in addition to supplying systems for new production aircraft, when the Eclipse bankruptcy hit.

IS&S has instituted two rounds of layoffs in the last year — one related to the bankruptcy of Eclipse Aviation and one related to the overall economy. However, Ptakowski said the company has remained profitable.

Two years ago, Rockwell Collins (Booth #259), unveiled its new Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics suite and Venue cabin management system at NBAA in Atlanta. Pro Line Fusion has been selected for aircraft including the Gulfstream G250, Mitsubishi Regional Jet, Embraer Legacy 450/500 and Bombardier Global Express XRS, Global 5000, Lear 85 and CSeries.

This year, the company said it will focus its efforts on aftermarket upgrades, including adding new capabilities to its Pro Line 21 system.

"This has been a tough year for the industry at large. And obviously the economy has played a big part in that; politics has played a big part in that," said Tim Rayl, senior director, Business and Regional Systems Marketing for Rockwell Collins. "The combination of those two has had a very big dampening effect on production rates [and] launches of new programs. In fact, you see more cancellations than launches."

Late last year, Rockwell Collins announced a series of cost-cutting measures, including layoffs. In terms of NBAA, Rayl said the company is cutting its exhibit size in half from previous years.

Flight tests of the Pro Line Fusion system began this year on the company’s Challenger 601-3A, based at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Previously outfitted with the Pro Line 21 suite, the aircraft was being tested with a combination of Pro Line 21 and Pro Line Fusion equipment flying versions of the Pro Line Fusion software. In an August interview, Rayl said the company was set to begin tests of synthetic vision capability.

"Some development projects are little, some are big and some are Pro Line Fusion-sized activities," Rayl said. "This was a project I worked on for a long, long time, and to see it actually go into flight… brings a tear to your eye when you finally see something like that. We’re quite pleased with the results that we’re seeing."

Launch customer Bombardier Aerospace in August began flight tests of its Global Flight Deck, encompassing Pro Line Fusion, on the ultra-long-range Global Express XRS. Pro Line Fusion capabilities tested during the first flight included the high-resolution LCD display system with integrated cursor control, radio tuning for communication, navigation and surveillance system, flight management system and autopilot.

Rockwell Collins also is adding new capabilities to existing products and focusing its efforts on upgrading systems already in service. The company will announce a series of available upgrades to its Pro Line 21 system, including WAAS and Localizer Performance with Vertical guidance (LPV). Rayl said Rockwell Collins has completed certifications for these capabilities on aircraft including the Hawker 800XP, and Falcon 2000 and 2000EX.

Also, the company will add new display capabilities, including engine indicators, to Pro Line 21. "We can get the flight deck cleaned up even more by eliminating the need for a lot of engine gauges," Rayl said.

Rockwell Collins is moving forward with plans to upgrade Pro Line 4-equipped aircraft to the more capable Pro Line 21. First announced in November 2007, the retrofit uses Pro Line 4 and 21 components to provide enhanced functionality, including graphical weather, electronic charting and display capability for terrain awareness warning, radar, TCAS and enhanced vision.

Honeywell (Booth #2600) will unveil its authoritative annual business aviation forecast Oct. 18 at the start of NBAA. The company also was expected to announce progress on the EASy II cockpit avionics suite, including synthetic vision, on Dassault Falcon jets.

Universal Avionics (Booth #4254) said it is "cautiously optimistic" about this year’s NBAA. The company will showcase its WAAS and datalink products. FAA in 2007 granted TSO approval of Universal Avionics’ "W" series WAAS-Flight Management Systems (FMS). Supplemental type certification for Part 25 aircraft followed in February 2008.

"Though the market is still very tight, we have seen an uptake in the number of inquiries being received. We hope this translates into increased traffic at the show," said Dan Reida, Universal Avionics vice president of marketing.

Esterline CMC Electronics (Booth #4137) is among companies scaling back its footprint at NBAA due to the economy. The company will showcase its portfolio of business aviation products and systems, including electronic flight bags, Enhanced Vision System sensors, GPS receivers, FMSs and satcom antennas.

EMS Satcom (Booth #4489) said although NBAA may have fewer "tire kickers" on the show floor, "many decision makers from the various flight departments will be there in full force to investigate all of the latest developments in avionics, interiors and maintenance."

The company said its display will include contributions from EMS Sky Connect, a company acquired by parent EMS Technologies in 2008. Sky Connect offers satellite-based tracking, text messaging and telephone systems for airborne, ground and marine applications in the commercial and government markets.

Other equipment showcased at the exhibit will include the company’s eNfusion line of connectivity systems. At the 2008 convention, EMS introduced its eNfusion AMT-700 High-gain Antenna, a tail-mounted unit capable of Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service.

Airframers Cite Economy For Reduced Presence

This year’s NBAA exhibition will see a smaller presence of airframe manufacturers, with companies expressing the need to "right size" their marketing presence in a soft economy.

Program cancellations, such as Cessna’s Citation Columbus in April, order deferrals and political backlash to business jets have put a major dent in airframers’ bottom lines and personnel rosters this year.

Spirit AeroSystems, of Wichita, Kan., a supplier of fuselages, pylons, nacelles and wing components to programs including the Gulfstream G650 and G250 business jets, Bombardier C-Series, Mitsubishi Regional Jet and Boeing 787, will forgo NBAA altogether, the first time it has done so since the company was established in 2005 after being sold by Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

"It’s purely driven by economics," said Debbie Gann, Spirit AeroSystems vice president of communications. "Just like everybody else in the industry, we’re looking at ways to cut costs."

Spirit AeroSystems in May cut a quarter of its contractors following cancellation of the Citation Columbus large-cabin business jet, for which Spirit was to provide the fuselage.

Cessna cited the cancellation of the Citation Columbus, in addition to the familiar salvo of the ailing economy, as reasons for cutting its involvement in the NBAA exhibition. The airframer, which earlier this year laid off thousands of workers, will not have a display at the Orange County Convention Center. Instead, Cessna will host a static display at Orlando Executive Airport featuring the Citation CJ4 and XLS+ jets and a 208 Caravan turboprop.

"It is no secret the industry is depressed and we have to do all we can to ensure we are getting the most efficient use out of our marketing dollars," the company said in a statement to Avionics.

Hawker Beechcraft will also forgo an exhibit at convention center in favor of a display at the airport, citing the need to "right size its involvement in industry exhibitions." The company has laid off about a quarter of its work force since November 2008.

Gulfstream also has instituted layoffs this year. The Savannah, Ga.-based manufacturer said it is realigning its marketing efforts, which translates into a smaller presence at NBAA, to focus all aircraft sales activities at the static display and product support activities at the convention center exhibit. Gulfstream said it will showcase its G150, G200, G450 and G550 business jets at the static display. —Emily Feliz

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