Business and general aviation weathered the storm of a generation in 2020, and now that the skies are slowly clearing, the resilience and innovation of the industry is coming to light. That’s the primary message from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s State of the Industry conference, demonstrated not only in the prevailing attitude and observations among the presenters but also illuminated in the numbers as well.
Though the overall GA industry was off 9.7 percent in total shipments for 2020, the resulting $22.745 billion in billings over the year marked a period that might have been much worse had it not been for the renewed appeal and utility of general aviation. Still, the drop of 14.8 percent in billings demonstrated how far the industry must come to recover its ground from 2019. GAMA’s executive committee chairman for 2021, Nicolas Chabbert, senior vice president of Daher’s Aircraft Division, put it into context. “I must say that these figures are not representing the level of demand, which stays very high and are moderated by our ability to deliver as a global industry,” said Chabbert. “As we all know, we’re facing new constraints, besides the ones that have to do with fighting the pandemic and keeping our employees safe. But we also are seeing and we raise the concern of the supply chain constraints, and also all the restrictions that we are seeing that can slow down our ability to deliver aircraft or to have people take delivery of the aircraft. Our industry is resilient—has always been, and still is.”
“As expected, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted general aviation and stifled the industry’s growth,” said GAMA president and CEO Pete Bunce in the association’s release. “While we continue to face headwinds globally, all signs point to strong demand for our products and services that are unfortunately being constrained by pandemic induced supply chain limitations and a vast array of disjointed barriers to air travel across national borders. As we progress through the recovery process, our member companies have made the health and safety of their employees and that of their suppliers an overarching priority, and rigorously support economic policies that preserve our skilled aerospace workforce. It is encouraging to see that segments of our industry saw a solid rebound in the fourth quarter of 2020. In 2021, it will be important for the general aviation industry to work together with our commercial sector colleagues to keep our interlinked but very fragile supply chain secure, while continuing to engage global regulatory authorities to leverage their mutually recognized safety competencies to keep pace with accelerating technological innovations that improve aviation safety and environmental sustainability and facilitate industry recovery.”
Piston airplanes showed the least amount of change from 2019, perhaps reflecting sales that have been more modest in recent years. Total deliveries in the segment were 1,312—only 12 airframes fewer than 2019. Leading the way in single-engine piston deliveries was Cirrus Aircraft, with 347 of its SR20, SR22, and SR22T models delivered, followed closely by Textron Aviation, with 306 of its Cessna 172S, 182T, and Turbo 206H and Beechcraft Bonanza G36 units out the door.
Turboprop segment shipments were off by 15.6 percent over 2019, with the Pilatus PC-12 selling 82 airframes, Piper Aircraft delivering 36 units of the M600/SLS, and Daher’s Kodiak 100 and TBM 940 marking 11 and 41 deliveries, respectively.
Overall, business jet shipments were down by 20.4 percent. Cirrus sold the most jet aircraft of any single type, with 73 deliveries of its SF50 single-engine Vision Jet. Embraer’s Phenom 300 and 300E together accounted for 50 deliveries, making it the most-delivered twin-engine jet—edging out the Pilatus PC-24 at 41, HondaJet’s HA-420 at 31, and Textron Aviation’s top seller on the jet side, the Latitude at 26 units. However, Textron Aviation took the lead for overall delivery numbers with its broad range of platforms, from 241 Cessna 172Ss to a single Citation X+, totaling 559 units sold.
But the company’s billings at $2.56 billion, while reasonable, couldn’t outpace those of category leader Gulfstream Aerospace. Its 105 deliveries across the G500/550/600/650/650ER series and 22 G280 models brought in $6.73 billion, edging out Bombardier at $5.31 billion, and Dassault Aviation at $1.6 billion.
Rotorcraft shipments for both piston and turbine segments registered similar declines as the fixed-wing market, with the piston segment off 20.7 percent and 16.9 percent on the turbine side. Total billings were down roughly $500 million, from $3.2 billion to $2.7 billion.
Given the times, it was heartening to hear that a number of aircraft entered into service in 2020, including the Bombardier Learjet 75 Liberty, Daher TBM 940 with HomeSafe, Epic Aircraft E1000, Flight Design’s F2, the Pacific Aerospace Cresco and E-350, the latest Pilatus PC-12—the NGX, the flight-training oriented Piper PA-28-181 Pilot 100i and the Halo-equipped PA-46-600TP M600/SLS, the Pipistrel VSW 128 Velis Electro, and Textron Aviation’s Beechcraft King Air 360 and AT-6.
The conference featured not only the delivery reports but also a leadership panel discussion between Chabbert and Michael Amalfitano, president and CEO of Embraer Executive Jets; David Paddock, president of Jet Aviation; Tony Lefebvre, COO of Signature Flight Support; and Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX. Among the hot topics? The industry response to the pandemic—and the new customers it had brought into private aviation—as well as sustainable aviation fuel and the rise of electric aircraft.
Lefevre commented on the growth of leisure customers in the business jet market, which introduced a lot of people to general aviation: “Now that you’re starting to see vaccines starting to take hold, we’re starting to see some good—what we call ‘green shoots’ of growth…we’ve seen probably ten years of change in one year, the way we approach customer service, service deliveries, and really just keeping our team members safe.”
New customers come in with expectations of sustainability, as was noted by Ganarski and others. “[The pandemic] is creating an accelerant with our consumers, the client public,” said Ganarski. “People still want to fly, and with on-demand, people still want to have packages, and there’s nothing like aircraft to do that. But we may see that because of this pandemic, maybe people don’t want to fly in a big airplane—a commercial airliner. Maybe they want to go more towards the GA aircraft. Maybe they want to fly from smaller airports that are in and around their homes as opposed to going to a large hub…maybe they want to have a smaller environmental impact when they fly.”
Efforts to support greater sustainability in general aviation have taken on increased importance as well, with everyone on the panel noting ways their respective companies have made serious investments in bringing sustainable aviation fuels to their fleets, or renewable energy and electric vehicles to their facilities. Lefebvre gave the example of Signature’s large hangar facilities onto which they’ve installed solar panels, so that they can in fact return surplus energy to the grid, offsetting their own footprint and helping to “green” that of their communities.
Amalfitano supported this line of thinking with Embraer’s stance. “Ever since [we began compliance with the global standard], we’ve continuously worked on improving our products, production processes, waste management, energy consumption—and the list goes on. Moving forward Embraer has plans in the short term to invest more heavily in offsetting its carbon emissions as well as intensifying the use of SAF. And in the mid- to long-term, the target is to obtain a carbon-neutral operation, and even more efficient and clean products throughout the entire life cycles.” The intersection of industry innovation and customer demand in the sustainable aviation marketplace may prove to be the pivot point upon which the general aviation industry reaches and serves a broader public—and growth in 2021 and beyond.