A Bold Prediction

Why the triumphant return of general aviation might happen sooner than you think.

Cirrus 10th Anniversary SR22

Cirrus 10th Anniversary SR22

Cirrus 10th Anniversary SR22

At the risk of sounding like a certain evangelical radio preacher who made a prediction that didn’t pan out, I’m going out on a limb to proclaim that general aviation is on the cusp of returning to a period of sustained growth after two and half years of economic turmoil.

There are plenty of reasons to think that the worst isn't yet over, of course, what with rising oil prices, a glut of used airplanes still sitting on the market, stubornly high unemployment, impending apocalypse (delayed till October, so we're told). Still, lots of other signs are pointing to a bright future for light airplane manufacturers.

Let me explain.

First, the piston aircraft segment has traditionally led the recovery for all aviation markets, from light piston singles up through cabin-class twins, turboprops and business jets. Last year saw deliveries of 889 piston airplanes, a 7.7-percen decline from 2009, also an anemic year for manufacturers. But the first quarter of 2011 showed a reversal of this downward spiral, with deliveries up about 13 percent. (Light plane makers were delivering more than 2,000 piston airplanes a year at the height of the last up cycle.)

Corporate profits have rebounded nicely from the carnage of the financial crisis, another indication that aircraft manufacturers can expect welcome signs of a recovery, albeit at a slower pace than most would prefer. But a turnaround is a turnaround, and anything that can keep the supply chain intact is welcome, indeed. The fourth quarter has traditionally been the strongest for aircraft deliveries, and I'm betting that trend continues again this year.

Another reason I foresee a sustained period of growth (I'm talking for the next six or seven years) has as much to do with the products aircraft manufacturers have in their arsenals as with the improving economy. Cessna, Piper, Cirrus, Diamond, Beechcraft and others have done a great job modernizing their airplanes with the latest in technology, performance and cabin enhancements, even without introducing many clean-sheet designs.

If you haven't poked your head inside a new airplane lately you might be surprised by what you find. A Cessna Staitonair may be a 50-year-old design, but, boy, you'd never know it looking at a brand new one sitting on the ramp. The Cirrus SR22 and Diamond DA40 made their debuts much more recently, but here again, they've been improved to the point that on the inside they look more like hot sports cars than piston singles.

Just wait: once would-be buyers get a few more dollars in their pockets and start feeling more positive about the recovery, they'll be dreaming about owning a new Piper Matrix, G36 Bonanza, Cessna Corvalis TTx, or something else shiny and new.

And we all know where that leads.