More than a decade following the Great Recession, the general aviation industry is beginning to show signs of a full recovery, with flight activity increasing in the U.S. and Europe. GAMA’s Jens Hennig discusses the economic environment of the industry and the association’s efforts to improve the process of bringing aircraft, equipped with the safety standards and modernized technology customers desire, to market.
Today’s general aviation customers are similar to most consumers — they want access to the latest technology, and they expect products to adhere to safety standards. The top agenda items of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association make it clear that meeting those expectations is a priority for manufacturers.
“All consumers expect their cars to have airbags and seatbelts,” says Jens C. Hennig, vice president of Operations for GAMA. “The aviation industry is in the same game, so in order for general aviation to remain an attractive form of transportation, it’s essential that we make advances in aviation safety as well.”
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration set a goal to reduce the general aviation fatal accident rate by 10% between 2009 and 2018. “In any one year we fly 23 million to 24 million hours in the U.S. sky, and our goal is always to reduce the rate of accidents,” Hennig says. “The [FAA’s] goal was to reach a certain safety level by 2018. The preliminary reports show that we met that goal two years early, in 2016. So that is quite exciting.”
FAA Part 23
Regulations play a large role in advancing safety standards and modernizing aircraft. According to Hennig, in 2009, the industry rallied to improve the aviation design standards of the FAA and international regulators, which hadn’t been reviewed since the 1980s.
“The industry got together with the FAA, and we decided to scrub the entire rule book for the standards used to build small aircraft,” Hennig says. “The administration and Congress endorsed that and passed what is known as the Small Airplane Revitalization Act, signed into law by Obama. [The act] said that we need to advance the safety standards [for small airplane design].”
Hennig says the new rules, known as Part 23, were finalized quickly and went into effect in late August 2017, marking the first time since 1984 that the industry has an entirely new regulatory framework for small airplanes.
“We expect that to lead to quite a bit of innovation,” Hennig says, noting that many GAMA members are working with the association’s staff to refine designs now that the rules have been finalized. “Now that they’re official, we expect quite a bit of activity over the next several years as they bring private programs into the public and launch them into the market.”
FAA Certification Process
General aviation manufacturers want to deliver products featuring the latest technology to their customers, but the current FAA certification process — the path used to prove a prototype or change is safe for use in the market — can cause delays.
“Like any manufacturing industry, one component in stimulating new sales is to have a new and exciting product to the market,” Hennig says, noting the process, which begins by making an initial application with the FAA and ends when the aircraft comes to market, takes between three and five years. “We have a number of ‘in the weeds’ projects working there to just help us bring new, exciting and safer customer-requested products to the market. It’s a long-term initiative.”
Keeping Up with Technology
Another important GAMA agenda item is the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a modernization of America’s air transportation system led by the FAA to improve the safety, efficiency and predictability of flying. Hennig describes NextGen as an “evolution of how aircraft controllers provide surveillance, how aircraft conducts navigation and how pilots talk to controllers on the ground.”
Started in the early 2000s, Hennig says this “truly strategic” program was implemented with the expectation that it would take 20 years to complete. “It covers the modernization of equipment that aircraft controllers need on the ground, it covers the equipment that is installed on aircraft,” Hennig explains. “It’s an exciting program for us because not only have we made significant progress since the program started, but it’s an area in which the U.S. is really leading the way. The U.S. has the largest and most complex aviation system in the world. There are more people flying in the U.S. than any other region in the world.
“We are rolling out new automation technology for aircraft controllers,” Hennig says. “We are upgrading aircraft with technology that’s called automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, or ADS-B, which is how controllers and other aircraft track each other. They get the signal sent out from the aircraft.
“We’re rolling out what is called data communications, which means instead of pilots talking on the radio to air traffic controllers — it’s a text-based system that transfers information over to controllers. And in all these areas the U.S. is leading the world, Europe is making some progress, but they’re adhering to many of the standards developed here in the U.S. So a number of really exciting things are happening in the world of aviation.”
Although different segments of the aviation industry have improved since the Great Recession, Hennig says the industry as a whole never showed signs of a full recovery until recently. “In 2016 and 2017 we started seeing key factors such as the amount of flying, specifically in and out of the U.S., really taking off,” Hennig says. “And when aircraft owners are flying our aircraft, that means they’re also likely to start buying the aircraft, so it was a good indicator for us. Over the past year, the data coming from the FAA about flying is really very positive — it’s strengthening across the board. It’s been incremental in the years leading up to this, but over the past year or so it’s been particularly positive.”
Hennig says the European market during the last decade was near dormant for certain types of aircraft, but that is beginning to change. “Just like in the U.S., we started seeing sales strengthen in Europe in 2016,” Hennig says. “We started seeing flight activity picking up this spring in Europe. There are certain countries in Europe, based on the data being shared, that are seeing double-digit growth in flight activity.”
Beyond the U.S. and Europe, Hennig says the remaining 10% to 20% of the market is derived from regions that tend to provide traction for different parts of the industry. “With oil being on the cheaper side, that has made the rotorcraft part of the industry in countries like Brazil go through a couple of tough years,” he says. “The Chinese market, also very strong in 2011 and 2012, slowed down significantly, but now we’re starting to see more growth again with companies making investments in Chinese markets when it comes to selling aircraft, supporting them and even placing assembly lines over in China.”
If there was one thing Hennig would wish for to ensure the future growth of the general aviation industry, it’s a desire most of us could agree on. “If you look at everything that is in front of the industry — economic growth, corporate profits, different markets around the world that we sell aircraft into — it’s been hard to predict where many of those things are going in the near term, and people have been very cautious in making those types of investments,” Hennig says. “I know it’s wishful thinking, but a degree of stability and certainty, and the ability to pursue that degree of certainty in some of these markets and make those decisions in a much more normal way than we’ve seen over the last decade. That’s just a fundamental that, I think, would get a lot of owners who have been sitting on the side of the market not buying lately become willing to make those larger investments.”
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