The state of Kansas' business aviation industry

Business jet market recovery expected to be long and slow


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Oct. 15--Nobody saw this coming.

Thousands of jobs lost. Production cuts. Furloughs. The cancellation of a major new aircraft program.

The global financial crisis hit the business jet market hard and fast and put Wichita's lifeblood industry in an agonizing free fall.

A year later, there is evidence that the global economy is in the early stages of recovery. But for business aviation and Wichita planemakers, the climb back will be long and slow.

"We're going to win, but it's going to be a long fight," said Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture.

Deliveries are expected to drop further next year from already depressed 2009 levels. An upturn in deliveries is expected in 2011 or 2012.

But it may be several years before demand for business jets returns to record highs.

"We're in the bottom... of a long cycle," Cessna Aircraft chairman, president and CEO Jack Pelton said in an interview ahead of this year's National Business Aviation Association show. The show opens Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.

As demand for jets eventually increases -- and it will, aviation experts say -- Wichita jobs will return.

But whether aviation employment returns to previous levels is uncertain. Some say it's unlikely.

Wichita business jetmakers are under pressure to lower costs as they deal with the new reality of lower demand.

They're also grappling with increased competition, particularly from business jet manufacturer Embraer in Brazil.

"They're going to continue to be a real thorn in our side," Pelton said.

Before the fall

This past year couldn't have been more different from the previous one.

Before the downturn, Wichita planemakers were in their third year of record deliveries.

Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier Learjet were boosting production and hiring as order books bulged.

Cessna was about to break ground on a new production plant for its largest business jet, the Citation Columbus. The Columbus program has since been canceled.

Cessna had planned deliveries of 535 jets this year. That's been cut nearly in half.

Any downturn, economists once thought, would be cushioned by a strong international market and big backlogs. A year ago, the U.S. stock market was piling on losses and the financial crisis spread around the world.

The industry has never before faced a downturn this severe, said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia.

Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier Learjet have shed almost 13,000 jobs in the past year. That doesn't include lost jobs from local suppliers and others who support the industry.

The industry has taken a tough blow, Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO Marion Blakey said during a visit to Wichita this week. But the fundamentals are in place to weather it, she said.

"It's an industry with great bones," Blakey said. "We are in a strong position."

Reassessing

As the market changes, companies are taking time to assess their business.

"The market has given us a respite here," Boisture said.

Hawker Beechcraft is working to improve its business so it will be ready to compete when the market improves, he said.

Ultimately, the company's footprint likely will be smaller.

It's assessing outsourcing "non-core tasks," Boisture said. Where it's practical, it's seeking "lower labor-cost markets," he added.

At the same time, it's considering closing and consolidating facilities to cut overhead. Specifically, it likely will close its Salina plant and move work to Wichita.

"We are intending to do more work with fewer people," Boisture said. "Our early assessments of our processes tell me we can get a lot leaner than we are."

Bombardier Learjet is concentrating on efficient operations, customer satisfaction and its product lineup, Bombardier Learjet vice president and general manager David Coleal said. It also is developing a new business jet, the Learjet 85.

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