NBAA: Focus On The Future
The theme for this year’s NBAA-BACE convention was the future of aviation and a lot of the companies attending embraced that theme. There were lots of virtual reality gizmos in the displays and an overall sense that profound change, from technology through hardware to environmental realities, is all around us. Please, I know some of you don’t accept man-caused climate-change theories but that’s not the debate, here. People in the position to enforce those views are doing so with increasing vigor and the reality is the industry has to adapt accordingly.
The economics have changed, too. The economy is the strongest it’s been since 2008 and that usually means business aviation is booming, too. Not so much this time around. The hangover from the boom that preceded the big crash a decade ago continues to affect the market and used inventories are stubbornly high. Designs conceived when “high net worth” companies and individuals wanted nothing but the fastest, farthest and most comfortable from their business aircraft are now hitting the market when the used market remains crowded with aircraft that are almost as capable as the new aircraft but at much lower cost. But gun shy (and investor-wary) companies aren’t snapping up those deals as might be expected when their bottom lines are so rosy. The instant opinions that can be formed and exploited through social media give smart companies great pause in business aircraft purchases and that’s something that’s here to stay.
Having said that, the new designs keep coming, albeit at a slower pace, and the selling points are efficiency, range and even durability, suggesting the tendency to hang on to aircraft for a while is here to stay, too. In that vein, Embraer’s retouch of the Legacy 450 and Legacy 500 designs into the Praetor 500 and 600 really just adjust those already-modern platforms for the current market. The carbon fiber accents and the illuminated leading-edge paint are pretty cool, though.
What’s also evident is the inexorable shift away from owner-flown aircraft as pointed out by Isabel Goyer, of Plane and Pilot Magazine. Couple that with the fact that almost 90 percent of the value of business jet transactions in the next 10 years will be in the large cabin fleet and the traditional model of stepping up through the range of aircraft kind of goes sideways. NetJets' blockbuster order of Latitude and Longitude jets this week is further evidence, she noted.
Against that backdrop, a few things have struck us that match the theme of the show, if not the economics.
Aerion Is For Real
It’s been 15 years since the idea for a supersonic business jet was conceived by Robert Bass, a so-called “passionate investor” who has the means to take on that kind of project. But even in bizjets, money isn’t everything (it really helps, though) and giving form to the concept has proven elusive. In fact, other than a few wind tunnel models and parts and pieces, there is nothing tangible yet about AS2 and that’s been tough for the peanut gallery to accept in an industry that prizes shiny objects.
At the company’s news conference on Monday, the company did away with marketing hype and gave a blow-by-blow description of what they were doing, how they were going to do it and, most importantly, when. It assembled the leaders of the primary contractors who had the toughest challenges to overcome for a successful Mach 1.4 bizjet and there seemed little doubt that Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks, Honeywell and perhaps most importantly, GE, are confident the prototype will fly in time to mark the 20th anniversary of the last revenue Concorde flight on Oct. 24, 2023. It’s a high mark to hit for a company that doesn’t have so much as a wing panel to show for its 15 years of work.
But in many ways, building the airplane is the (relatively) easy part. Composite technology is well understood and once the final design is set, making the shape should be straightforward. With the engine design set, it's basically a matter of deciding where to build it and getting started.
The voodoo is in all the math going into ensuring the plane can actually operate in a manner that justifies its $120 million price tag. Thanks to the clever folks with the calculators, the AS2 may be able to hit Mach 1.2 without anyone on the ground hearing the boom. It will require an elaborate system of predictive technology and algorithms to give pilots the speeds and altitudes they need to zip by the sleeping population below unnoticed. Proving that will be one thing. Giving it regulatory support is another. The groundwork for that has already been laid in the latest FAA reauthorization, which compels the agency to at least consider supersonic operations in its planning.
I won’t hold Aerion to the timeline because far less ambitious plans have taken longer to achieve but the session on Monday made me a believer that I’ll see civilian supersonic transport in my lifetime and I’m getting pretty old.
Urban Air Taxis Still A Little Surreal
I guess I can kind of relate to the Second World War generals who first heard about engines without propellers when I watched Uber’s Eric Allison’s explanation of how small electric VTOLs will revolutionize urban transport.
I really want it to be true but I don’t have a point of reference for it. I once came within 200 feet of a Cessna 182 over a remote lake in southern British Columbia where I’m sure we were the only planes in the air for 100 square miles.
Sure, the eVTOLs Allison described in his presentation will have all kinds of technology on board to keep them from bumping into each other but putting thousands of anything moving at 50 or 100 knots in the confined area of a city core just seems like an invitation for trouble to me.
And compared to the regulatory issues facing Aerion, those ahead of Uber and others advancing the point-to-point transportation revolution are truly monumental and deservedly so. The way Allison sees it, the little electric VTOLS will buzz you from rooftop to rooftop in a matter of minutes for less than it costs you to sit in traffic for much longer. Each one will do it hundreds of times a day and there will be thousands of them. I’m hoping it’s not too good to be true but there’s a ways to go on that one, I think, even though the slogan for Uber’s effort is “Closer Than You Think.”
A lot of the talk at the NBAA convention this year has been about digital connectivity. Quite a few companies—Pratt & Whitney Canada and Daher come to mind—are working on developing or improving ways to automatically and remotely collect data on everything from engine performance to fleet usage. I’m old enough that I remember what life was like before everyone had a cellphone. Also, social media didn’t become much of a thing until right after I graduated from high school.
Perhaps because of those factors, the idea of having a device, app, etc. that monitors and transmits information without my direct say-so leaves me of two mindsets. My first reaction is generally to balk at the current cultural push to share everything. I kind of miss being able to go on a walk without stopping to answer my email. On the other hand, there’s remarkable value to be had in an aircraft that keeps your mechanic up-to-date on its service needs or provides manufacturers with data that can improve product offerings and possibly even identify problems before the NTSB gets involved. Regardless, the convention this year certainly—and unsurprisingly—demonstrates a strengthening trend towards connectivity.
NBAA Buzzkill: Still No Ease In Regulations
Shame on me for showing up at this year’s NBAA convention with the notion that the Part 25 regulatory climate might be easing as it is in some areas of the Part 23 market. When it comes to autopilots, EFIS and other modern gadgetry for small airplanes, many high-tech products are finally obtainable without having to reach deep into the kid’s college fund. There’s not much of that on the NBAA convention floor. In talking with vendors, the high price of FAA certification is still business as usual if you want to sell these kinds of products for even the smallest owner-flown bizjet or turboprop.
And that likely explains why I just didn’t see a lot of bold innovation on the convention floor. As I reported in this video, when it comes to integrated flight decks perhaps the best deal going could be Sandel’s Avilon, a retrofit suite aimed at the turboprop market. Sandel’s Larry Riddle assured me it will have a fly-away price of $175,000 when the company begins shipping it early next year. If Sandel pulls it off and earns the STC, that’s a steal of a deal compared to the $400,000-plus offerings from the competition. Still complaining about the price of ADS-B Out for your Cherokee? Keep it in perspective. The folks at Honeywell were showing me an ADS-B transponder solution for Citations that might run $20,000 plus. Why so much for a transponder that already exists for Part 23 airplanes? “The time and cost of FAA certification is staggering, but our STC for the Citation market was a good score,” Honeywell’s Doug Hayden told me.
Still, If I had to pick an innovative product that impressed me the most it would have to be the Jet Shade—a removable tinted window shade that’s proven to significantly reduce the inflight temperature in larger cabins. Kevin Duggan, the product’s inventor and jet owner, well understands the regulatory restrictions of modifying the windows in certified aircraft—especially pressurized ones. “I studied the regs carefully and thus designed these shades so they don’t even touch the existing glass, so there’s no need for any FAA approvals,” he told me. In my view, that’s one smart and innovative man because there likely won’t be any regulatory breaks for anything with a Part 25 stamp on it anytime soon.