The Future of General Aviation

By Frank Joseph Rowe

As many of us feel the ongoing effects of a depressed economy fueled by wary investors and uncertain global politics, it is also an ideal time to look at the potential changes that will help the General Aviation industry emerge as a stronger, even more innovative and competitive business entity.

The future success of general aviation is dependant on many factors, but some of the most prominent include: (1) the correct timing in anticipating the evolving global markets, (2) prudently restructuring business operating strategies to address the global demand and (3) researching and developing new technologies that enhance the product line, minimizes risks and that ultimately delivers the highest perceived value from a customer standpoint.

Correctly timing and gaining access to the evolving markets may be tougher today than in recent history. Potential markets in the former Soviet Union, China and other third-world countries offer increased sales potential, but not without the increasing collaborative condition that production work be a part of the deal (Quid-Pro-Quo). Worldwide business deals/alliances during these times are subject to the effects of terrorism, with trade restrictions and other sanctions that can hamper any attempt at developing a sustainable business arrangement. Along with the prospect of increased global sales in new markets, it will be also be essential to expand an effective network of service centers in these regions.

With the trend towards significant corporate downsizing and restructuring, most of the large airframe companies continue to seek a way to remain profitable, yet maintain a core critical staff to respond to market needs. Operating strategies for these companies has in the past meant that employment be radically adjusted up or down to address the immediate need for cash-flow. While this has worked in the past, it is an admittedly non-preferred way to control costs. Rather than support an increasingly large and expensive workforce that must be periodically resized, companies will tend to look at outsourcing as a means to control costs. The modern reality of ultra competitive pricing leads to an undeniable trend in selective global outsourcing for general fabrication. While currently fashionable (and controversial), outsourcing might be suited for the long-term health of general aviation on a selective and limited basis. Taken to an extreme, wholesale outsourcing can make the normally beneficial concept of “risk-sharing” partnerships a daunting and unacceptably complex proposition. Large airframers will investigate plans to incrementally reshape their core critical business mass to be increasingly limited of R&D, Marketing, Final Assembly and Delivery. Countries such as Mexico, Eastern European (Slavic) India and a host of Far East countries all offer increasingly tempting labor-rates that certainly will be considered from time-to time by general aviation manufacturers, especially for fabrication and systems support issues. Increased focus on internal process efficiency (Lean Manufacturing, Kan-Ban inventory control systems, Integrated Product Process Development, Six-Sigma, ISO-9000, TQM and other initiatives) will continue to develop companies that operate for the most part at a higher level of general enlightenment and efficiency.

Researching and developing new technologies that will be integrated into new products will be center stage in stimulating new sales. The speed at which companies can research and develop new products will dramatically increase. A very strong initiative to bring new products to market in record times that have been exhaustingly tested to a new benchmark should decrease service bulletins and instill an even higher consumer confidence in the products. Dedicated and fully comprehensive R&D facilities that contain all of the resources to evolve new designs will begin to replace the physically and culturally disjointed efforts used in recent past. An emphasis on spending more dollars for university-based research will also become a mandate. New computer-aided systems that offer credible safety simulation testing will increasingly allow FAA approval of new type-design aircraft at a fraction of the time that was formerly required. Enhanced virtual reality systems will allow broader, more accurate communication in resolving the multi-functional engineering design requirements. A better understanding of the need to reduce parts-count and focus on “economy of design” will yield parts that are lighter, less expensive to manufacture and easier for the customer/service center to access and maintain. A direct benefit of increased R&D speed will be a trend towards developing aircraft as pure concept mock-ups, similar to how Detroit automotive companies develop ‘show cars’ that will be used to help gauge consumer interest.

More flexible and modular assembly lines that can rapidly accommodate manufacturing / model changes will expedite line flow while utilizing a smaller amount of space. Improvements in tooling will allow tighter build tolerances and reduce assembly variances that have amounted at times up to between 1/2 to 3/4 inch ‘deviation from print’.

Much of the pace and direction for new products will continue in response to the programs that are sponsored by NASA. The Aerospace Technology Enterprise Goals for General Aviation (NASA) sets a timeline for the research and development of initiatives that will improve general aviation. Specifically, the NASA goal is to invigorate the general aviation industry, delivering 10,000 aircraft annually within 10 years and 20,000 aircraft annually within 25 years. Programs such as AGATE (Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment), GAP (General Aviation Propulsion) and SATS (Small Aircraft Transportation Systems) emphasize technology improvements in propulsion, avionics, aerodynamics and airframe utility/crashworthiness that will translate to a more prosperous industry.

One of the most interesting concepts is the “Highway in the Sky” program, in which NASA, the FAA, academia and industry jointly partner to explore and exchange technology for the development of a revolutionary new precision, user-friendly and safer flight system to manage air traffic.

While demand for improvements in operating efficiency will see new efficient piston, turbine and jet aircraft, the “need for speed” will also be considered for super-sonic business aircraft. New engines (variants of diesels, rotaries and others) that use new fuels will also continue to be examined. Military contracts, particularly for the latest type of drone/surveillance aircraft as proven in Iraq will also become more valued as a means of diversifying business so as to be able to ride out downswings in civilian sales. New proprietary designs of high-end business turboprop and jet aircraft will most likely continue to be the mainstay of U.S. production plants, while efforts to rekindle smaller recreational aircraft may be up for consideration as foreign built assemblies, or even whole aircraft.

Improvements in the cockpit (easy to understand Primary Flight Displays, Moving Maps, GPS, Weather map datalinks, Fly-by-Wire and Heads-up Display systems) are some of the areas that will receive increased integration into the newer top-line aircraft, as well as eventually filtering down to less expensive models. The use and storage of bulky Jepp charts may become a thing of the past as the industry moves towards approach charts that can be updated on demand and loaded on a small portable computer screen. New aircraft Interiors will benefit in terms of better application of human factors analysis. Interior components will become easier to remove and install for service, and will continue to evolve to a much cleaner and automotive-inspired high-end level of luxury style, fit and finish that is not only commensurate with customer expectations, but that is also more durable. Responding to the current wave of terrorist actions, aircraft interiors will feature more complex anti-theft security systems, as well as reinforced cockpit divider doors and even in some instances, electronic countermeasures.

Anyone who has worked in the general aviation industry has probably heard the saying that ‘every aircraft design is a compromise’ (i.e.: trade-offs between speed, payload, range, utility, comfort, etc…). So too I believe, is this true when talking about the General Aviation business as a whole. Operating strategies are often compromised by such issues as labor rates, insurance, liability, increased demand for higher net operating profits, overhead and a myriad of other daily business realities. Success in the future will most likely go to the companies that can balance all of these compromising factors and still come closest to reasonably satisfying the target market. It never is easy, and it always leaves room for improvement. Past history indicates that General Aviation will adapt to the business realities of a brave new world, reinvent itself, formulate new products and ultimately capitalize on what has been a very unique and creditable record of accomplishments.