A panel comprising some of the top editors and writers of the aviation industry’s biggest publications talked about the past year in the industry and what’s ahead in 2013 and beyond at a Wichita Aero Club meeting Wednesday at the Doubletree by Hilton Wichita Airport.
The panel, moderated by Eagle aviation reporter Molly McMillin, included: Mac McClellan, a columnist and contributor to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Sport Aviation magazine; Robert Goyer, editor of Flying magazine; Bill Garvey, editor-in-chief of Business & Commercial Aviation magazine; Tom Haines, senior vice president of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association publications; Steve Trimble, editor of Flightglobal’s Americas bureau; and Mike Potts, Southwest editor for Professional Pilot magazine.
Garvey, who in 2009 wrote an article asking whether Wichita’s aircraft manufacturing prowess could suffer like Detroit’s auto industry did, was asked how he would answer that question now. The 2009 article concluded that Wichita wasn’t going to go the way of Detroit, but that it faced challenges.
Garvey said Wichita’s economy is more diversified than Detroit’s, and its work force reflects that difference. He said unlike the auto industry, the business aviation and commercial aviation industries have not received financial support from the government. Also, aviation has a much smaller base of customers than do automakers.
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“The answer is a little bit unclear,” Garvey said. “I think the fact that we are still asking that question now, three years later, is telling.”
Trimble, who more recently wrote a series of articles on Wichita’s aviation cluster, said the city is benefitting from a more robust commercial aviation business, but the general and business aviation markets are tougher. “So it’s a mixed bag,” Trimble said, “but there is some optimism.”
The question led to a broader discussion about the long-term impact of the recession to the segment of the business jet market that includes light- and medium-sized business jets. McClellan said the top end of the business jet market, large business jets, seems to have recovered but not the market for smaller business jets. “The new norm is if an airplane costs more than $45 million it’s going to be successful,” McClellan said. “Something blew out the foundation.”
Potts, of Professional Pilot, reasoned that the top end of the business jet market recovered first because its customers had the financial wherewithal to better absorb the impact than did buyers of the smaller, less expensive jets.
“I think there will be some resurgence in the light end of the jet market,” Potts said.
The panel was asked about innovation, which led to a discussion that focused on largely unmanned aircraft and the operation of them in the nation’s airspace. Haines, of AOPA, said there is “lots of talk (in Washington) trying to figure out a way to incorporate UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) into the air system.”
Noting the use of drone aircraft in combat and along the U.S.-Mexico border, Haines said “there is such an economic impetus behind this … we can’t bury our heads in the sand” hoping that it will go away. Added Potts: “It’s going to be forced on us.”
Goyer, of Flying magazine, said aviation groups need to get involved in the discussion about how unmanned aircraft should be operated in the same airspace with manned, civilian and passenger aircraft. It’s a matter of safety, he added.
Panelists were also asked about Hawker Beechcraft’s bankruptcy and its plan to exit the jet business and focus on the King Air, Baron and Bonanza — all propeller driven aircraft — and military training aircraft.
Some were skeptical of the company’s ability to continue building only prop-driven aircraft, while others such as McClellan think the post-Hawker bankruptcy plan is a good one. McClellan said while the company’s King Air turboprop was “always the heaviest, slowest, most expensive in its category,” Hawker continues to successfully sell the airplanes. “They did something right,” McClellan said. “I’m very excited and bullish about the future for Beech with propeller airplanes.”
Wrapping up the session, panelists were asked about the impact of the fiscal cliff on the industry. Again, the panelists were divided about the effects of higher taxes and lower government spending that make up the fiscal cliff.
“People who can afford to buy these products will continue to do it,” Potts said.
And Trimble of Flightglobal said the cuts in government spending would mostly impact the defense industry, noting Boeing’s plan to move its defense business out of Wichita is already under way. He said the proposed cuts in defense spending are not as deep as they have been in the past, such as in the early 1990s.
“This has been done before, and we got through it,” Trimble said. “And in this case Wichita is spared.”
But Haines of AOPA said the fiscal cliff could have a big effect on aviation.
“It may cause them (companies) to pull back on decisions about capital equipment including airplanes,” he said. “I think ’13 could be chilling … for major purchases.”