As March 2020 progressed, and it slowly dawned on the aviation industry that COVID could change everything, Textron Aviation’s Tony Jones recalls, “It was a crazy period with lots of uncertainty, and we were all braced for some of that impact to happen – but it didn’t. And that’s when I think we realised what was happening was completely different to a traditional economic meltdown.”
In fact, COVID – while presenting enormous challenges – became something of an inflection point for business aviation in general, as grounded airliners forced customers to explore how they could get their people in the air. What could have been a disaster became an opportunity for the sector.
“Companies that could, kept their flight departments in place,” adds Jones, who is the vice president of sales for Textron Aviation in the APAC region. “They may not have used their aircraft much during that initial period, but they knew once borders opened up and the ability to travel returned, they needed to get back into the market. I think they saw business aircraft as an enabler, and they were also very conscious of the potential health risks associated with flying commercial and realised these risks can be reduced when they are on their own aircraft.”
Being the largest general aviation manufacturer globally, Textron Aviation accounted for roughly 50 per cent of all general aviation deliveries in the market, according to the annual new aircraft shipment report by GAMA. Today, the Wichita-based OEM’s Cessna, Beechcraft and Hawker aircraft models account for more than half of all general aviation aircraft worldwide.
The company can trace its lineage back over 90 years in Wichita, Kansas, when Clyde Cessna first set up the Cessna Aircraft Company and Walter Beech started the Beech Aircraft Corporation. Textron Aviation, however, was born in March 2014, following Textron Inc’s acquisition of Beech Holdings, which included Beechcraft and Hawker aircraft brands. The move allowed the brands to be brought under the same umbrella as Textron Aviation (Cessna has been a Textron company since 1992), giving it a dominant position in the general aviation market.
Flying high amid COVID
“Though we had tremendous challenges in some areas of our business last year, we also forged new opportunities, making it something of a balanced year,” says Jones. “There was this period in mid-2020 where nobody knew what was going on. However, that quickly developed into a sense of optimism. People wanted to get out there and explore new opportunities that had been out of reach at the start of the pandemic, and they were using business aircraft to do it.
“We saw charter demand recover rather quickly, which was a good indication. And because many airlines had either restricted or suspended their services, there was the concern about travelling or being in a confined space like a commercial aircraft with many different people. This uptake then flowed through into charter, and that flowed through into pre-owned sales and then into new aircraft sales. But the one thing that didn’t happen was a mass shedding of aircraft by companies. Aircraft owners generally retained their assets, knowing they would probably serve them well in the future. So, we saw the flying rates recover quickly, which was an indicator of the pent-up demand for corporate and business travel. In a way, business aviation was an enabler for them.”
Having your own aircraft, explains Jones, means colleagues can travel and work together in complete confidence and comfort with a peace of mind. It also gave flexibility in value because users can reach multiple destinations in a short time. Business aviation users have the option to fly directly to and from where they need to be, in far less time and hassle. More often than not, these places are either smaller airports nearer to cities or located in places not served by a traditional airline.
“The benefits are both tangible and intangible,” says Jones. “You can access markets faster, or be back in the office to focus on that next project much quicker than if you were at the mercy of airline schedules and dealing with multiple stops. It’s a huge boost in time savings and productivity.”
Expanding customer support
It’s that time element for professionals that has driven the core part of Textron Aviation’s expansion and growth. Textron Aviation operates 20 company-owned factory service centres globally, including three in Australia. including three under the Premiair Aviation brand in Australia. Textron Inc. acquired the Premiair Aviation, an Australian maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) service provider with bases in the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Perth to further expand its global support network in Asia-Pacific.
Several Textron Aviation aircraft models were recently added to Premiair’s roster of approved types for service and support across all its locations, which now includes all Cessna, Beechcraft and Hawker turboprop and jet aircraft models currently in operation in Australia. Model approval was received from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).
The company also opened a new aircraft parts warehouse in Melbourne in late 2019 to increase its customer support capabilities. This enhances spare parts availability for private and corporate aircraft owners in Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region operating the OEM’s piston, turboprop and jet aircraft for various missions.
“Aircraft modified for special missions thrived during COVID. These include aeromedical, surveillance and flight inspection, and their demand was observed to be quite strong,” says Jones.
Aeromedical has become particularly important during COVID, with markets seeing an even higher utilisation of services due to medical evacuation, repatriation and patient transport. The recent devastating forest fires in Western Australia also saw purpose-modified King Air turboprops with infrared line-scan imaging systems being used for airborne bushfire reconnaissance flight operations and airborne surveillance.
A wide portfolio of GA aircraft
Textron Aviation has one of the most versatile and comprehensive aviation product portfolios: from business jets, general aviation and special mission aircraft; to high-performance pistons, military trainer and defense aircraft. All of which are supported by its global customer service network. The piston aircraft range spans from the four-seat Cessna Skyhawk, the most popular single-engine aircraft ever built and used extensively as a flight training aircraft for student pilots, to the more powerful Cessna Skylane and the Cessna Turbo Stationair HD.
Then there’s the Beechcraft Bonanza, created for the rugged utility market but with a cabin that is almost a third larger than its nearest competitor, and the twin-engine piston Beechcraft Baron, with its oversized cargo doors and roomy interior.
The turboprop portfolio includes the versatile Cessna Caravan and Grand Caravan EX turboprops, as well as the iconic King Air turboprop. Despite 2020 being a challenging year for many aircraft OEMs, Textron Aviation invested and launched the upgraded King Air 260 and King Air 360 turboprops with new innovations such as standard autothrottles, digital pressurisation and pressured mapped seats for better passenger experience. King Air aircraft are ubiquitous workhorses flying from austere airfields in the rugged Australian outback and smaller city airports.
The Citation business jet family come in the entry-level Citation M2, the larger Citation CJ3+, as well as the Citation XLS+. It also launched the Citation CJ4 Gen 2 with its revamped interior in 2020. Textron Aviation also moved into the midsize and super-midsize jet categories with the Citation Latitude and Longitude. These two models have full stand-up cabins and are popular with US-based fractional operator, NetJets.
In the pipeline are the much-anticipated Cessna Denali and SkyCourier turboprop aircraft. Concurrently in development, both are clean sheet designs with specific missions and target markets, and are expected to be popular with operators in the region.
Homing in on the region
“Australia is not too dissimilar to the US market from a landmass point of view. The tyranny of distance has been integrated into Australian aviation because people need to get out to very remote places that aren’t serviced by airlines,” says Jones.
Textron Aviation leads the APAC market with approximately 1,400 aircraft operating in the region and an installed base nearly five times as large as the closest competitor. Australia is one of the company’s largest markets with more than 50 new turbine deliveries between 2013 and 2020. In fact, Australia alone is Textron Aviation’s fourth largest turboprop market. Due to the company’s strength in Australia, Textron Aviation turboprop deliveries comprised nearly 70 per cent of all general aviation turboprop deliveries in APAC from 2013-2020.
“And as we approach the middle of 2020, a lot of confidence is returning to the economy,” explains Jones. Both owners and first-time owners are stepping into the market, creating a tremendous positive sentiment.
“We’ve got a very buoyant period coming in. But there are still questions. What is the recovery period from COVID? When do we get back to normal? But I think the new normal that’s coming will favour business aviation. Eventually, airline travel will come back, and international borders will be a big driver of that. You get a much richer experience when you meet someone versus what you can get over the phone or Zoom,” he adds.
“It’s amazing to see how many of our clients have adapted, and we’ve worked closely with them over the last year. Yes, priorities have changed a little, and that’s OK, but sometimes we look at them and think, ‘Wow, we never expected their business to pivot the way they did!’”