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Sat, Mar 20, 2010

Analyst: Piston Aircraft Growth To Outpace Jets And Turboprops

Expects Sales To Pick Up Mid-Year, LSA's May Lag

After three years of plummeting deliveries, the piston-powered fixed-wing segment is now well poised to outpace other categories for the next several years, according to one avaiation analyst. "This is great news for what many thought was general aviation's most downtrodden category," says aviation market advisor Brian Foley (pictured). "Worldwide piston deliveries had dropped 65% over 3 years, falling to 965 units in 2009. To put that into perspective, that's fewer units than Cessna alone delivered in 2006 if you include the former Columbia line."

Foley contends that piston and turbine delivery trends respond to different market factors and can actually be counter-cyclic.  In the wake of 9/11, for example, piston deliveries for 2002 fell by only 4% vs. 34% for turboprops and 14% for jets. In 2003, piston deliveries regained 10% while the turbine segment continued to contract dramatically. This relative picture began to change in 2007 as turbines kept growing and pistons shrank. "The piston segment tends to be more price-elastic," Foley explained. "When avgas hit $6 a gallon, buyers felt it in their own wallets. Then the stock and credit markets collapsed, compromising buyers' personal portfolios and credit lines and making the purchase of, say, a $250,000 aircraft even harder."  By 2008 piston deliveries had fallen off another 21% while turboprops and jets continued their ascent, climbing another 16% into positive territory. Pistons plunged another 55% in 2009.

While acknowledging that piston sales haven't properly resumed quite yet, Foley expects they will pick up around mid-year as a combination of pent-up demand, improved personal balance sheets and increased credit availability will combine to energize the marketplace.  Turboprops and jets will continue languishing, but piston deliveries could possibly see a double-digit percentage jump, albeit from depressed 2009 levels.  Moreover, this growth should last at least a couple of years.  This is good news for a segment that had literally nowhere else to go but up, and will benefit general aviation as a whole. However, while the piston fixed-wing segment averages some 60% of all general aviation unit deliveries, its share by value is just 25%.

Foley is less sanguine for the subcategory of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). "These businesses must rely on volume to provide expected margins," Foley noted. "But for the moment their necessary sales in this unproven category will be hard to come by, especially with so many competing players."



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