We see daily news of plant closures, layoffs, so much bailout money flowing out of Washington, D.C. in numbers so big, We The People can't even keep track. While the traditional media is focused on the sad real estate and auto industry news and growing unemployment numbers, we aviators look for signs that the sky we love to fly across in indeed falling.
I personally had a couple of benchmarks I have been watching for to be my "canary in a coal mine" and signal a serious downturn, or, better put, a slippage of forward progress back to where we once were just a few months ago. One big news item that would have thrown up red flags would be any announcement of serious financial trouble at Cirrus Design, but thankfully that has not happened.
The other benchmark I have been watching for is any really awful news out of Cessna. Now everyone who reads World of Flying knows I am a Piper driver, but that is not because I do not like Cessnas. It is because our Cherokee 235 was $25,000 less than a comparably-equipped 182 Skylane with similar performance. Make no mistake, while Cirrus might have re-invented the four-passenger GA airplane, Cessna was there first. Ask Average Joe about a small plane they saw – any small plane – and they'll usually say it was "one of those Cessnas". The legend and legacy of Cessna is etched in GA's foundation, so it is horrible news to read news like this:
Cessna has decided to suspend production of its new eight-passenger Citation Columbus model, its largest business jet model. Cessna also plans to close a plant in Oregon that builds the Corvalis 350 and Corvalis 400 TT aircraft, moving that assembly line to the company's Independence, KS facility. Also planned are a total of about 2,300 more layoffs company-wide, according to Forbes.com.Yes, you read that right. The Columbia plant that Cessna just picked up at fire-sale prices is being shuttered. These moves by the biggest GA benchmark of them all means more misery for our sector, nobody can dispute that. Just how bad the GA market is right now is anyone's guess, unless you're the CFO at one of these large manufacturers.
In this prize fight we are having to keep GA afloat in these troubled financial times, this Cessna news is a right cross directly on the jaw to every pilot, or anyone remotely related to general aviation. But we've proven a tough opponent, having taken hits like Adam and Eclipse while still remaining wobbly but upright.
Scan the web any day right now, and you'll get mixed signals. Yesterday, it was this news out of Cessna, and today it is Honda announcing they are delaying their sexy HondaJet's first flight of a production-conforming ship for a year, until January, 2010. But we also read that at EBACE next month, Daher-Socata will formally announce plans to invest $330 million to develop a new eight- to 10-seat twin-engine aircraft to offer in the market segment above its TBM 850 turboprop single. Add that to the news that Cirrus is ramping back up slowly and has not announced any delays in their Vision SF50 program, and we see – you got it – mixed signals all around.How will this all shake out? Is Textron tiring of the losses at Cessna? And, is Cessna digging in for survival, or making the long-term moves required to sustain their brand? If this recession/depression continues too much longer, will we continue to see more suspended programs, more plant closings and additional layoffs? Who will be left in the market, and who will be toast?
All valid questions. One question however that none of us can answer is this: What will the GA industry look like as 2009 evolves into 2010? If you can answer that, pal, you really need to buy lotto tickets tonight.