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GA manufacturers prepare to ramp up

Like executives in other industries, leaders at general aviation manufacturers have taken a variety of paths to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

From closing up shop to full speed ahead, each has done what they felt was necessary in their particular case. And like other businesses, they are now looking for ways to keep their companies going while dealing with the new realities of social distancing, face masks, and frequently sanitizing hands and equipment.

Cirrus Aircraft, for example, dramatically slowed production of airplanes in March at its Duluth, Minnesota, factory, but did begin producing personal protective equipment (PPE). Meanwhile, Piper Aircraft continued aircraft production while also producing face masks for local hospitals.

Textron Aviation also produced PPE, but laid off thousands of employees for periods of time.

A Cirrus spokesman said the company began to make workplace adjustments because of the coronavirus in early March, including encouraging staff to work remotely whenever possible. While aircraft production mostly stopped in recent weeks, the company began to slowly ramp up production at the end of April. “We developed a comprehensive set of policies, adjusted processes, and revised schedules to safely increase plant activity,” the spokesman said.

In addition to creating face masks, Piper kept aircraft manufacturing going at a normal rate, according to CEO Simon Caldecott. The company has a large backlog of flight school airplanes. However, flight schools are facing their own COVID-19-related challenges and have not always been able to pick up their new airplanes. A Piper spokeswoman said a couple of M600 turboprops are awaiting delivery to European customers who can’t cross borders right now to pick them up at the Vero Beach, Florida, factory. Caldecott said they face similar challenges with flight school airplanes bound for Europe and beyond.

“We’ve seen quite a few flight schools delay or defer deliveries, but the good news is we haven’t really seen many cancellations. It’s good news that we’re able to continue to produce planes and that’s been our goal all along is to make sure that we keep our people employed. I don’t want to have to furlough people or lay people off.”

Piper’s large factory makes it relatively easy for workers to maintain acceptable distances for safety. The interior shop made face masks for all employees, who are required to wear them on site. Each employee is screened for a fever before entering the premises every morning, according to the spokeswoman.

On the other side of the country, CubCrafters has also arranged its Yakima, Washington, factory such that employees can maintain acceptable distances from one another, said President Patrick Horgan. He said the company’s production rate and staffing have been trimmed slightly, “in phase with supply chain shortages.” As with so many other GA companies, CubCrafters has become expert at manufacturing PPE. “We have been using our 3D printers every day to produce PPE mask hardware for local area hospitals. Employees and their families have sewn hundreds of masks that have been distributed to health care workers, our community, employees, and outlying communities,” Horgan said. “Further, our customers have been reporting the use of their Carbon Cubs to perform various medical assist flights all over the world, including ventilator deliveries to outlying areas.”

Textron Aviation acted quickly after the virus began affecting the United States with a rolling furlough of many of its 7,000 U.S. employees, requiring them to take off four weeks beginning March 23. In an announcement to staff on March 18, Textron Aviation President and CEO Ron Draper reiterated that the action “will allow us to do our part in mitigating and containing the spread of the COVID-19 through social distancing, while continuing to support our customers.”

In an earnings call on April 30, Textron reported that it delivered 23 business jets in the first quarter of 2020, compared to 44 in 2019. Caravan sales declined from 21 to just five in that period. King Air sales were down by half from 23 to 11 in 2020. However, piston aircraft sales climbed from 36 to 54.

During the call, Textron Chairman and CEO Scott C. Donnelly told investors, “Our team is meeting the unprecedented challenges presented by this pandemic with a commitment to the health and safety of our employees and communities while meeting customer commitments.

“We have taken measures to reduce cost and conserve cash, including temporary plant shutdowns and employee furloughs at many of our commercial businesses. While the effects of COVID-19 on many of our end markets [have] been unfavorable, Bell and Textron Systems delivered higher revenue and strong margin performance for the quarter in their military businesses.” Bell delivered nine military helicopters in the first quarter of 2002 compared to eight in the same period in 2019. It also delivered 15 commercial helicopters, half the number of 2019.

Like Textron, business jet manufacturer Bombardier laid off some 11,000 workers in Canada, suspending operations in Quebec and Ontario until early May. This week it began recalling workers under a plan to slowly resume production of airplanes, trains, and other products by May 11.

Smaller manufacturers also took immediate steps to cuts costs while finding ways to protect employees. Epic Aircraft and Waco, for example, dramatically reduced staffing starting in March. Mike Schrader, director of marketing and communications at Epic, said the company expects to start bringing staff back to work on May 1. Epic has used the downtime to streamline its manufacturing and quality process at its Bend, Oregon, factory. With a fresh type certificate in hand, the company plans to gradually build up to a rate of one aircraft per month this summer. He said the company still has about 80 orders and has not lost any orders as a result of the shutdown.

Honda Aircraft also temporarily suspended production of the HondaJet Elite during the worst of the outbreak. The suspension was a result of both the company’s concern over worker safety and an “anticipated decline in market demand from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” According to a company statement, Honda expects many employees to be back at work starting May 4 at the Greensboro, North Carolina, factory. “We have been providing opportunities for associates who have been affected by the production suspension to be paid, including full pay for some non-production days, utilization of temporary paid personal leave and PTO/Vacation options. Meanwhile, all associates continue to receive Honda benefits.” The company has maintained the ability to deliver parts and provide service to the HondaJet fleet. The FlightSafety International training facility co-located with the factory remains in operation while following infection countermeasures implemented across the company’s campus.

While Aviat Aircraft continues to produce its Husky backcountry airplanes, it has also implemented a number of changes to its Afton, Wyoming, factory in order to provide safe distancing between employees. The company is also providing extra sanitation throughout the plant, according to owner Stu Horn. Only employees are permitted into the facility, and any employee who leaves the Star Valley area must quarantine for 14 days before returning to work, he said.

Avionics manufacturers, too, had to make difficult decisions and changes to their processes in order to continue operations. Garmin, for example, has continued manufacturing, but has taken steps to protect its employees and the avionics shops that count on Garmin. “Like many companies, Garmin has been adjusting our business practices to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. These methods include insulating critical business functions, practicing social distancing, implementing work from home policies, and complying with CDC guidelines of limiting in-person contact,” said Phil Straub, executive vice president and managing director of aviation.

“First and foremost, our concern is for our fellow Garmin associates,” he continued, “but immediately following that is to ensure continuity of business for our customers that depend upon our product and services.”

Straub said his team is working closely with suppliers to “ensure uninterrupted supply of material to our manufacturing locations.”

Avionics manufacturer Avidyne Corp. foresaw the impending COVID-19-related shutdown and increased production of new products at its Melbourne, Florida, factory, according to President and CEO Dan Schwinn. Then, when the company had to shut down manufacturing because of statewide restrictions, it could still deliver products and supply parts and service to its customers. Schwinn expects to begin a gradual ramp up of production starting May 4. “We have a long list of precautions that we are going to use as we ramp up to maintain a safe work environment, including temperature testing, providing masks, rearranging work areas for separation, occupancy limits on conference rooms, continuing to have a significant part of the workforce working remotely at least some of the time and shifting schedules to reduce the population at our facilities at any given time,” he said.

Although the pandemic has had a major impact on the economy, numerous executives we spoke to were bullish on the future. Piper’s Caldecott was especially optimistic, noting that the company is still receiving strong inquiries for new aircraft and has made several sales in recent weeks. Aviat’s Horn said he has sold four aircraft in the past three months. Web inquiries at Avidyne are very strong, according to Schwinn. He expects that once people are back to work, sales for new avionics will rebound.

Caldecott said he believes that flight training will ramp up quickly because the long-discussed pilot shortage is real and will continue to be an issue for years to come. Meanwhile, some people will be reluctant to travel on the airlines for the foreseeable future for fear of exposure to the virus, he said. GA airplanes are a good alternative for many such missions, he reminded.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines

Editor in Chief
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
Topics: Aviation Industry, Turbine Aircraft

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