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Aviation industry growth robust yet at risk

GAMA reports record piston revenue amid concern over regulation, policy

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association reported growth in all segments, particularly piston airplanes, a segment that logged record revenue in 2023. But a brush with death by taxation that business aviation narrowly survived in Europe was among the causes for concern for the future of aviation east of the Atlantic Ocean, and elsewhere.

General Aviation Manufacturers Association leaders presented their annual report on the state of the industry February 21 in Washington, D.C., noting significant growth including record piston airplane revenue, but also significant challenges ahead. Photo by Kollin Stagnito.

The annual state of the industry event hosted by GAMA in Washington, D.C., on February 21 began on an optimistic note delivered by GAMA Chairman (and Wipaire CEO) Charles Wiplinger, who noted that overall deliveries topped 4,000 aircraft in 2023, generating $27.8 billion in revenue—an increase of 3.6 percent overall compared to 2022.

"It's been a decade since we've hit this level," Wiplinger said of the overall deliveries during the annual unveiling of the prior-year totals, noting that record-setting piston airplane billing ($1.2 billion, up 20.3 percent year over year) represented a 63-percent increase in that category since 2013.

Piston airplane deliveries led the way in 2023 with an 11.8-percent increase in total airframes delivered, 1,682 airplanes for the year, with turboprops enjoying a similar surge, up 9.6 percent in airframe deliveries to 638 units. Business jet deliveries were nearly flat, up just 2.5 percent, from 712 jets delivered in 2022 to 730 in 2023.

GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce said shifting market share is the bigger story, with North American manufacturers gaining at the expense of firms based in Europe, where many elected leaders and public opinion have soured on aviation, particularly the fuel it consumes and emissions it consequently creates, while sustainable alternatives are being allocated primarily to commercial airports.

"We've got to watch that," Bunce said of Europe's declining aircraft market share, focusing in subsequent remarks on the work done by GAMA and its European counterpart to beat back legislation in the European Parliament that would have imposed heavy taxes on business aviation, rendering it prohibitively expensive. It was narrowly defeated, falling 18 votes short, Bunce said: "That is scary as hell."

The aviation industry, Bunce continued, needs to "go and hit the ground running" and raise awareness of the jobs created, and other economic benefits that could be squashed if private aviation is grounded.

"While the deliveries from 2023 are very encouraging, our industry faces headwinds from ongoing supply chain issues, workforce shortages, uncertainty and unpredictability from global regulators, and short-sighted efforts aimed at curbing business and general aviation, particularly in Europe," Bunce said, in a press release. "As civil aviation’s innovation incubator, our entire GA industry is focused on new aircraft and technologies that will lead the way in safety and sustainability for the entire aviation sector. This progress is dependent on having effective, predictable and accountable regulatory processes, and a supportive business environment."

Bunce and Wiplinger, and others who participated in a panel discussion, reaffirmed the industrywide commitment to eliminate lead from piston aircraft fuel, though, as AOPA and others have emphasized, Bunce noted the process requires several careful steps.

"It's important that we have 100 low-lead available until we can do this smart, methodical transition,” Bunce said during the livestreamed event, noting that maintaining safety requires more than formulating the right fuel; the trucks, tanks, and other infrastructure to distribute and dispense that fuel must also pass muster: “We’ve got to make sure that we do appropriate testing on all parts of the delivery chain of fuel.”

Questions about liability and insurance must also be resolved, Bunce added.

“The marketplace will decide how this goes and plays out," Bunce said of unleaded fuel, reiterating the stated goal of the Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions coalition (of which AOPA is a member) to complete the transition to unleaded fuel by 2030 or sooner. "That commitment remains solid, and we are all working toward that."

By the numbers

Cirrus Aircraft, the longtime world leader in piston airplane deliveries, sold more than 600 SR-series piston airplanes in 2023, and another 96 SF50 Vision Jets, driving a 12.6-percent increase in airframes delivered, and a 21.5-percent increase in revenue. The firm's piston totals account for nearly 54 percent of the worldwide piston airplane market, more than twice the output of any competitor.

Among the dozen companies that build at least 50 aircraft per year, Cirrus posted the third-largest percentage gain in aircraft deliveries behind Diamond Aircraft, which bucked the trend of European aviation antipathy by delivering 273 aircraft and collecting $212.6 million in revenue, increases of 14.2 percent and nearly 18 percent, respectively.

Italy's Tecnam Aircraft also showed strength, with a 16.75-percent increase in airframe deliveries (up to 244 airplanes) and $106.4 million in revenue, up 12.6 percent compared to 2022.

Piper Aircraft Inc. saw more steady piston sales, with a modest increase in airframes delivered but a substantial jump in revenue, up 23.4 percent to $337.67 million, reflecting the strength of Piper's turboprop line, soon to include the recently announced flagship, the M700 Fury.

While Cirrus and Piper sold more of their most expensive aircraft, Textron Aviation boosted piston airplane sales significantly, including 180 Cessna 172 Skyhawks delivered in 2023 (compared to 151 in 2022), among 297 Cessna and Beechcraft piston models delivered–nearly half of the 618 aircraft in those brand lines, and more than half when Pipistrel's models are included. Sales of Pipistrel's piston and electric airplanes surged from 66 in 2022 to 112 in 2023, according to the GAMA report.

Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., a onetime leader in the business jet segment, posted softer numbers in 2023, with 111 airframes delivered and $6.1 billion in billing, down just over 7 percent by both measures but still enough for second place in the segment behind Bombardier's $6.8 billion in 2023 billing for 138 airframes, increases of 12.8 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Financial, General Aviation Manufacturers Association

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