The marketplace in aviation is in a strange place. We’re not in a depressed or even a recessed market, and while some trot out the “new normal” as commonplace, I don’t buy it.
I think the name of the game is good old competition, though winning at the game takes a smarter approach than ever. In days past, innovating meant spending the money necessary in order to come up with a product that met the needs of a particular market niche—as Cessna did in developing the Caravan a few decades ago for FedEx. Today, with increasing competition and decreasing sales opportunities, the game has changed. The goal these days is to create an airplane out of an existing airplane that does more than the original, and not just a little more. In order to make the case for a “new” airplane, there has to be a market for that new airplane, and not a small market, either.
Figuring out just how to do that is a tough goal to attain, one that can devolve, like a dog chasing its tail, into a problem that remains unsolved no matter the speed or effort put into the solution. With airplanes, as power is added, additional fuel is required, which adds weight and requires additional structure, which requires more power, ad infinitum. You get the idea.
So finding an elegant solution from the get-go is critical.
At AirVenture this year, we’ve gotten the chance to see a few programs that are either seeking that kind of elegant solution or who have succeeded at it.
A short list would include Piper, which knocked its M600 overhaul of the Meridian out of the park—more power, speed, range and payload with the same great fuselage. Another obvious example would be the Daher TBM 900 and TBM 930, both of which leveraged new aerodynamics, a great new prop and new avionics for much greater speed with, again, an already terrific club-seating cabin. ONE Aviation is seeking to find a similar level of success with its Project Canada, an upgrade to its Eclipse 550 that will use slightly larger engines, a larger wing and more fuel for better top speeds, greater range, better hot and high performance, and a higher ceiling.
Then, again, there’s Textron Aviation, which does have the resources to invest in new airplane programs. Its current project, the newly named Cessna Denali, is a clean-sheet airplane with a new engine, a huge flat-floor cabin, impressive speed and range, and the kind of hauling ability that one doesn’t associate with an airplane that feels like a bizjet once you’re settled and enjoying the WiFi.
That’s an example where an elegant overhaul wasn’t in the cards. Textron has responded with a full frontal assault. We can’t wait to fly the result of this investment and tell you all about it, but as these things go, it’ll be a couple of years still. That’s a lot of anticipation, though from what the company privately tells us, there are plenty of customers who are busy tapping their feet in very much the same way as we are.