The business and general aviation market continues its sluggishness as billings dipped slightly overall and business jet and piston aircraft deliveries faltered in 2012, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s (GAMA) annual shipment report released today. And, whether that market improves at all this year – at least in North America – could hinge upon the high-level debate on how to avoid sequestration and tackle the national debt, GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce says.

GAMA expanded its annual billings and delivery report to include agricultural aircraft, a few other new companies (Waco and CubCrafters), and for the first time in 41 years, helicopter deliveries.

Even with additional models, fixed-wing billings overall inched down from the $19 billion in 2011 to $18.87 billion last year. (GAMA revised 2011 figures to reflect the changes and additions to the report.)

Total business jet deliveries fell 3.4% to 672 in 2012, compared with 696 in 2011. Piston shipments were also down 1.9% in 2012 to 881, compared with the 898 reported for 2011.

But the turboprop market was a bright spot for the industry, jumping 10.3% from the 526 delivered in 2011 to 580 last year. But Bunce notes that the increase was due to the inclusion of agricultural turboprops. Otherwise, it would have been a down year in that category as well.

The fourth quarter was the strongest of 2012, with 737 aircraft shipped and $6.5 billion in billings. But it was still a weaker quarter when compared with the 765 aircraft shipped and $6.9 billion in billings in the fourth quarter of 2011.

The market weakness in the second half erased what looked like a promising start to 2012. By midyear, business jet deliveries were up more than 13%. But that trend reversed in the third quarter, when political and economic uncertainties slowed sales significantly. Manufacturer chiefs hoped that sales would pick up following the elections and they would be able to recover. But even as the fourth-quarter results were better than any other quarter – as is the typical trend – they were not enough to make up the difference.

North America is still the dominant region, but has declined to account for just under 50% of all deliveries. Europe followed at a little more than 18%. The Asia Pacific region is picking up pace, taking more than 15% of all business and general aviation aircraft delivered last year.

The market continues its chasm with light and midsize aircraft segments struggling and the large business jet niche strengthening. Gulfstream, Bombardier and Embraer are expecting to see improvement this year for their large aircraft models. But the same cannot be said for light models. At Cessna, business jet deliveries actually may decline in the first half of the year before recovering in the second half, when several new models are slated to enter service. Embraer, meanwhile, is predicting flat deliveries of its Phenoms.

Agricultural aircraft will continue to thrive, adds Brad Mottier, GAMA chairman and vice president and general manager of Business and General Aviation for GE. But Bunce says the “wild card” for the general aviation market will be the overall impact of sequestration. “A lot of that is going to be impacted by what happens over the next month or so,” he says.

Noting that 2012 was mixed, Mottier says, “The numbers don’t reflect the amount of development work in progress in general aviation.” Fixed-wing and helicopter manufacturers have more than 20 new aircraft under development and are investing billions into new products, he says. When those new products reach market, “we’ll see the numbers change dramatically.”

While the fixed-wing market may take some time to show significant growth, the commercial helicopter market is already there. Helicopter manufacturing “is a good business to be in right now,” Bunce notes. Helicopter manufacturers reported 1,044 deliveries valued at $3.36 billion for 2012. Deliveries were up 21.5% and billings 21% over 2011. And unlike fixed-wing aircraft, it’s the light end of the market showing the greatest rebound. Single turbines accounted for 502 of the deliveries, a 23.3% improvement. Manufacturers shipped 328 piston helicopters, up 22.4% over 2011. And Multi-engine turbine helicopter deliveries were up 16.3% to 214. Reporting manufacturers included Bell, Enstrom, Eurocopter and Robinson for the first round. GAMA is hoping to expand this list over time to include other manufacturers.

(Story is updated from early Feb. 12)