Textron Aviation CEO Says Market On Upswing

Ron Draper, Textron Aviation president and CEO.
Credit: Textron Aviation

WICHITA—Textron Aviation officials made a number of decisions to manage through COVID-19—some difficult and some “great”—to prepare the company for success once it emerged from the global pandemic. 

“There were a lot of difficult decisions that I’m sure every business that you’re associated with had to make,” Ron Draper, Textron Aviation president and CEO, said during a keynote speech at a Wichita Aero Club luncheon on Aug 17. The company had to figure out “how to save the company from an inventory and cash perspective” as it continued product development. 

“Coming out of COVID, I think we were very successful,” Draper says. The private aviation market began to improve in the third quarter and increased in the fourth quarter, starting with the charter markets that needed more aircraft as new customers entered the market. Charter companies began buying up the used aircraft. And now corporations are looking at adding additional aircraft into their fleets. 

“We ended up having a pretty good fourth quarter, which almost made up for all the losses that we had for the rest of the year,” he says. “To wrap up 2020, we’re pretty proud of how [we] weathered that and came out stronger at the end.”

Today, Textron Aviation’s installed base of turbine aircraft, comprised of King Airs and Citation jets, totals about 14,000. Aircraft activity of the fleet has grown and is now about 15% higher than prepandemic levels, Draper says.

Meanwhile in the used market, the percent of the Citation fleet available for sale has ranged from a peak of 17% or 18% during the last recession to a low of 7%. Now, that figure has dropped to 4% of the active fleet, with Citations less than 10 years old on the market today totaling less than 2% of the fleet.

“When the used market is that healthy, then the new is pretty healthy as well,” Draper says. 

At the same time, the number of new entrants to the market at Textron has doubled. Typically, 10% of its aircraft sales are to new entrants to business aviation. That has risen to about 20%, he said. 

Product development continued during the pandemic. For one, Textron Aviation upgraded the Citation CJ4 with the CJ4 Gen2, announced in the first quarter of 2021, which has gained a “nice backlog,” Draper says. It upgraded the King Air 350 to the King Air 360 and the King Air 250 to the King Air 260 with a number of enhancements, and continued development of the Cessna SkyCourier turboprop. Three test aircraft are flying almost daily with the FAA certification program about 75% complete. Development of the Beechcraft Denali turboprop continues, with first flight of the prototype expected in the second half of this year. 

“I wish we had it now,” Draper said of the Denali. “We’d be selling a ton of those right now. And we’re having a lot of customer interest in it.” The company also upgraded the Beechcraft Bonanza with a tribute to Olive Ann Beech in a 75th anniversary edition. 

Textron Aviation is looking at Garmin’s Autoland system, which automatically lands an aircraft at the touch of a button in the event the pilot is incapacitated. 

“I think it’s fantastic technology, and of course we’re looking at that as a lot of OEMs are,” Draper says. 

Headwinds facing the company include a shortage of skilled technicians, avionics and electrical engineers, machinists, layup technicians and aircraft and powerplant mechanics, along with supply chain concerns. 

Its suppliers have had a difficult year from COVID and from issues stemming from the Boeing 737MAX.

“The aerospace supply chain was really struggling last year,” Draper says. “A big thank you to our suppliers … for sticking with us last year.” 

Textron Aviation has 200 open positions today with the need to hire about 1,500 employees over the next 18 months to replace those who retire and to meet its growth, Draper said after the presentation. 

For the first time, about 100 of its 200 summer interns were high school students. 

“As a society, we focus so much on college degrees we’re missing out on the trade skills and the technical skills that we’re going to need for our economy in the future,” Draper says. “Skilled technicians are a worry.”
 

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.