NBAA: Corporate PR Challenges

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So, Cessna had this provocative looking mock-up at NBAA in Orlando this week that I thought would make a cool video. Trust me, as a news organization, it's been tough finding any of that (news) for years at the shows we attend. NBAA this year gave us a little relief but not much. When times are tough, the biggest news is about how low-margin, dream-built enterprises like aviation companies are coping.

The prospect of a new aircraft, therefore, evokes some excitement. My early intel (I went and had a look) suggested a follow-on for the CJ series that would mount a meaningful foil for the Embraer Phenom 300.

So with our CNN-in-a-backpack gear I headed, with a firm appointment and the promise of an opening-day video for the convention, to the Cessna display to see what the latest concept from the big boys of Wichita might be.

At the appointed hour, the Cessna contact who had graciously arranged the appointment told me that no cameras, video cameras or cell phones were permitted inside the bright orange mockup. Only those who made the trip to Orlando could witness the wonder of what can be crammed into a five-foot-wide aluminum tube to get them and a half dozen of their friends from A to B (without emptying their pockets and partially disrobing) within a couple of thousand miles. I was invited to take pictures of the outside. I declined. I'm an agent of our readers. Off the record is off the record.

It's the second time Cessna has done this. At AirVenture this year, there was an interior mockup of the company's proposed turboprop single (which seems to be the flavor of the month for innovation and/or future cash flow) that was quite loosely banned from pixelization. I have a nice photo of myself in the spiffy cockpit that was taken by a friend of mine who missed the signs telling him he couldn't take pictures.

The NBAA jet mockup and its AirVenture predecessor were loaded with recorders and sensors to get the "real" impressions (probably literally and figuratively) of those who went inside. I suppose the idea is that Cessna wants spontaneous and contemporaneous (likely even real-time) data from those who grace the leather (I'm guessing) inside.

I'm sorry we couldn't give you our impressions in a meaningful way but the weirdness of having something secret in public display was difficult to reconcile for a news organizations like ours. At some point we'll be able to show you what mystery lurked behind the shiny orange exterior but for now we'll have to wonder together. --Russ Niles

HBC's PR Challenge
While at NBAA, I saw a couple of headlines touting how scrappy Hawker Beechcraft is for fighting its way out of bankruptcy and proposing a bold new business strategy. You won't hear such awestruck descriptions from many owners of Premier and Hawker jets, however. Given the accepted rules of polite society and our forum guidelines, I can't exactly print what some of them would like to say. Wrote one reader: "The industry needs a good robust blog on the abomination of Hawker Beechcraft and the blight on the landscape that HBC is." Too strong? Perhaps, but I wonder how many others share the view.

Just in case you may have missed the reason for this ire, there's a not-that-small community of Hawker Beechcraft jet owners—Premier 1, the Hawker and Beechjet lines—who quite justifiably feel abandoned by HBC following its bankruptcy emergence plan which basically seems likely to orphan the jet line. A deal to sell it to Chinese interests collapsed. Consider that the owners who bought those airplanes did so because they managed their businesses well enough with appropriate leverage to be able to afford a business aircraft. This is, itself, a gesture of faith in the company selling the airplane and when that same company mismanages itself into insolvency, they see this as a breach of faith. At the stroke of a pen, the very expensive assets that these airplane represent are suddenly of unknown value. This hurts not just HBC and owners, but the entire industry.

Rubbing salt in the wound is HBC's announcement that it will focus on the turboprop market, with new products, including perhaps a single-engine offering in a market already choked with choices. I'm not exactly sure how HBC—or whatever it becomes—is going to dig itself out of this PR nightmare. If I was a Socata, Piper or Pilatus rep selling against them, do ya think I'd remind the would-be buyer of the company's recent history?

In the NBAA pressroom, I was joking around with Mark Patiky of Forbes, describing my basically cynical view that jet programs are the aviation versions of black holes. It's true, too. The original Eclipse dug a $1 billion-plus crater, Cirrus had to seek Chinese money to get its jet back on track, Diamond ran into cash problems, too. Piper, wisely, just gave up its jet, one of the smartest aviation business decisions I've seen in years. Other projects never even materialized.

Instead of spending north of $700 billion a year on defense, we could take a fraction of that money and convince countries we don't like to start their own jet programs. A few years hence, they'd sink without a trace, hopefully without taking any customers with them. --Paul Bertorelli

Comments (20)

I am a beechjet pilot. Other than the premier, HBC has no jet products worth selling in the future. You have the 50 year old design Hawker family and the no baggage, no range Beechjet. They can't compete against Cessna and Embraer. There are enough Hawkers and Beechjets that someone will support them. HBCs only chance of survival is to focus on the profitable turboprops.

I don't like their plan, but I think it gives them a chance at survival.

Posted by: Roy Zesch | November 5, 2012 8:37 AM    Report this comment

I'm a piston guy, but I always got the impression the Hawker was the go to choice for a work horse jet. The one you used for getting people from a to b to do work rather than special mission or pampering passengers. Is this just a local thing or is that a real thing? If so, what's the new hawker?

Also, is there a reasonable turbine plant for a bonanza? Any diesel other than the SMA on the horizon?

Lastly, the aircraft industry is full of moves like the warranty decision. It will hurt lots of sales of new aircraft. Growing the pie is the last thought most of the guys have though. IMO, it's the real problem in aviation. It's just not as obvious high fuel prices or the FAA and IRS draconian hassle factories.

Posted by: Eric Warren | November 5, 2012 9:15 AM    Report this comment

Walk onto any ramp in the US and see three or four PC-12s and it's not hard to understand why all the manufactures are turning to large turbine singles.

As for the impending loss of the jet side of HBC, if it rids the sky of that god awful Premier, all the better. That may quite possibly be the ugliest thing ever created by the human race.

Posted by: Scott McGowin | November 5, 2012 9:40 AM    Report this comment

"That may quite possibly be the ugliest thing ever created by the human race."

LOL

But obviously, you haven't clapped eyes on a Pontiac Aztek. It makes an Edsel look pretty.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 5, 2012 10:27 AM    Report this comment

This summer I pulled my Bonanza into an FBO ramp that had parked: a Baron, a King Air 200, (believe it or not) a Starship, a 1900, a Beechjet 400, and a Premier. it looked like a Beech reunion. Of these things, the ones with the propellers (at least the ones with the propellers on the front of the engines), make sense commercially and economically. As a Beech owner, I'm very hopeful for the changes coming. It would be very hard to compete in the jet world with the great products from Cessna, Embraer, Bombardier, and Gulfstream to name a few. You have to pick battles that you can win and sometimes survival takes some tough choices. As a side note, I'm happy to see that they are keeping the defense division as part of the company.

Posted by: PHIL RYDER | November 5, 2012 1:32 PM    Report this comment

Beech will make a fascinating business school study. Once a builder of some of the very best light aircraft, it was bought out by a large aerospace and defense company with visions of Learjets, Gulfstreams and airliners. When reality set in Beech was infested with beancounters (who have no particular commitment to aviation, just the bottom line), saddled with the hapless Hawker, it was shopped out to clueless investors and drifted aimlessly til the "Chinese Solution" presented itself along with the opportunity for the management to rake in obscene bonuses. With bonuses denied and the Chinese opting out of the bigger-fool program, that leaves management to try to turn the leftovers into a banquet, kind of hard to do when your main claim to fame is building 50 year old airplanes.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 6, 2012 8:50 AM    Report this comment

I like the new direction Beech is heading. I do feel it wasn't totally above board the way that they got out of the warranty's.

Posted by: Samuel Walsh | November 7, 2012 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Oops. You didn't show the link to the blog you should have written. It can be found on JetWhine and is titled "The Slow Death of a Great Brand".

Posted by: John Kliewer | November 8, 2012 8:51 PM    Report this comment

Oops. You didn't show the link to the blog you should have written. It can be found on JetWhine and is titled "The Slow Death of a Great Brand".

Posted by: John Kliewer | November 8, 2012 8:51 PM    Report this comment

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