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At Tuesday’s general session of the National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas, NBAA President Ed Bolen wasted no time in getting to the association’s main concern: user fees. Throughout the convention center, posters urge NBAA members to oppose user fees by insisting congressional representatives support legislation to prohibit fees. Bolen told the opening session that in every country where user fees have been implemented, general aviation and especially the business aviation segment suffered.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta also addressed the opening session but pointedly avoided any mention of the user fee issue, pivoting instead to a short discussion of the benefits air traffic improvements that will ultimately underpin the NextGen program will bring to business aircraft operators. He said dozens of performance-based arrival procedures are already in place and are reducing congestion and delays in metropolitan areas. He said 50 more such procedures will be in place in 2016.

The opening session closed on an inspirational note from country singer Dierks Bentley who gave a rambling but entertaining summary of how earning his pilot’s certificate and using airplanes to travel on singing gigs had “knocked the edges” off 150 travel days a year. Bentley flies a G58 Baron but also uses light jets for routine transportation to his concerts. He said business aircraft travel has allowed him to leave his home and family later and return earlier, allowing him to see his kids on Sundays where he might otherwise still be on the road. “If there’s a will and a plane, there’s always a way,” Bentley said.

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The same sort of market conditions that depressed the light and midsize business jet market for the past seven years is now slowing down the previously untouched large-cabin market. In fact, Gulfstream President Mark Burns told a packed news conference at NBAA in Las Vegas that the combination of a large inventory of relatively new used aircraft and what he termed "overproduction" by other unnamed manufacturers has softened the lucrative market sector. "It is a headwind for us," he said. "2016 will be somewhat flattish for us." He also noted that after half a decade of selling more aircraft overseas, the market is returning to the U.S. and the sales process there takes longer. Still, the company sold 46 aircraft in the second quarter of this year and the new aircraft it has introduced in the past few years continue to dominate their portions of the market.

Gulfstream is also moving at full speed on its new G500 and G600 programs and it flew the prototype 500 to NBAA for its debut this week. Scott Neal, Vice President for Worldwide Sales, said the company put its aircraft to good use getting people and gear from the Dubai Air Show, which ended last week, to Las Vegas in time for NBAA this week. Three city-to-city speed records were set. Gulfstream has a major presence inside the convention hall and at the static display at Henderson Executive Airport.

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Dassault Aviation has brought its Falcon 8X, which was announced in May last year, to NBAA for the first time. The airplane on display in Las Vegas is the sixth one off the assembly line and will head to Dassault’s completion facility in Arkansas after the show. The 8X, which is derived from the 7X, will offer the longest range and the longest cabin in the Falcon fleet. Three airplanes are now in the flight test program, and the company said they are two-thirds of the way to achieving FAA and EASA approval. Dassault also introduced a new proprietary combined-vision system with a head-up display, and provided an update on its delayed 5X program.

The head-up display system, called FalconEye, combines synthetic terrain mapping with actual images from a multi-sensor camera that can fuse images from a variety of visible and infrared spectrums. “What makes this truly revolutionary is the unique and patented way in which we blend real video of the outside world in low-light conditions with synthetic terrain imagery, a first in the business-jets industry,” said Olivier Villa, a senior vice president at Dassault. The Falcon 5X, which was expected to start deliveries as soon as this year, has been delayed due to problems with the Snecma Silvercrest engines, Dassault CEO Eric Trappier said at the show. “When we have a better understanding [from Snecma], which should come soon, we will totally reorganize the schedule," he said. "We should be able to do that early next year."

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Airbus is ramping up its investment in the Aerion AS2 supersonic-jet program, the two companies announced at the NBAA convention in Las Vegas this week, and Aerion CEO Doug Nichols said he expects a first flight for the aircraft in 2021. "We are targeting the first half of 2016 to select a propulsion system, which will enable us to formally launch the program shortly thereafter," Nichols said. He added that he expects the airplane to achieve certification from FAA and EASA and enter service in 2023. The company now is searching for a U.S. location to build a manufacturing facility. Airbus CEO Allan McArtor said his company's collaboration with Aerion has been "extremely beneficial and productive." 

McArtor said, "The further we proceed along the development path with Aerion, the greater our enthusiasm for this program and the deeper our commitment. Under our new agreement, our two companies are working as one to bring Aerion's supersonic AS2 to the business-jet market." In the year they have worked together, Airbus said they have made "significant progress" in the engineering of airframe structures, the AS2's fly-by-wire flight-control system, its integrated fuel system and landing gear. Aerion has taken the lead on systems such as avionics, electrical, environmental control, hydraulics and auxiliary power. Candidate suppliers have been identified and the supplier selection process has begun. A recent quarterly review of the program delivered "excellent" results, said Ken McKenzie, a senior vice president at Airbus. "We see clear and achievable technical solutions to the design of a supersonic jet, and a realistic road map for helping Aerion proceed toward construction and flight," he said. The jet will have a maximum speed of 1.5 Mach and a range of up to 5,300 nm, and will sell for $120 million, the company says.

Fractional operator Flexjet has become Aerion’s first firm fleet customer, with an order for 20 supersonic jets, Flexjet announced Tuesday at the NBAA convention in Las Vegas. The Aerion AS2 business jet, which is expected to enter service in 2023, will save travelers up to three hours of flight time on trans-Atlantic trips compared to subsonic aircraft, Flexjet said, and will save more than six hours on trans-Pacific routes. The AS2 jet is designed to carry up to 12 passengers at speeds up to Mach 1.5.

“We have examined Aerion’s technology and the AS2’s remarkable performance capabilities, and see them as potential game-changers for business travel,” said Flexjet chairman Kenn Ricci. “Aerion and Airbus Group are moving forward impressively with the AS2’s development,” he added. Aerion and Flexjet will work together to design unique luxury interiors for the AS2 for the Flexjet fleet. At the list price of $120 million per jet, the deal would have a value of about $2.4 billion.

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Sandel surprised the NBAA show with a complete new glass panel system for the King Air. AVweb spent some time with Sandel's Gerry Block taking a tour of the new system.

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Elliott Aviation introduced its version of a refurbished Beechjet/Hawker 400 at NBAA 2015.

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Industrial espionage being what it is, I suspect the execs at Pratt & Whitney knew about GE’s blockbuster announcement of a new engine at NBAA Monday before the press did. I was sort of suspecting something because I recently interviewed GE about the H-series engines of the sort Nextant Aerospace is using in the King Air G90XT remanufacture project. But I didn’t expect such a ground shifter so soon.

While this will be a slow-motion train wreck for the PT6, it is nonetheless a seismic shift in the small- to medium-power turboprop market. The reasons are several, but they relate to GE’s deep pockets and massive experience with large commercial transport engines and tactical military engines. GE dominates these markets and now it has shown a willingness to leverage that acquired technology into the turboprop market that Pratt has largely owned.

The PT6 is a little jewel of an engine, but having emerged in 1964, it’s tarnished with age and long overdue for technological upgrades, not the least of which is basic electronic controls, which it still lacks. That this hasn’t happened probably has at least something to do with the fact that P&W Canada has nothing like GE’s technological base, nor did anyone else with an interest in challenging the PT6. So for years, it languished as a nice little profit center for Pratt. But GE saw an opening when it acquired the Czech Republic-based Walter Aircraft Engines in 2008 and it has wasted little time in capitalizing on Walter’s expertise and manufacturing base. GE invested heavily in Walter and improved the original M601 engine into the new H-series, which are both more efficient, more robust and more sophisticated than the PT6 models they compete against. GE hasn’t found a lot of buyers for the H-series engines yet, but I’m sure they have a long-haul business plan to change that.

Meanwhile, GE’s new Advanced Turboprop engine finds a launch customer in Cessna’s new single-engine turboprop. When news of this airplane leaked out, it didn’t make much sense to me. Why put an also-ran into the market with the PC-12 or the TBM? But an engine can make all the difference and the ATP might. It’s projected to be 10 percent more powerful (per unit weight) on 15 percent less fuel, and it will have a more modern build and a longer overhaul with no hot section inspections. While it’s premature to say if that’s a market-shifter itself, it sure looks impressive on paper and is probably enough of an improvement to sell airframes against the competition. And these days, that’s all it takes to make the business case. It will be a while coming. GE won’t put engines into Cessna’s hands until 2017 or 2018, with certification sometime after that, I’m sure. In any case, that’s plenty of time for Pilatus to ring up GE for a little chat. Daher may want the same. Given the engine's claimed form factor, the mod market is likely to ignite, too.

Sandel’s Bold Plan

A second surprise here at NBAA was Sandel’s announcement of a new, next-generation retrofit glass panel for the King Air line. Why a surprise? For one thing, why Sandel? It’s a company that has specialized in small instrumentation such as TAWS and blind AHRS boxes to drive other displays. A major new avionics suite is quite an undertaking and doubly so when you consider that the likes of Garmin, Collins and Honeywell/BendixKing are already competing fiercely for the King Air retrofit business.

Then again, the fact that I would think such a thing, much less write it, shows why I’m not an avionics entrepreneur. From what I can tell, Sandel has come at the glass panel problem from an entirely different perspective than, say, Garmin, applying a much simpler design and operating philosophy and shrinking the guts of the system to the extent that the lot of it can live right behind the panel displays, greatly simplifying installation. And they appear to have done what all of us in the peanut gallery insist, in our penetrating knowledge of manufacturing, should have always been possible: They’ve halved the prices. A G1000 redo for a King Air costs an eye-watering $350,000. Sandel promises a flyaway cost for its Avilon system of $175,000.

It won’t be long before we see if these numbers prove accurate. Sandel is well along with the Avilon and looking at deliveries next summer. But even if the numbers are just close, Sandel ought to find buyers because one thing I’m pretty certain of is this: Buyers are getting tired of an avionics market in which Garmin remains the dominant choice. I hear this all the time and I’m hearing it more often. Even at the turboprop level, aircraft owners are getting fed up with hardware, maintenance and services that cost too much, and not just avionics. Increasingly, the value is just not there.

And that’s why the King Air has become such a hot date lately. There are a lot of those airframes out there, they’re maintainable and sustainable and a new one is north of $5 million with engines—as noted above—that are technologically stale. In a way, Sandel’s Avilon is to the G1000 as GE’s ATP is to the PT6. General aviation is everyone’s favorite backwater, but every once in a while, the tide washes through and flushes the swamp. We might be seeing a little of that now.

Las Vegas Love (Not)

So if we’ve got a solution for aging PT6s and overpriced G1000s, could we please find another place to put this convention other than Las Vegas? I understand the convention center here is one of few large enough to accommodate a show of this size, but in the years I’ve been coming here—about 25—it has gotten steadily worse as a working venue. Today, it was blowing gales and 55 degrees, which did nothing to brighten the mood.

The hotels and restaurants are overpriced, but mainly it’s the traffic. On Sunday, the city thought it wise to have a marathon that closed the strip for most of the day. The cab ride from the airport was an hour and $55. Getting to the static display at Henderson via bus consumes the better part of a day, round trip. I don’t know why it is that people who come to these shows put up with this. I am rapidly getting to the point where I don’t want to. Others have told me the same.

I have no love for International Drive in Orlando, but at least you can negotiate the place without losing half a workday to traffic jams. I say just put the show there permanently and leave Vegas to Wayne Newton. (Yes, he’s still alive.)

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