By Paul Bertorelli | November 16, 2015
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.)
You can find the online article on AvWeb at: http://www.avweb.com/blogs/insider/NBAA-Surprises-A-Major-New-Engine-and-a-Glass-Panel-225203-1.html