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Aerospace: Preparing for Takeoff Against Uncertain Economic Climate

The global recession has taken a severe toll on the aerospace industry, and most sectors are still struggling to recover from the hit. Cautious optimism is the watchword for the coming year.

June/July 09
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner
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Space and Civilian Aircraft
In the space sector, sales in 2008 increased 4.2 percent to $33.4 billion - an increase that consisted mainly of production and services, as opposed to research and development.

New opportunities could come from NASA's plan to begin retiring its existing space shuttles, a part of its 2010 budget that will leave the United States without its own spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). To fill the gap, NASA is contracting with private companies to develop spacecraft capable of reaching the ISS. One of the leading projects in this category is a $1.6 billion contract with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which will also develop crafts to take 12 flights of cargo to the ISS.

The SpaceX project is intended to fill the gap until a new space shuttle is ready in approximately seven years. Without it, the only other option for the United States to get people and cargo to the ISS will be to hitch rides with the Russians. The new craft, the Orion, is a Lockheed Martin project and is designed to be far more advanced than its predecessors; industry and government officials hope it will be able to not only go back to the moon, but eventually to Mars.

In the civil aircraft sector, 2008 sales were $80.6 billion, a tiny increase of $400 million, with transport aircraft accounting for the largest portion of the sales. This was one of the sectors most affected by the Boeing work stoppage, but an increase in the shipment of helicopters and general aviation aircraft helped to produce and overall positive trend.

The future of this trend is jeopardized, however, by the difficult worldwide business environment. "One of the big things is the dropoff in freight," says Chadwick. "That's just really dropped off the ledge. All the commercial freighters have just plummeted, and once again, hopefully since it's dropped so quickly, we're close to bottom. But who knows? Obviously, discretionary income is down, so vacation travel is down, and who knows what's going to happen with business travel?"

Overall Trends
General aviation saw a 6.1 percent falloff in the shipments of U.S.-manufactured planes in 2008, although billings rose 13.4 percent from $21.91 billion to $24.84 billion. Within the category, pistons were down 17.6 percent (falling from 2,174 shipments to 1,791), while turboprops were up 14.8 percent (from 290 to 333) and business jets were up 17.5 percent (from 815 to 955).

The aerospace industry's strong fundamentals, particularly in the defense sector, means it maintains the ability to have a major economic impact on the communities where the industry sites projects. In Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a major expansion by global aircraft services supplier DRS Technical Services, which services the U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft, will create 100 new jobs over the next two years.

DRS Technologies, headquartered in New Jersey, is a supplier of integrated products, services and support to military forces, intelligence agencies and prime contractors worldwide. According to Al Dietrich, president of the company's C3 and Aviation Group, "Our group possesses some of the most advanced aviation services capabilities in the marketplace today, and with strong state and local government partnerships, we are well positioned to pursue opportunities for further growth in our North Carolina aviation facilities."

"The sea change occurred three years ago when the Coast Guard signed a very innovative contract with the company that was then called Tansco, which has since been acquired by DRS," says Wayne Harris, director of the Albemarle Economic Development Commission. "It allowed the Coast Guard to maintain complete control over its protocols for its aircraft fleet, but subcontract the actual work to an outside contractor that would bring in $12 million in capital investment."

Harris believes the DRS project is part of a trend that will see smaller manufacturers play an increasingly important role in the industry: "What happens after a while is that big companies no longer find it profitable to manufacture parts that are needed to keep those planes flying, so the baton gets passed to smaller manufacturers who begin to develop those parts." DRS has spent roughly $12 million on each of the two hangars associated with the project.

If the DRS project signals a shift to smaller manufacturers in some aspects of the aerospace industry, the larger picture still relies on a strong financial structure and solid backing. Chadwick believes a steady number of orders gives the aerospace the best chance of weathering the downturn and emerging in a strong position. "One of the things that was going sky-high was the number of orders," he says. "And even though that dropped off, we're still in a good position because with the trend we've seen in past years, we're way above where we were. So it got kind of crazy for awhile, but now, even if it comes down, we're OK."

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