What brought you to Piaggio?” “It’s a long story!” Renato Vaghi, CEO, laughs. He’s spent most of his 30-year career in aviation and the majority of that in the Italian aerospace industry. “For most of the time I was with the former Alenia Aeronautica and Aermacchi, which eventually merged and today have been absorbed into Leonardo. I was with them between the early 1990s and 2014, with the exception of a couple of years where I worked outside the aerospace sector. I came back to an offer I couldn’t resist at Aermacchi, in 1998, and left for Piaggio in 2014.
“Initially working as Head of Programmes, I looked after development of the Hammerhead UAV, before taking responsibility for aircraft production in 2015. Early in 2016 I was appointed Chief Operating Officer and in August 2016 I became CEO. I’m also chairman of Piaggio America.”
Today, Piaggio’s primary aircraft product is the twin-turboprop Avanti EVO. The P.180 Avanti first appeared in the early 1990s, the result of an initial collaboration between the Italian company and Gates Learjet, although the latter withdrew from the programme in the second half of the 1990s. Your correspondent first met an Avanti at an ILA airshow in Berlin, sometime in the mid-1990s; it was instantly distinctive for its unique configuration and futuristic design. EBACE attendees glancing at this article during the show might take the opportunity to visit the Avanti EVO – or simply ‘the EVO’ – that Piaggio has in the static display. It’s instantly distinctive for its unique configuration and futuristic design…
Vaghi says: “Whenever we go to trade shows we have people asking if the aircraft’s already in production! Its appearance is a selling point, it looks so ‘Italian’, but its looks are also an enabler to its fantastic performance.” There’s no doubting the truth in Vaghi’s words, but there’s also no denying that the aircraft hasn’t been the hottest seller, creating something of a contradiction for Piaggio’s marketing people.
“One of my primary focuses as CEO over the past 18 months or so has been to ensure the market has an awareness of the P.180. Although we’ve sold around 250 aircraft and accumulated about one million flying hours, I think market awareness is insufficient. Do I think there’s space for more P.180s? Yes, of course.”
Could it be then, that the Avanti’s turboprop powerplant deceives the market into pigeon-holing it with other propeller-driven aircraft of similar capacity, in particular the King Air and PC-12? “It has propellers, but I wouldn’t compare it with the King Air 350 or PC‑12, which are very respectable products. The King Air has sold enormous volumes in the past and continues to sell well today, while the PC-12 is in a slightly different category… You only have to get into an Avanti to tell that it’s really in another category again. Its performance means it must be compared to a light jet, it’s actually closer to a Phenom 300 than a King Air or PC-12.
“There are various reasons why the company hasn’t done as well in sales in the past as it should, but I’m certain we’ll sell more P.180s. Over the past two years, our shareholders have given us great support as we created our new industrial plan, which has the Avanti as one of its pillars. We inaugurated a new production facility in Villanova three years ago and the only way to make that work is for us to sell and build a lot of aeroplanes. That’s our strategy.
“It’s about creating market awareness, making sure the customer appreciates the value in the P.180. I appreciate that it can be seen as a niche product within business aviation, but as oil prices increase, we see a significant market opportunity. People only need to fly in an Avanti once to realise what it’s about. Once you’ve taken off you don’t realise it’s a turboprop. It feels and flies like a jet, not only the speed, but the comfort and low noise levels. You can whisper, and your neighbour will hear, you don’t feel vibration and the aircraft is smooth in turbulence.”
On the face of it, asking the CEO of the company that builds it how the aircraft flies, is never going to result in a negative response, but Vaghi reinforces his claims with a customer story. “We recently gave some potential customers a flight demonstration. They’d arrived on a commercial flight in a thunderstorm and were scheduled to fly on the EVO soon after. They were sceptical about the trip – they’d just had a frightful, turbulent landing in a large aircraft and when they got into the EVO it was still very cloudy and turbulent.
“I spoke to them after the flight and they were totally ecstatic about the aircraft’s performance. They said it had behaved far better than the airliner. It was a real testament to the aircraft’s flying qualities.” But does it mean they’ll buy one? “Hopefully…”
Hailed on Piaggio’s website as ‘The latest chapter in the story of an aviation legend…’, The Avanti EVO introduced improved range, speed and climb performance with minimal effect on running costs, along with new cabin standards and other enhancements. The result was a significantly better aircraft, but first customer delivery was in spring 2015 – is Piaggio considering the next chapter yet?
“We’re seeing more and more appreciation from customers using the EVO, which adds strengths compared to the Avanti II. In particular, its improvement in ground operation is valued very highly by pilots and operators and remedies an aspect of the original aircraft considered a weak point. Climb rate is improved through the addition of winglets, a new undercarriage lowers maintenance costs and, most importantly, new propellers and exhausts lower the aircraft’s noise signature and get it back into airports that banned the Avanti II.
“But we work constantly to improve the product and we have several projects under way, working to enhance performance through reducing empty weight and optimising the flight envelope in extreme conditions, including cold weather, which is something we’re prioritising because of customer requests.
“We should have a service bulletin for ADS-B anytime now, but we don’t have a timeline for a new avionics version yet. We feel it’s an important step in an aircraft’s life and right now we’ve given priority to customer suggestions, recognising that once we have new avionics we’ll be going down the path of the King Air, which recently introduced Rockwell Collins Fusion avionics – we have the same supplier. It’s not a limiting factor on the EVO today; and although we’re progressively improving it and planning the next big step, I’m not in a position to release a timeline.”
Considering Renato Vaghi’s enthusiasm for the Avanti and his determination to see its unique performance residing with many more customers, the aircraft ought to have a bright future, potentially in an even more advanced form. But after almost three decades, Piaggio still has to convince some elements of the market that within the Avanti’s dramatic exterior is a business aircraft of unusual, even unexpected capability.
As he looks to the challenge, Vaghi says: “I’ve been particularly encouraged by a couple of new factors. First is the significant opening of new markets, specifically in the Far East, and second is new business models emerging in the West. I think they’ll drive an emerging need for increasingly efficient aircraft. I believe we’re seeing the start of something where business aviation is no longer restricted to an elite, it’s being brought to a larger public.
“It means operating costs per flight hour, per passenger need to be pushed down significantly compared to what we have today. Look at it from this perspective and the need for performance, and I think Piaggio has an advantage. We just need to make our product lighter and even more efficient, perhaps even with an improved powerplant – and that’s a big platform change that we’d need to think very carefully about – to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of the emerging market.”