The irony of an apparent pickup in business aircraft flight activity is that, for the moment, pilots are too busy flying to have time to train. “Business aviation flying activity is up the last six months, the first sustained upswing we’ve seen since 2008,” comments Rob Lewis, CAE’s lead for the global business aviation and civil helicopter training segment. However, more flying means that the training side of the market is lagging somewhat.
Inevitably there is going to have to be a ‘catch-up’ period on the training front. Lewis predicts the company’s simulators will soon be “jam-packed.” At least part of the reason for the build-up of postponed training, he points out, is the difficulty that operators have in finding replacement pilots in order to give their primary crews time to train. “It’s hard to find replacement pilots and it’s even harder to find instructors,” he notes.
Flightsafety International’s Steve Phillips, VP Communications, says that the bizav training market leader has seen a strong increase in demand for training among operators of large, current-production business jets. The bigger jet segments have been holding up particularly well through what has been a soft market for some time and should do even better as activity picks up.
The confidence expressed by training companies in the resilience of the top of the business aviation pyramid is supported by ARGUS TRAQPak data for North America, which shows all large cabin segments posting a double-digit gain year-over-year, including a 15.9% spike in December. WINGX Advance shows a utilisation cycle growth in 2013 of more than 17% in North America and nearly 15% in Europe for ultra long range jets. Results for the rest of the business aviation fleet are more or less stagnant with slight increases in some categories in North America and varying single-digit declines in Europe.
“There is certainly some continued softness in the market,” CAE’s Nick Leontidis admits. Leontidis is Group President of the Montreal, Canada training company’s civil aviation businesses. “The large-cabin market category is pretty robust. We continue to invest in footprint, particularly for new platforms.”
“The business aviation market needs training providers such as ourselves and FlightSafety. Operators do not buy simulators, so there is no internal solution,” notes Leontidis.
Both FlightSafety and challenger CAE continue to deploy new business aircraft simulators, though at a slower pace than a few years ago, reflective of the current reality of new aircraft deliveries.
In the past year, CAE has added Gulfstream G450/550 training at China Eastern Airline’s training centre in Shanghai, in February at their flagship CAE SimuFlite megaplex at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport in Texas in the US, and with another 450/550 due to be delivered this spring to the UK at their Burgess Hill facility south of Gatwick airport. They have also announced the addition of a fourth Dassault Falcon 7X simulator for 2015 at an undisclosed location; a second Bombardier Global 5000/6000 with Vision flight deck, headed for CAE’s joint venture training centre with Emirates in Dubai (the first 5000/6000 Vision device is now in Amsterdam); and another Challenger 605 simulator for 2015 deployment.
CAE had been focusing largely on its international training footprint in recent years, especially since the aftermath of 9-11 made it much more difficult for non-American pilots to gain timely entry into the US for flight training. In the face of these obstacles, some overseas clients have vowed that they will never again send pilots to train in the US unless it is the only option for their aircraft type. In addition to the UK, the Netherlands, the UAE, and Asia, CAE also has training capabilities in Brazil in partnership with Embraer on the Phenom 100 and 300 very light jets.
Growth in Latin American training is “double digit, year over year”, according to Lewis. However, he cautions that the training increase CAE is seeing does not necessarily mean that the Latin American market is surging. “I can’t tell you absolutely that the market is growing. Maybe part of it is us; we have gotten more organised, and we’re going out and talking with the customer, and that is generating strong sales,” he comments.
Sources tell us that CAE is also expanding in Dallas with a second facility. (The flagship centre is filled to capacity with 36 full-flight simulators, 29 owned by CAE, the other seven by Bombardier in the south wing.) One of the training programmes which may land at CAE’s new Dallas East annex in a former Delta Airlines warehouse is a Learjet 40/45 sim that had originally been positioned in Toluca, Mexico, where it generated insufficient customer activity. A King Air 350, which apparently suffered a similar fate in Sydney, Australia, is also being repositioned to Texas. The second facility would increase CAE’s capacity to 44 total simulators in Texas, which is ostensibly the flight simulator capital of the universe when combining CAE, FlightSafety, SimCom, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and other operators.
FlightSafety has been on its own Dallas expansion binge. It recently added four simulator bays near its main centre on the southeast side of the airport perimeter after a previous 100,000-square-foot expansion. FlightSafety now has a total of 28 sim bays at DFW.
A Pilatus PC-24 jet simulator is destined for one of the two currently vacant bays at FlightSafety Dallas. Last year, they announced a master agreement to provide factory-authorised training for the Swiss aircraft manufacturer. FlightSafety currently offers training for the Pilatus PC-12NG in Texas and plans training for the Pilatus PC-12-47 (Series 10) aircraft in mid-2014.
FlightSafety’s third Gulfstream G650 full flight simulator will be installed in Long Beach, California, in Q3 2014. Other new capabilities recently announced include a Bombardier Challenger 350 and 605 in Columbus, Ohio later this year; Cessna Citation CJ2+ for San Antonio, Texas; a Cessna Caravan with Garmin G600 avionics suite to be positioned in Wichita, Kansas; and a combination King Air 350/B200 with Garmin G1000 suite, also for Wichita, by the end of 2014. FllightSafety broke ground on an expansion of their Teterboro, New Jersey, learning centre, which will increase to eight simulator bays, as well as a pool for flight crew emergency training.
The third major player in business aviation training, SimCom, has a 10-simulator, 30,000-square-foot facility northeast of DFW airport in Grapevine, Texas, an expansion of its 2011 acquisition of PrestoSIM. Orlando, Florida-based SimCom has traditionally focused on owner-operator and light corporate aircraft types, including piston and turboprop-powered models. It is a factory-authorised training provider for the Pilatus PC-12, Socata TBM, Piper Meridian, Matrix, Seneca and Saratoga, Mitsubishi MU-2, and the once-orphaned Eclipse 500 VLJ.
Over the years, it has also purchased what SimCom calls ‘legacy’ simulators from CAE and FlightSafety. Three years ago, for example, it acquired 14 FlightSafety devices, among them trainers for the Beechcraft Baron, Cessna 210, King Air 90 and 200, Piper Navajo, Saab 2000 and Twin Commander. In recent years it has also increased its participation in the light and mid-size jet market which now includes a fleet of 16 full-flight simulators.
Overall, Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffet)-owned FlightSafety, which first opened its doors in 1951, continues to outpace the pack with 168 fixed-wing full-flight simulators at 20 learning centres. CAE (founded circa 1984 when the Singer company launched SimuFlite) offers bizav training on more than 80 different aircraft platforms with over 60 full-flight simulators in its eight locations. SimCom has come on strongly in recent years and now boasts a fleet of nearly 60 simulators in Orlando, Dallas, and Arizona (Glendale and Scottsdale). Launched in 1989, SimCom was acquired 15 years ago by JW Childs Associates, a Boston, Massachusetts investment firm.
Over the past couple of years, the most talked-about bizav training market has been China, which perpetually seems on the verge of exponential growth based on the rising number of high-net-worth businessmen. FlightSafety was first to market in Asia with a G450/550 simulator housed in the Cathay Pacific Airlines complex on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. “We are pleased with the amount of training we provide for Gulfstream aircraft at our Hong Kong Learning Centre,” says FlightSafety’s Phillips.
CAE’s Shanghai sim received Level D certification from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in early 2013. The device is in leased space at the Shanghai Eastern Flight Training Centre (SEFTC) in the Shanghai Pudong Waigaoqiao free trade zone.
With about 100 G450/550 aircraft in the region, the two flight simulators are about as many as the market can handle for now, based on a rough ratio of 40-50 aircraft to fully support one sim. The 60 or so Bombardier Global aircraft might justify a simulator. CAE had announced at the ABACE 2012 conference its intent to deploy Bombardier Global and Dassault Falcon 7X training in Asia, but market conditions have not yet warranted the expense.
Despite ambitious growth projections for the next decade or two, the business aircraft fleet base in China and greater Asia is still relatively small. And lack of bizav infrastructure, together with highly restricted airspace, has led to low utilisation of the current fleet – on the order of 100 hours per year for many aircraft. “Every month, it seems, there are minor easings of restrictions,” observes CAE’s Lewis, “but I don’t see gearing up until it’s easier to get around.”
If and when bizav growth spurts in China, Lewis says CAE “has crossed that bridge” of in-country CAAC certification. “Mainland China does use a different process. Training materials are provided in both English and Mandarin Chinese. And instructors must be current pilots with at least 100 hours in type. We’ve navigated all these unique hurdles, so we have the infrastructure in place.”
But about those nouveau riche Chinese who are potential buyers of business aircraft – wealth research firm Hurun reports that one-third of China’s super rich have already left the country and fully 64% of millionaires have either emigrated or plan to emigrate, taking their fortunes with them. Favourite destination: the United States. So perhaps America is the right target for FlightSafety-CAE-SimCom expansion after all. l
Rick Adams is Chief Perspectives Officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy based in the south of France. He has been writing about technology and training for 30 years.