Analyst Richard Aboulafia kicked off his recent presentation to the Wichita Aero Club with a look back at the factors contributing to aviation’s worst downturn since World War II. And, yes, Wichita was the epicenter of that pain. “If you felt like the sky was falling,” he said, “It really was.”

While Aboulafia was telling a packed room at the Airport Hilton much that they already knew, it was great to have someone with his deep knowledge provide insights and context. And hope for better days.

Why So Much Pain in the Air Capital?

The nosedive in the bottom half of the bifurcated business jet category (aircraft selling less than $25 million) caught even Aboulafia by surprise. That bottom half, he says, is now the bottom one-third.

Some of the reasons for that drop include:

• Greater third-party reliance for financing

• Greater sensitivity to economic cycles

• More discretionary users of aircraft

• Greater fractional exposure

• Less exposure to emerging markets that have stayed intact (think the Mideast and Asia)

• Greater exposure to economic conditions in North America

• Less exposure to government demand, especially head-of-state aircraft

New Global Competition

Another unpleasant convergence of events for Wichita: Embraer’s new competitiveness. Fortunately for Wichita’s general-aviation OEMs, Embraer seems to be shifting its focus to commercial aircraft for future growth.

During the lively Q&A, Aboulafia fielded a question about the Chinese government’s entry into general aviation manufacturing and design, saying, “If you really like this strategy, you should buy your car from the department of motor vehicles.” He went on, to the audience’s delight, to call it the worse plane ever built.

The New Normal

Corporate profits, a big driver of demand, are coming back where they need to be, but pricing is still suppressed, partially because of continued fire sales spurred by the inventory of used business aircraft still hovering around 13.5 percent. Some of these may be technologically irrelevant or too fuel-thirsty, so they won’t go back into service, Aboulafia said, but he conceded that “13 percent may be the new normal.”

A Supply and Demand Thing

Aboulafia forecast a turnaround in 2012 with a six-year, 10 percent compounded annual growth rate. While that’s down from 17.4 percent in earlier years, it’s a conservative rate Aboulafia feels comfortable with.

Optimism rose with statements such as – “This is an industry that snaps back fast.” and “Corporate profit numbers look really good.” – but he quickly tempered spirits with other more sober observations: “Wichita could lose in total market share. We could be looking at a permanently altered industry.”

Following his assessment of the large jetliner markets – Boeing and Airbus – Aboulafia pulled the word “stagflation” into play: stagnant demand while other costs remain high. He talked about all the complexities facing the manufacturers, noting, “God knows, it’s a really confusing situation.” Even defense, he said, is “not the same fantastic market we’ve enjoyed in past years.”

The one part of the market that performed strongly throughout the downturn: rotorcraft. “Firing on a single turbine, but it’s a big one.”

Each manufacturer faces challenges – from parent-company funding to new-product execution. But Aboulafia emphasized, “The business jet market is poised for recovery.”

Getting Back to Altitude

The importance of aviation to the world economy from 2001-2020 will be roughly $130 billion, Aboulafia said, with long-term growth and the ability to weather what comes – including tragedys such as Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear meltdowns. Those sorts of supply disruptions create more of a psychological impact that produces uncertainty, he said, and the risk of a let’s-hold-off-buying mentality.

“The only place on the entire globe that wasn’t sheltered unfortunately during this downturn was Wichita.”

Wichita stands as the most diverse of the world’s five major aviation clusters (which also include Dallas-Fort Worth, Montreal, Puget Sound-Seattle and Toulouse, France). It also has the highest dependence on business aviation. As Wichita – and Kansas – thinks about ways to support our aviation OEMs and suppliers we’d be wise to keep in mind Aboulafia’s often-repeated statement, “Clusters can’t be created. They can only be destroyed.”