Straight-shooting, plain-talking Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner summed up his aviation forecast in one sentence: “People want to fly.” Those in the full-to-capacity Airport Hilton ballroom signaled their approval of this frank phrase.

The Wichita Aero Club’s third-annual on-air summit also included John O’Leary of Airbus, Ralph Acs of Bombardier Learjet, Mark Paolucci of Cessna and Bill Boisture of Hawker Beechcraft. Business and Commercial Aviation senior editor Fred George was back again as moderator.

“It’s not all gloom and doom in Wichita,” George said as he read highlights of Spirit’s recent financial report. Turner acknowledged the company’s “phenomenal” backlog, unprecedented levels of production and opportunities ahead, saying, “There wasn’t a recession in our part of the business.”

Airbus’s John O’Leary cited three “E’s” affecting commercial aviation: 1) the economy, 2) energy (fuel) costs and 3) environmental regulations. The other panelists spoke of huge drops in utilization in small and medium-sized business jets, buyer uncertainty created by a yo-yo stock market, government fiscal policy around the globe that “has everyone’s confidence low right now,” and the need for stable used-aircraft pricing. Still all agreed that flight hours are inching up and the climate for financing is improving.

Challenges Drive Change

The corporate aircraft manufacturers voiced cautious optimism and the need for ongoing innovation. Partnering with unions to create a positive working atmosphere. Adjusting facilities, supply chains and engineering processes as needed. Redeploying efforts in global markets (which now account for roughly 70 percent of sales). Several acknowledged that customers have money, but are just reluctant to spend it.

“We’ve got to come out of this eventually,” Ralph Acs said. All signaled agreement with Bill Boisture when he said, “I’m looking for ’12 to be a lot like ’11, which was a lot like ’10.”

Meeting World Demand

All the panelists agree that today’s global marketplace – and global competition – is here to stay. Ralph Acs spoke to ferocious and growing competition and the need to prepare ourselves now for the next sure-to-come downturn. “I’d like to do even more,” he said. “As a city, we can do so much here, but I can’t. We don’t have the right skills.” He implored Wichita to not lose our aviation-leader position, and to find a way to guard it. The panelists warned of the gray tsunami that’s swamping Wichita’s aviation community and the strong need for critical workforce skills and replacement workers.

To those of us at Greteman Group, that would seem to underscore the need to embrace, protect and build upon our Air Capital heritage.