VERO BEACH — Piper Aircraft is a little busier than normal this holiday season, but mostly to catch up for five days of production lost to Hurricane Matthew, their spokeswoman said.
The Vero Beach-based manufacturer of trainers and other small aircraft usually gives its employees the entire Thanksgiving week off, but had its production line humming Monday through Wednesday last week.
“We have committed to deliver a number of aircraft before the end of the year,” said Piper spokeswoman Jacqueline Carlon.
The remainder of the production time lost to the hurricane will be made up with employees working overtime and alternate Saturdays, Carlon said.
Except for a handful of flight line and delivery staff who will be working, Piper will give the rest of its roughly 750 employees the week off from Christmas through New Year’s.
The current staff level of Piper, Indian River County’s largest private employer with an average wage about 20 percent higher than the county average, is down from the 800 full-time employees of February 2015, but up about 12 percent since a reduction of 115 people six months later.
Among the aircraft getting their finishing touches are the last few of the 21 new, top-of-the-line M600 turboprops that must be out on the flight line, ready to be picked up by their buyers.
The 89-year-old company, which has been building aircraft since 1961 at its plant at the Vero Beach Regional Airport, received certification for the M600 from the Federal Aviation Administration in June, and began delivering them in mid-July.
The M600 carries a price tag of about $2.8 million “and has a greater profit margin than our other aircraft,” Carlon said. Piper executives are counting on M600 sales to reverse a decline that has affected most aircraft manufacturers for the past several years.
Aircraft sales in Brazil have “almost dried up, and Europe is pretty soft, though sales in North America are relatively healthy, especially in trainers,” Carlon said, noting that Piper has sold one airplane in Brazil this year, compared to an annual average of 15 a decade ago.
For the first nine months of this year, overall fixed-wing aircraft sales are down 3.5 percent from the same period of 2015, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reported, with total billings down 14.4 percent. Turboprops were the only planes in which sales increased, but only by 1.3 percent.
Piper’s billings for the first nine months are off 3.4 percent from the same period of 2015. Boosted by the first deliveries of M600s, however, the $41.4 million in billings for the third quarter was Piper’s best non-fourth quarter since $47.1 million in the second quarter of 2014.
The fourth quarter is traditionally the industry’s strongest. Last year, 34 percent of all aircraft billings, and 32 percent of Piper’s, were in the fourth quarter.
“We see sales for next year looking to be about the same or marginally higher than this year,” Carlon said.
Piper will get a lift in 2017 from a new, eight-year contract to supply about 100 planes — mostly Archers along with some Seminoles, each of which seats four — to the University of North Dakota, which operates one of the world’s largest university-based flight-training programs.
This contract is considered a coup for Piper, Carlon said, because the University of North Dakota had been buying planes from Kansas-based Cessna, which had more than $2 billion in billings last year compared with Piper’s $118.4 million.