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US buyers boost Cirrus sales

The cockpit of a 2015 special edition SR-22T Accelero shows the latest in Cirrus Aircraft technology, including digital display, high-definition graphics and extra-wide viewing angles in the panel. The SR-22Ts are considered the Cadillac of Cirrus planes. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)1 / 5
Cirrus Aircraft’s SR-22 series planes have been the world‘s best-selling, single-engine airplane in its category for 12 years. Pictured is a 2015 special edition SR-22T Accelero. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)2 / 5
Cirrus Aircraft has expanded its production facilities with a building at 4950 Miller Trunk Highway. It will be used for machining, sub-assembly production, equipment testing, and research and development. When it reaches full capacity, 50 people will work there. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 5
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Cirrus Aircraft plane deliveries are up. The company added 300 jobs in the past three years. And the long-awaited production start of its new light jet is nearing.

The company's lean years from the economic recession — which saw shipments of its single-engine piston planes plummet 60 percent and its staff shrink by the hundreds — are over.

The Duluth-based aircraft manufacturer is on a roll.

Its plane shipments — the preferred industry term for unit sales — increased in 2014 for the second year in a row. After bottoming out at 253 planes in 2012, shipments rebounded to 308 in 2014, a 12 percent increase over 2013, according to the latest General Aviation Manufacturers Association shipment report.

Throughout it all, however, Cirrus has remained the worldwide leader in its category of small personal aircraft.

A backlog of orders got Cirrus off to a strong start in 2014. The waiting list stemmed from an uptick in orders in late 2012 and early 2013, prompting Cirrus to boost production from five to six planes a week,

"That's an additional 50 airplanes that we would make in a year," said Todd Simmons, executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer support.

But it wasn't the sale of Cirrus planes to overseas markets or for fleet sales that drove sales last year as it has in recent years.

"The European market was flat; the South American market was down," Simmons said. "It was the U.S. individual buyer where we saw growth. That's the story of 2014."

The return to retail sales was fueled by the improving economy. More Americans not only bought a Cirrus plane, but they bought the Cadillac of Cirrus planes, the turbocharged SR-22T that can go for as much as $900,000 with all the options.

"They were buying fully loaded airplanes," Simmons said. "It was one of the key drivers of business in 2014."

The SR-22/ SR-22T, Cirrus' highest-performing plane, has been the world's best-selling plane in its segment since 2004.

Ready for growth

As it moves forward in 2015, the company is positioned better for growth than it has been in years. Sales of its piston-powered planes have rebounded. Cirrus continues to have a backlog of orders, giving it another good start for the year. It has expanded its production space. And its new Vision SF-50 Jet, with more than 550 orders to fill, is on target to begin production by the end of the year.

"We're working for a consistent growth," said Ben Kowalski, Cirrus' vice president of marketing. "We think it's the right way to grow."

Largely because of the jet program, Cirrus has added several hundred jobs since 2011, boosting its staff to 825, with 650 in Duluth.

And those new technical jobs with the jet program won't go away once the jet is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration later this year, Kowalski said.

"We're a company that continues to innovate," he said. "It's in our DNA to innovate."

Hiring for engineers, designers, technicians and production staff continues. The city of Duluth estimates that more than 150 additional jobs could be coming to Cirrus in the next few years.

Bolstered by the company's upturn, Mayor Don Ness last week saw sky's-the limit possibilities for the city's growing aviation sector that has Cirrus at its center.

"Just as Rochester is a medical center, we want Duluth to be the aviation center in North America," he said during a press conference at Cirrus on Friday."This is Duluth versus Omaha. This is Duluth versus the rest of the world. And Duluth is going to win this competition."

His comments came as he made the case for city and state assistance in building a $10 million production center and leasing it to Cirrus for its jet production. The city is seeking $4 million from the state with the remaining $6 million coming from a tax-increment financing district and lease payments.

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