The aviation sector has been a standout performer for General Electric (NYSE: GE ) in recent years, and the evidence suggests that Fools can expect more to come in the future. Near-term and mid-term indicators look positive, even as Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) , is competing hard with General Electric for new engine orders on the revamped Airbus A320 plane. General Electric's engines remains well placed on Boeing (NYSE: BA ) and Airbus programs, and its services revenues also look set to turn upwards. Moreover, industry trends remain positive, and the the aviation segment looks set to be a strong contributor to profits for years to come.
What aviation means to General Electric
A quick look at General Electric's industrial segment profit in 2013 demonstrates the growing importance of the aviation unit. Interested Fools can read an article focused on the oil and gas segment here.
The aviation segment generated nearly $22 billion in revenue in 2013, with its commercial aerospace-based revenue significantly larger than its military business.
Focusing on the three biggest sub-segments, there are reasons to believe that each one is set for growth.
Four reasons why General Electric's aviation segment can grow
First, its military equipment orders of $421 million were up 44% in the first quarter, with military service orders up 18%, led by strong service parts growth. While these figures attest to the company's strength in helicopter engines, recent commentary from Precision Castparts (NYSE: PCP ) suggests that overall military spares business is set to grow. Fools already know that Precision Castparts reported a good set of earnings recently, and its management outlined that it expected its military spares business to recover in the second half of its fiscal year.
Second, General Electric's commercial spares orders were up 22% in its first quarter, and because spares tend to lead overall service orders, Fools can expect the company's commercial service revenue -- up 18% in the first quarter -- to remain strong throughout the year. Spares tend to lead service orders because demand for them is usually a sign that fleets are being utilized.
Third, General Electric's engines are well positioned on the growth platforms of Boeing and Airbus. Boeing's key objectives this year are to increase orders and ramp up production on its 737 and 787 planes, while expanding sales of its wide-body Boeing 777x aircraft. The good news is that CFM -- General Electric's 50-50 joint venture with Snecma -- supplies all the engines on the Boeing 737 and 777 airplanes, and competes with Rolls-Royce on the Boeing 787.
Fourth, despite growing competition from Pratt & Whitney (United Technologies), the evidence is that there has not been a significant erosion of its competitive positioning. For example, the aviation unit of United Technologies is already part of a consortium, International Aero Engines, which competes with General Electric to supply engines to on the highly popular Airbus A320. There have been some concerns that Pratt & Whitney's new and solely produced geared turbofan engine, the PW1100G, would get a jump on General Electric regarding the revamped A320, called the A320neo. The new plane is scheduled for delivery in 2016, and early indications are that CFM and Pratt & Whitney have comparable win rates on the A320neo. In addition, in an article in Aviation Week, the CEO of CFM, Jean-Paul Ebanga is quoted as arguing: "CFM's share of the A320 conventional engine market orders has now risen to 80% compared to the traditional 50-60%."
It appears that General Electric is holding its own in competition with Pratt & Whitney on the A320neo, and actually increasing its win rate on the A320.
Where next for General Electric's aviation segment?
Ultimately, prospects for the segment will always be dictated by the aviation industry; but the indications from Boeing are that the industry is headed for long-term growth. Moreover, General Electric is well placed to prosper, even as United Technologies steps up competition. The near-term indicators, such as military and commercial spares orders, are positive, and suggest some upside to come in 2014. All told, provided the economy holds up, General Electric investors can expect good growth to come from the segment in future years.
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