PARIS — Insuring a $200 million telecommunications satellite for its launch and first year in orbit now costs less than $30 million, on average — at least $10 million below what it would have cost two years ago, according to insurance brokers and underwriters.
During the same period, annual in-orbit insurance rates for the same satellite have dropped to about 2.1 percent of the insured value, compared to 2.5 percent before.
Despite these declines, and the possibility that further decreases are on the way, several of the world’s largest satellite-fleet operators have reduced their coverage, with some for going in-orbit insurance altogether.
Roger Bathurst, chief executive of International Space Brokers, said satellite-fleet operators that have left the market will be tough to lure back, no matter how low the rates are. He urged underwriters to continue to reduce premiums to hold on to those satellite operators that are still insurance customers.
“Once they have gotten a taste of the extra cash on their books, it’s tough to get them back into the market. My message to insurers: Don’t stop now, you’re only part of the way there,” Bathurst said Sept. 7 during the World Summit for Satellite Financing here.
Underwriters and brokers often disagree about the state of the industry and the debate here proved no exception.
Bathurst said space insurance underwriters have made $2 billion in profit in the last five years.
Thierry Justice, head of broker Marsh S.A.’s aviation and space department, said the swings in the market from high profit to heavy losses and back show that underwriters have made miniscule profit — just $10 million a year — for the decade ending in 2001.
If you select just the period from 1990 through 2005, the insurers’ performance improves to an average net profit of $90 million per year.
Justice said insurance rates could continue to drop, or insurers could become more inventive about the types of coverage they offer to maintain today’s rates. “In both cases it will be to our clients’ benefit,” Justice said.
Christopher T.W. Kunstadter, vice president for underwriter XL Insurance of New York, agreed with the brokers that insurers have had five profitable years in a row.
“That’s wonderful,” Kunstadter said. “But this comes after several very unprofitable years. In 1998, we paid out $2 in claims for every $1 we took in from premiums. We’ve come off a nice profitable string, but underwriters between 1998 and 2006 have made a 10 percent annual return on invested capital — not something that is going to excite people.”
The responsibility for losses between rocket builders and satellite manufacturers reversed starting in the late 1990s. Previously, most claims were filed due to launch failures. But more recently satellite failures in orbit have accounted for two-thirds of the claim payments made .
“We’ve seen rates decrease,” Kunstadter said. “Are these reductions sufficient? We don’t know. We’ll know when [launch or in-orbit] failures happen, and they inevitably will.”
Satellite operators’ habits also have changed in the past decade with respect to their oversight of manufacturers. Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat‘s senior director for space systems acquisition, said a decade ago Intelsat used to send dozens of its own people to spend months on its satellite manufacturer’s premises to look over contractors’ shoulders.
PanAmSat, a fleet operator recently purchased by Intelsat, used to station no one full-time on its manufacturers’ premises.
But in the past couple of years, Intelsat has reduced its on-site oversight teams to between three and 10 people, while PanAmSat — which has suffered more in-orbit failures than any other major operator in the past decade — has increased its oversight to the same number.
“We reduced our on-site residents because the processes we helped establish among satellite manufacturers have been integrated by them,” Froeliger said.