Satellite Insurers on Track for Highly Profitable 2010

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PARIS — The satellite insurance market appears on its way to another highly successful year after several years of profitability, with total 2010 premiums likely to approach $600 million and claims, as of now, at zero, insurance brokerage Willis Inspace said Sept. 3.

At least six more commercial launches remain to be conducted this year, but the recent low-claim trend already has pushed insurance premiums down to levels not seen in a decade, Willis Inspace Chief Executive Roger Bathurst said in a webcast.

For a well-tested satellite design and launch vehicle, premiums have been around 10 percent of the insured sum for coverage of the satellite’s launch and first year in orbit, and below 10 percent in at least one case, according to Willis data.

In 2009, insurance underwriters booked between $800 million and $825 million in premiums and paid out slightly more than $400 million in claims for full or partial satellite losses. So far in 2010, premiums have totaled around $400 million, with no claims paid.

In a Sept. 3 interview, Bathurst said the continued profitability of space insurance underwriters should put further downward pressure on premiums, which he said should drop to 7 percent for a satellite’s launch plus its first year in orbit, matching a level reached in the late 1990s.

Insurance underwriters do not dispute the raw figures but point out that the late-1990s rates proved unsustainable because of satellite and rocket failures that occurred. Rates subsequently rose.

Bathurst said that one reason rates should continue to drop is the technical maturity of the Russian Proton-M and European Ariane 5 ECA rockets, which are responsible for the majority of commercial launches. In addition, he said, satellite designs now appear more trouble-free. The market is willing to assume that in-orbit problems on one satellite are limited to that spacecraft rather than to force higher premiums or stricter terms on all satellites of similar design.

One example: the Star 2 satellite platform built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which has suffered its first major in-orbit anomaly with the April failure of the Galaxy 15 satellite owned by Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington.

Orbital and Intelsat are still trying to figure out what caused the problem, which caused Galaxy 15 to stop responding to ground commands. In the past, this might have caused insurance underwriters to write coverage exclusions into the policies of similar satellites that come up for insurance renewal. Most in-orbit policies are for one year.

Bathurst said Willis went to the market to renew coverage of a similar Orbital Star 2 satellite just weeks after the Galaxy 15 failure and was able to secure a new policy with no exclusions.

Like launch-plus-one-year policies, insurance rates for in-orbit satellites have dropped sharply in the past year. Intelsat has had two in-orbit failures but the company does not insure its fleet beyond the first year in orbit, so there have been no claims for the IS-4 and Galaxy 15 failures.

Several large insurance underwriters have fixed insurance floors, saying they will not go below a certain premium rate, regardless of the record of the satellite platform or launch vehicle.

“This is where the sum insured becomes relevant,” Bathurst said in the webcast. “Can the risk be placed without these minimum-rate markets?” The larger the amount of coverage being sought, the more likely it is that a large swath of the total satellite insurance market will need to be involved in the policy. In some cases, all underwriters will align their rates to those of the underwriter taking the hardest line.

Trying to squeeze more savings from the market, some satellite operators have adopted a practice of asking brokers to compete to find the lowest rate to insure an in-orbit satellite. Bathurst argued that this often works to the disadvantage of the satellite owner because a given underwriter will quote to brokers the same rate for a satellite.