AOPA Summit Field Notes
Although AOPAís Summit show in Fort Worth this week may mark the end of an era, it didnít necessarily feel like that in the exhibit hall on Friday. I canvassed a number of vendors on their impressions of the foot traffic and the replies ranged from just okay to surprisingly good. At the Aircraft Spruce booth, Ryan Deck told me the attendance had been spikey on Thursday and Friday. Sometimes the booth is jammed; 20 minutes later itís empty. Some vendors just donít take their show presence seriously. At three of the scheduled press conferences, we dutifully showed up with notebooks and cameras, but the companies didnít bother to show. No notice, either. What better way to say: we donít care?
Iím not sure what to make of it, but the vendors and attendees I spoke to seem to have mixed reactions when asked if AOPA did the right thing in ending the Expo/Summit idea for now. Several exhibitors I spoke to mentioned their favorite show venueóPalm Springsóas the location to beat for the AOPA crowd and some companies will find a hole in their marketing plans in not having this fall show as a season ender.
In the Rosen Sunvisor Systems booth, Gary Hanson told me the company isnít certain a series of regional shows will work better for them than one annual national show with a traveling venue. More regional events, say up to a half a dozen, could elevate marketing costs without a commensurate increase in sales and exposure if those events are sparsely attended and only run for a day. For vendors, shows are expensive to do and for small companies, they draw staff away from the daily duties of making and shipping products and fielding customer calls. So thereís no free ride here, perhaps even for AOPA, if dropping Summit saves it some money. Two or three years hence, weíll know how all this sorts out, but for now, itís just an unknown.
What is known that itís fashionable among the small government crowd to say the current partial shutdown is a good idea and letís have more of it. Donít try to float that idea among the small companies trying to get PMA and other cert projects through the FAA maze. Two companies I spoke to here in Fort Worth say theyíve got simple certification projects jammed up at regional FAA offices at a time when the agency has already slowed this work to a crawl. Further, dozens if not hundreds of aircraft sales are dead in the water because the registrations canít be processed. This has a cascading effect on owners, sales organizations, banks and insurers. The delays are costing these companies real money and eventually, actual jobs. Thatís something to think about when you find yourself cheering the shutdown because it hasnít effected you personally.
I didnít expect to see any major new products at Summit, but developments in the tablet app market always maintain a lively boil. Weíve seen the usual addition of features to app revisions, but one big development has escaped the notice it deserves. ForeFlight has been given Part 121 approval for use on the flight deck of a major airline, Frontier. Thatís a first and an indication that the relentless progress in tablet-related capability has finally penetrated the dark suits of airline management and the thick heads of the FAA. ForeFlightís Tyson Weihs told me the app, in its off-the-shelf form, will be an approved secondary choice if the airline wants to use it. Thatís just a foot in the armored cockpit door, but its bound to open the market to more competition.
On the subject of competition, itís a wonderful thing, even in a market as stressed and flat as GA happens to be at the moment. Here at Summit, I saw one the cleverer manifestations of competitive drive in a booth called Giant of Quiet. This is sponsored by a major headset manufacturer who I wonít identify because I donít want to spoil the fun and it consists of an open-ended challenge to try all of the major ANR headset brands. Youíre then asked to fill out a form rating these headsets. Interestingly, the company running this has its own products and those of its competitors all lined up for trial. Although customers entering the booth quite naturally slip into the customer-salesman banter, the booth staff carefully steer away from and recommendations about any of the headsets, offering instead a little sticker that says, ďIíll be the judge of that.Ē They clearly want customer opinions unfettered by sales babble.
This experiment does two things: it allows the company to objectively† measure its own products against its competitors and puts competitors on notice that at least one headset maker is confident enough in its products to do this. In a way, itís downright devious, but it may spur some new product intros. See a video on the headset challenge here.
A decade ago, when we went to what was then called Expo, we often flew an airplane to the event. Now? Not so much. I ran into a couple of friends and acquaintances who can no longer justify the expense, presumably because of fuel costs. But maybe not entirely. John Frank of the Cessna Pilotís Association told me heís able to operate his 210 more inexpensively than anyone on the planet, but the real cost is around $300 an hour. He used to use the airplane to travel to his itinerant CPA seminars, but not as much these days. On the other hand, I ran into Mike Busch who did fly his 310 into Fort Worth from California. I asked him if he stopped by San Marcos to take advantage of Redbirdís smoking deal on $1 avgas. He hadnít. Maybe Jerry Gregoire is right; the cost of fuel doesnít loom as large for everyone as we tend to think.
Meanwhile, when I ran into a bleary-eyed Gregoire on the exhibit floor, I had to ask if he was out there on the ramp pumping gas himself. ďOh, hell yes I am,Ē he laughed. Redbirdís buck-a-gallon avgas gambit so far exceeded every expectation that the company couldnít keep up with demand, despite having a dedicated tanker truck shuttling between the refinery and the FBO. Gregoire said Redbird collected all the pilot and aircraft data they hoped acquire in a month within a couple of days. So what does this tell us about the relationship of fuel price to flying? For sure, itís this: if you all but give owners gasoline, theyíll fly more. But we still donít know if everyone will fly more or just a select few will. Perhaps Redbird can answer that question after theyíve crunched the data. One thing is certain: the ramp crew will be looking forward to some sleep and probably physical therapy when the program ends next week, having sold in two weeks more than 30 times the fuel theyíd normally move in a month.
Continental Motors has a booth here in Fort Worth and sold a few engines on Thursday, making the effort worth the expense of coming, Mike Gifford told me. Will they do the regional shows? Gifford wasnít sure, which was the answer I got from other companies. This is not a major show for Continental by any means and Gifford said theyíre showing the flag mainly in support of the American Bonanza Society, whose members are Continental customers. Beechcraft, by the way, was pointedly absent from Fort Worth, which tends to plant ominous thoughts about a company that needs all the good PR it can get. People want to cheer for a company thatís struggling, but you have to show up to hear the encouragement.
Continental continues its bullish run toward diesel. Gifford said theyíve got a clean-sheet design in the works for a high-horsepower Jet A engine, which is just what the market desperately needs. Continental predicts that the OEM market will wake up in 2014 and it wants to be ready with diesel engines for every power segment. No other company can make that claim yet, although Austro is certainly getting closer. As we knock out the lights on the last Summit, I hope Continental is right about the OEM market.