Regulation as a Field Leveler
In my video blog earlier this week, I touched on the idea that, in Europe at least, regulation doesn't seem to put much of a throttle on innovation and new product introduction. In merely making the observation, I wasn't implying that more regulation is better than less because I am, at heart, an anarchist. If I were King, Part 23 would fit on an index card if it existed at all. It's good that the adults push back against this kind of thinking so we arrive at a sane median.
But even within the manufacturing community, I encounter some odd attitudes toward regulation. At a press event recently, I casually asked the CEO of an LSA manufacturer what he thought would increase sales. "Enforce the rules," he said without hesitation. That caught me by surprise, but further probing revealed that he thought self-compliance in LSA is lax at best and he eventually got around to a favorite punching bag: CubCrafters and specifically the CarbonCubSS. LSA builders frequently bend my ear on this because they want me to accept that the CarbonCubSS isn't technically an LSA or, if it is, it's not built in the true spirit of LSAs, whatever that is.
The problem is that the CarbonCub has a juiced up 180-HP engine, takes off in less than its own length and climbs like a bottle rocket. Coincidentally, this is just the sort of thing people want to buy because the CarbonCub is also the best selling LSA behind the Skycatcher. CubCrafters has always occupied the top floor of the price strata, it understands that market and that's where the CarbonCub lives, with invoice prices in the $170,000 range. The ASTM standard doesn't limit engine horsepower although it does limit speed to 120 knots indicated. For the slicker LSAs, even some with 100-HP Rotax engines, this is the most widely ignored limitation in aviation. Referring to my anarchist guidebook, I frankly, don't care. Adherence to that rule is up to the pilot…or not. To me, it's irrational to dirty up the airframe to meet what is, in the end, an arbitrary standard. By my lights, the CarbonCubSS is an LSA and a fun one at that.
That's not to say there isn't a little cheatin' going on among LSA makers. Some of them take a…ummm, liberal view of what positive stability means and a check of the empty weight might reveal some creative interpretation of scale reading. If it's rampant—which I don't think it is—I doubt if it threatens the industry.
But not everyone agrees with my sanguine view. A couple of years ago, we got wind of a proposal circulating in the FAA to turn the certification of all aircraft up to 6000 pounds over to the ASTM process. This could save manufacturers hundreds of thousands in cert costs, so I shopped the idea among a few airframe makers, who, surprisingly, thought it a bad idea. Why? Because for all its frustration, the FAA's enforcement of FAR Part 23 provides kind of a filter and a level playing field. Without it, argue some, the industry could run amuck, post-crash lawsuits would become the regulatory mechanism and the industry would be lawyered out of existence. Alan Klapmeier told me he thinks there's enough non-compliance in LSA manufacturing to make him believe the same thing could happen if self-certification approval is extended.
He has a point. On the other hand, I sometimes think the relationship manufacturers develop with the FAA is a sort of institutional Stockholm Syndrome. They get a perverse comfort in jumping through what are sometimes unreasonable certification hoops because they know a competitor is suffering just as much. It gives an odd twist to competition, but it's what the industry has come to expect. And as we all know, no one wants surprises.