Don't Count on the Industry to Invent Cheap Flying; It's Not Gonna Happen
I've had this longstanding theory that when people get around airplanes, their brains turn to the consistency of my dear departed mother's much-loved polenta. (That's corn meal mush for those of you deprived of upbringing in an Italian-American household.) And if there's a computer spreadsheet nearby, so much as a shard of ability to think critically evaporates and brain activity devolves to limp-home autonomics, like breathing and pulse.
And despite more than a century of experience, we as an industry just can't seem to learn that the cost of building an airplane is always wildly underestimated, the number of units it will sell is always wildly overestimated and the time required to build it comes to rest somewhere between the two. But airplanes rarely get built faster than estimated, although Cessna's vaunted Citation machinery can claim to have done it. Cessna's polenta is way above the industry average, I guess.
This came to mind when we were covering the much hyped Oshkosh rollout of the Icon amphibious LSA. No less a personage than Vern Raburn-who is lesser, I suppose, having departed Eclipse-took the dais to inform the aviation press that this little beauty won't bring just hundreds into the general aviation fold and not thousands either, but hundreds of thousands. Given the experience of Eclipse, you just wanna scream, are you listening?
I can say, without fear of being wrong, that the Icon will never sell hundreds of thousands. It will not sell tens of thousands, either. And this has nothing to do with the merits of the design or the people running the show or the high-priced designers engaged to dream it up. It has to do with the twin realities that the vast majority of aircraft startups fail because their principles simply can't grasp that making airplanes remains a cottage industry. Airplanes are built with hammers and punches, cars with robots. Small airplane and large volume haven't belonged in the same sentence since 1978.
Where I'm going with this is the persistent notion that somehow, the light aircraft industry is screwing up because it can't build a $50,000 to $60,000 new airplane that everyone can afford to buy and fly. I get out quite a bit and visit the places where airplanes are made and I gotta say, I just don't see where these businesses are monuments to inefficiency. They build stuff one-off by hand because that's what the investment and market volume will support. Building airplanes is a constant struggle between going bankrupt because you invested too much money or going bankrupt because you didn't invest enough.
Take the Legend Cub, for example, now selling north of $110,000, nicely equipped. I love the thing-it's one of my favorite LSAs. Yet I hear people complain that this is too much money for a new airplane and that Legend should somehow knock it down to $60,000. This strikes me as ludicrous. The Legend is a well-built, well-considered airplane that, despite being a J-3 knockoff, is a thoroughly modern airplane. I suspect the factory is doing what every other airplane factory is-- trying to match the investment to the market volume while controlling production costs. I hope they're making a profit, but I doubt if they're printing money. For any airplane maker, the wolf has a permanent lair outside the door.
The only rational way to look at any of this, in my view, is to accept the idea that playing the flying game just isn't going to cheap. Ever. The most spectacular proof of this theory is Eclipse's stunning failure to produce the sub-million dollar jet that was going change the world. With that in mind, don't get steamed at the industry for not delivering cheap airplanes. They can't. They're not going to. Get over it.
The route to affordable flying is to structure the activity so you're insulated from the high-dollar spikes. I don't care if autogas costs $6 a gallon because I ride a motorcycle and a bicycle and don't use much of it. The corollary for airplane use is to get into a club or a multi-member partnership that splits the fixed costs into bite-sized fractions. Or buy something old. I've never understood the sentiment of sole ownership for a dreadfully expensive thing that's used 100 hours a year, if that. For those who want that experience, it's available, it will just cost a lot more. If you've got the income to fund, say, $1,500 to $2,500 a month in airplane expenses, this discussion is academic.
For the rest of us, flying remains accessible and affordable, even if sole ownership isn't. But cheap? Never.