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Don't Count on the Industry to Invent Cheap Flying; It's Not Gonna Happen

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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.

Comments (9)

Oh how I love the doses of reality from Mr. Bertorelli. Its nice to see someone embrace logic in these great United States.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | August 7, 2008 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Great article- but your numbers are too low.

It depends what you expect, and need, and why you fly. You can fly cheaply (relatively) if you only need VFR and don't expect modern upgrades. 60s-vintage aircraft are relative bargains.

But if you want to go anywhere at more than 100mph, it becomes much, much more expensive even if you're renting. $1500-$2500 is nowhere near enough. As far as I can tell, that barely covers owning and flying a 30-year-old Skyhawk ($1500) or C182 ($2500). And for used but recent planes, those amounts are just to pay the loan.

But renting isn't any better, except that you don't need to pay for the plane in months that you choose not to fly. With fuel surcharges and the occasional flight with an instructor, those amounts don't even cover 10 hours per month of rental on old Cessnas (although I do fly in one of the more expensive parts of the country).

Flying is not cheap, and unless you have a business deduction to help out, isn't ever going to be.

Posted by: jack test | August 7, 2008 1:04 PM    Report this comment

Flying costs money. How high do you want to go today?

Posted by: Michael Muetzel | August 11, 2008 5:27 PM    Report this comment

Hear, hear. The only way cars are cheap is because car companies sell MILLIONS of them. Sure, I'd like an inexpensive airplane. But the reality is there is not enough volume to bring this about.

Cessna sold a little over 20,000 150s and 152s over a 25-year span. Sounds like a lot? GM sells more Corvettes every year! Add that's a 'low-production' model.

When selling such low volumes, there's simply no way airplanes will ever be cheap.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | August 12, 2008 11:48 PM    Report this comment

I agree. One quick way to confirm that we aren't going to see a $60,000 factory-built with a 150-200 hp engine (or anything even close) is to compare to what it costs to build a plane yourself. Even with labor, certification and management costs at zero, it would be difficult to impossible to achieve that price with a new engine, new instruments and new avionics. (heck, just those 3 categories could be 60K) When building yourself you can use used items, but a new airplane will of course have new of all the above. Metal is probably one of the cheaper meadiums, especially with labor included, and maybe even otherwise. How many RVs with new (engine, instruments, avionics) get completed for 60K or less? The only ones I see that meet this price contain a lot of used components. (not a bad idea, but not available as an option for a new airplane). So look for a homebuilt like you want, double or triple the price to include an engine and other stuff, then double that (or triple it) to include labor and certification, dealer, etc. costs. That's the minimum price of a new airplane- but only if a LOT are made. And no one builds a LOT. Wish it were different. Tom

Posted by: Tom Lubben | August 15, 2008 12:52 PM    Report this comment

No, it won't ever be as cheap as buying a ten year old car for basic transport, but you can achieve something close. You'll just have to work to do it. I started a partnership on a 1983 Mooney M20J. Paid 35K for a quarter share. It took two yars to sell the last two shares. But it's got a Garmin 530 with WAAS coupled to a nice autopilot. And enough gauges to impress most. Cost 100/hr to fly. I've taken it to the Bahamas from FL where I'm based and the roundtrip cost was 100/seat. Key West is 50 minutes away or a six hour drive. When I fly it for business, the cost per mile is within a few dollars of driving there at $1.50/mile. It's all relative, but cheap, well the way I explain it to my wife, yes.

Posted by: Mac McCarthy | August 20, 2008 6:26 PM    Report this comment

Sonex makes a very affordable plane that can be enjoyed with a middle class income. http://www.sonexaircraft.com/ It's ugly as sin but seems to be roomy, fast, and fun for the owners. Arion Aircraft has a beautiful plane that's a little more costly but will be my ticket to affordable flying. http://www.flylightning.net/

Posted by: David Parson | August 24, 2008 2:53 PM    Report this comment

Completely agree with all posts...flying is expensive, period. What troubles me, however, is that the organizations like AOPA, EAA and others are not as agressive about increasing liability limits. It is as if they have taken the position that we were able to do it once, so we declare victory and move on to the next initiative. Liability, it seems to me, is the PRIMARY (though not only) driver in the high cost of flying. From parts, to aircraft everything in aviation has an inherent mark-up to cover insurance costs. I think it is time for liability limits initiative, phase II.

Posted by: Curtis Phillips | September 5, 2008 7:12 PM    Report this comment

The biggest complaint I have about the industry is the fact that the alphabets refuse to go after the insurers about failing to innovate or reduce the cost of insurance for fleet aircraft. If you talk to the insurance companies, and ask them why they can't insure planes based on hourly use or any other factor other than percentage of hull value, they have no answer other than the fact that they don't do it. It's amazing. Even at the VP level they don't understand their own business. I am convinced they have no clue how to estimate risk except to compare revenue to claims cost anymore. They used to have experts at those companies. What happened?

Posted by: Eric Warren | September 8, 2008 5:09 PM    Report this comment

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