LSA's Failure to Launch
As armchair observers and occasionally participants, most of us are ready, even unasked, to pontificate on how the various shows we attend should be improved. But I've come to the conclusion that the major shows are nearly a perfect reflection of the industries they represent. When the aviation industry is bubbling -- which it hasn't for five years -- so too are the shows filled with intriguing new stuff and a palpable vitality. So I wasn't surprised when I spent a day at the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring last week to find it ... anemic.
That's no slam on the show organizers. Given the state of the light sport segment, they actually deliver a far better show than I'd expect. I don't even have a short list of things I think they ought to do to improve the show because they punch above their weight in keeping the show humming. That's tough to do when the underlying industry struggles to get itself launched.
And make no mistake, LSA isn't impressing with its sales vitality and there's no point in putting a smiley face on this. Walking the show, I found vendors who are more stoic about the sales outlook than optimistic. One thing unique about the Sebring show is that it's LSA only and attendees know that. So company representatives told me even though the booth traffic might be slow, buyers come to Sebring for one last look before pushing the I'm-sold button. It's just that there aren't enough of them and I'm not seeing what market developments are going to change that, short of a robust economic recovery with four percent growth rate and maybe not even then.
What's the problem here? What's it gonna take to ignite LSA sales? I'm quite certain I've heard every possible explanation and I'm just as certain I don't know which of them is right, if any are. But the one I think is most wrong is that LSAs cost too much. At Tecnam North America's booth, Tommy Grimes said the company is going to explore the low-price end of the market with a sub-$80,000 LSA later this year or next year. When I asked if he thought that would gin up the sales numbers, he just shrugged: "Who knows?," he said. The test case here is the AeroTrek, a nice little Kitfox-style LSA that also sells for under $80,000. While it's doing relatively well by LSA standards, it's not exactly flying off the shelf, either.
Those who argue that LSAs were supposed to be cheap, but are really almost as expensive as certified airplanes simply haven't looked at certified airplane prices recently. The typical well-equipped LSA with glass is invoicing around $130,000, plus or minus. A moderately tricked out Cessna 172 is in the mid-$300,000 range, a Diamond DA40 pushes over $400,000, so LSAs are well under half the cost of low-end certified airplanes. It's true they don't have the same capabilities, but they were never intended too.
If you shop the used market, $130,000 will buy a 10-year-old pre-glass Skyhawk and a lot of older, capable go-places airplanes that still cost piles of cash to maintain and fly. Do would-be buyers scan across the spectrum of model years and types when looking at new LSAs and conclude the value isn't there? Maybe. I've heard people say this without the slightest shard of evidence that it's true, other than the fact they're personally smug and happy with a $30,000 Cherokee burning mogas. Just as personally, I think a $130,000 CTLS with basic glass or a Legend Cub similarly equipped is priced just about right for what it is. I'm disinclined to delude myself that such airplanes can be built at a profit for less money.
One of the failure-to-launch theories that makes vague sense is that if there were, say, eight to 12 LSA manufacturers, each might be selling 30 or 40 airplanes a year instead of a dozen. The volume might not be there, but the companies might at least be more viable. But there are something like 90 manufacturers with more than 100 models in a current world market that absorbed about 260 airplanes last year. If you're a rabid believer in free markets and unlimited competition and you think that there can never be too much, perhaps the static universe of LSA might suggest a rethinking of that theory.
As a journalist covering this field, it's always challenging to talk to some companies trying to sell yet another high-wing, two-place little white airplane that's barely distinguishable from a similar high-wing, two-place little white airplane I looked at last month. I have to resist the urge to point out that this town isn't big enough for all of us.