AEA: Invasion of the Tiny Boxes
Whoever coined the phrase that in Las Vegas, wretched excess is never enough missed one thing about this town: It may be tacky, but it's sure expensive. Sooner or later, like the inevitable turn on the Karmic wheel, if you're involved in aviation, you'll do a tour here.
This time it was the Aircraft Electronics Association Convention, a tight, compact show that I like covering because it's, well, tight and compact. Never any plastic toilets nor mudholes to negotiate, which I suppose is one good about Las Vegas.
So what's the mood been? I've tried to strike "upbeat" from my limited vocabulary because that's a word journalists use when they have no clue what to think but their last conversation was with a marketing rep who has even less grasp on reality. I'd say stoic, I guess. It's no secret that sales of certified equipment have been soft if not in decline for quite some time now and no one I spoke to here is waiting for the sales curve to return to 2007. Even self-delusion is just so potent.
But there are still green shoots; there always are, especially for companies who are realistic about what the market is doing now and will likely do a year from now. For example, Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics' Julie Lowrance told me the company is doing well with its expanded line of services and aggressively hiring engineers. Mid-Continent has always been the type of business to position itself to rebuild and renew as the market sorts itself out. Even in an overall flat or declining market, there are gains to be made. Garmin is another example. Ain't no moss gathering on that stone. And specialty manufacturers always seem to find niches within niches to produce avionics that fulfill a specific need created by a larger trend. That gets us to ADS-B.
There are a flood of these boxes on the market and more on the way. There are so many, in fact, that I was talking to my colleague Larry Anglisano yesterday and we agreed we can't keep up with the rising tide. They've stopped calling them products now. They're "solutions" to the baffling question of what to do about ADS-B. And when to do it. Perversely, the more products—I mean solutions—there are, the harder it is to sort out which ones you should purchase. But we'll get to that in future coverage. We do know there's wide interest; Aspen's John Uczekaj said the company drew 150 attendees for a training session on its ADS-B products, a big number for a small show like this. A couple of other companies also announced various little blind boxes all aimed the ADS-B segment. Now we're staring to see other devices that have ADS-B tie-ins. Whose says you can't make hay out of government programs?
That's one well established trend, but another was little noticed here. That's Garmin's decision to get aggressively into avionics for experimental and light sport aircraft. With its G3X, Garmin has been dabbling in this field for a few years and although it got some takers, the product proved too expensive and too complex to install for many builders. Round two of the G3X slashes the price by more than half and includes a suite of add-ons that I'm sure builders and LSA customers will find attractive. (See a video on that here.)
When I was talking to Garmin's Jim Alpiser he said something I'm hearing more and more: There's a recognition that OEMs have priced themselves out of the market with both new airplanes and avionics and some people are plainly saying this, as Alpiser did. That used to be proverbial log in the punchbowl that no one really spoke about. The price delta between Garmin's new experimental products and its certified equipment is just breathtaking. Just consider the autopilot. Garmin's GFC700 is the current top of the heap and although it doesn't have a readily available aftermarket version for small aircraft, a barely comparable autopilot from S-TEC runs well into the $20,000 range, installed. The non-certified version of this autopilot from Garmin is $1500; a bit over $2200 with a fancy control panel included.
This price disparity doesn't exactly reset the clock, but it does reverse an unfortunate trend line of avionics being the largest component expense item in airplanes. That hasn't been true in experimentals or LSAs, because avionics for those airplane cost a fraction of certified gear. But Garmin's entry into the market offers more competition and some price-favorable choices for buyers that I'd sure like to see on the certified side, just as badly as I'd like to see Las Vegas in my rear view mirror.
I know I'm going to see the latter later today, but the former? Not holding my breath.