Sun 'n Fun Wrap: Drifting
The major shows like Sun 'n Fun and AirVenture may be imperfect reflections of the industry they promote, but they are nonetheless reflections. And the image I saw this week in the mirror of attendees, vendors and perhaps even fellow journalists was of a general aviation community that's adrift, lacking a sense of what the next direction will be and definitely sensing a sea change with no clear inkling of how the market is evolving or what it's evolving to. There may also be an understanding approaching consensus that nothing on the horizon is going to change the fact that the masses just aren't that interested in flying airplanes, no matter how passionately we believe we're just not packaging the message correctly.
If you've seen us darting around at these shows, you know that we wear bright, chrome-green newsteam shirts. We do that for a reason. We want to be stopped and engaged, as we are many times a day. And every year, the questions are the same: What have you seen? What's your sense of the show? But this year, I turned that around and asked readers and viewers their opinions. None of the responses surprised me. I must have asked several dozen people what they thought about the FAA's tower closings, the state of the market and what they wanted to see at Sun 'n Fun—both aspirationally and specifically ahead of actually buying something.
Many commented on the lack of new airframes. But what can we expect, really? Sales have been anemic for four-plus years now and as I've pointed out, even with Wall Street soaring, aircraft sales remain soft. There's a sense of having entered a period in which this is the new normal. Not that I blame manufacturers in the slightest. What rational business person would spend multiples of millions to certify new products with no strong evidence that the market is waking up? The second half of this year and 2014 may look different. And, in any case, we did see some new experimentals and LSAs and these count for something.
Another source of distraction—and I heard this several times—was that both major GA organizations are now leaderless. And while AOPA and EAA don't necessarily drive sales, they do set a certain tone and the fact the members don't have the slightest idea where these two organizations are going doesn't sit well. I find myself wondering if part of the sea change is a growing sense that these two organizations have less relevance. Let's see what happens when they get new leadership, which I hope happens sooner rather than later. Jack Pelton, EAA's chairman of the board, said the organization's search has been suspended until after AirVenture.
That leaves companies of all sizes to fend for themselves, finding business and growth where they might. Redbird Flight Simulations continues to impress as a company moving forward with innovative ways to train pilots more effectively and economically. Whether this will put a measurable dent in the erosion of the pilot population is an unknown, but it pencils out to me. My former colleague Jeff Van West was demonstrating the new JayBird system, a purpose-made desktop simulator intended to introduce scenario-based training in an affordable format. Redbird CEO Jerry Gregoire asked if I thought a $2500 dedicated box would be a player. Frankly, I haven't a clue; nothing quite like this has appeared before. It's fresh new ground. What it represents is a creative melding of available technologies into a hitherto unseen whole. My guess is if it doesn't make a difference, what it leads to might.
One rising trend is spurred by the manufacturers emerging grasp of what we've been saying for years: New airplanes are just too expensive. Although there's plenty of wealth out there, real wages are flat or in decline, but the price curve on airplanes has been going in the opposite direction. I'm reminded of a story Premier Aircraft's Fred Ahles told me once. When he started out selling for Cessna in the Midwest, he could find plenty of airplane customers among autoworkers. Not anymore.
So sales efforts now focus on wealthier clients, but there's a clear effort to make aircraft affordable by engineering group or multi-member buying or other creative approaches to getting people into airplanes. John Armstrong, a Diamond dealer, is having good success doing this with DiamondShare and told me he's selling about as much as he can, which is a couple of airplanes a month. At Tecnam North America, Phil Solomon is about to launch a couple of aircraft access programs that envision leasing programs similar to the auto industry and a block-time sales effort for pilots needing to build time at economical rates. We'll have a podcast on this later in the week. Although it wasn't at the show, Cirrus did announce this week an aircraft access idea of its own, which would allow non-pilots to buy a Cirrus and for an additional sum, have what's essentially their own corporate flight department to get them trained to fly. The Aviation Access Project has its own version of making flying more affordable, primarily based around light sport aircraft.
Following the Aircraft Electronics Association show in Las Vegas last month, I commented on the profusion of small, specialized boxes meant to stitch cockpits together into a modern whole, with ADS-B. What's really needed is a single-product solution that puts everything into one box—flight instruments, radios, transponder and ADS-B. This is no fever swamp delusion. The major players—Garmin, Aspen, Bendix/King, Avidyne—know this as well as any of us. I have a strong inkling that these products have moved beyond the conceptual stage and that you'll see the first market overhanging version in 18 months to two years. It won't cost $25,000, but not $10,000, either. My guess is high teens somewhere. The only question is, who announces it first? The demand for this could be strong as the 2020 ADS-B mandate approaches, but I'll wager it won't be as strong as some people think. There's a resignation out there. Many owners will simply exit aviation or just restrict themselves to airspace that doesn't require ADS-B. (I'll certainly be doing that in the Cub.)
And that brings us to a common thread in my conversations at Sun 'n Fun. With so many portable ADS-B options, there's massive confusion about what these have to do with the mandate. Nothing, of course. They're simply the sharp point of the wedge of the next tech wave. But welcome as they are as a choice for some, none of them address the ADS-B out requirement. They are the 2013 equivalent of Garmin's 1998 GPSMap 90—a mere signpost on the road to what comes next. And what's that likely to be? I heard speculation about adding air data to portable ADS-B boxes that already include AHRS. Easy in an LSA, I'd guess, but less so in a spam can.
Likely or not, I'm ready to be surprised—or not—about what comes next.