Sport Expo: Sales Trends Warming, If the Weather Isn't
Although I’m afraid to add up the actual number of years, I sometimes feel like I have spent most of my journalism career—at least the aviation portion of it—writing about economic downturns. An occupational hazard of that is inflating every little clue, no matter how silly, inconsequential or comically irrelevant as evidence of the r-word—recovery. But even people willing to beat the hammer of repetitiveness on the anvil of cliché eventually reach their limits, even me.
So in 2010, from my lofty perch as editorial director, I decreed that there would be no more stories about pending recoveries. And the use of the word “upbeat” in stories, being nothing but a journalist’s lazy description for news sources slapping smiley faces on blazing train wrecks, was similarly prohibited. And this is not because I’m basically a pessimistic person, but more related to hearing the same old tune whistled past the graveyard once too many times.
Since those decrees are still in effect, the following comments will be carefully measured. Walking the midway at the Sport Aviation Expo at Sebring on Thursday, I detected a noticeable trend of … ummm … improved economic conditions. While we all agree that the light sport segment will never explode with uncontained demand, several of the companies I spoke to reported improved sales. At American Legend, Darin Hart told me he’s got enough Super Legends on order that he can’t find enough qualified employees to build them. Lockwood Aviation, which markets and services the Rotax line in the U.S., is slammed with work and orders, says the company’s Dean Vogel. He says there’s clearly more flying and building activity going on. CubCrafters, whose upscale Carbon Cub has proven wildly popular despite its high price tag, has the order book full until the end of the year.
But the blade cuts both ways. Kitfox’s John McBean took the unusual step of sending a press release explaining why Kitfox isn’t at the show. He said the company lacked the resources to both mount a show display and fill airplane orders, so this year, it picked the latter. Reading between the lines and from my talks with other vendors, I think some can’t justify the expense of Sport Expo every year and will alternate attending it. I know this conflicts many of them, because they want to support this venue while realizing that doing so entails significant expense and time.
Another thing I’ve given up on is trying to divine the vitality of the GA economy by how crowded the booths at a show are or aren’t. At Sebring, we saw a nice slug of people shortly after opening, but it petered out later in the day. I didn’t hear any of the vendors complaining about this because even though the bodies may be fewer, the fingers on those bodies are often connected to checkbooks. I’ll canvass the crowd later in the show for a second read on that. I wish I could say warming weather will lube the crowds, but the forecast calls for cold—for Florida—throughout the weekend.
All of these shows have their own personality and Sport Expo’s is definitely small-town friendly. The volunteer corps at this show is exceptionally helpful. Quite unsolicited, I was offered three golf cart rides and two point outs for vendors—before noon. And I swear the lady handling press creds was waiting for me because when I checked in, she handed me the envelope in under 10 seconds. Perhaps I’m too easily impressed, but the small victories are often the sweetest.
I’m not quite as favorably disposed to the air traffic set up, however. Given the volume—we’re not talking Oshkosh here—it’s maybe a little high falutin'. Randy Schlitter and I were out flying his new S20 south of the field and despite no other airplanes on the frequency, the controller insisted on us flying seven or eight miles to enter the Lake Jackson visual procedure they’ve got set up. I’d maybe wish for a little more flexibility and perhaps simplify that procedure. I’m actually not convinced a tower is even necessary, much less an arrival procedure. There was, shall we say, evidence of pilot irritation on the frequency. I suspect it’s a demographic thing. One reason pilots pursue light sport is because they don’t want to play serious ATC. That’s something to think about.
All new shows, even those as small as Expo, serve as rollouts for new products. Thus far, I’ve seen three I like. RANS aforementioned S20, a new iteration from Progressive Aerodyne called the Searey Elite and yet another entrant from the Czech Republic called the Skyleader 600, which struck me as sort of an Escalade approach to light sport, if such a thing is even possible. All three are worth checking out and in today’s video, we’ve got a brief flight report on the S20. And the Skyleader isn't the only new-to-us LSA company. In this story, Russ Niles profiles a new company in Tennessee called World Aircraft that's just launching with a pair of models. I'm not going to pretend the world needs more choices in light sport, but if you believe that it does, they're out there.
While all of us should be pleased about these reports of increased sales, I’m not quite willing to say the GA economy is heading back to the salad days of 2006. I’m pretty sure that the 2008 downturn ignited a sea change in light aircraft manufacturing and we’re just too close to it to see where it will take us. But the trends appear to be going in the right direction and that looks a hell of better than 2010. But in my estimation, the word "recovery" no longer applies because it suggests a return to normalcy. Frankly, I don't think anyone knows what that is. I sure don't.
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