A Visit With Trade-A-Plane: Selling Airplanes in the Digital Age

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Before there was eBay, Craigslist and Controller.com, not to mention web sites for every imaginable aircraft marque, the one and only place you looked for a used airplane or obscure parts to fix one was Trade-A-Plane, the iconic yellow shopper that, for many of us, was and is a dreamsheet.

Despite the onslaught of competition from the digital world, three-quarters of a century after it was founded, Trade-A-Plane is still there. And although it's smaller than it once was and it's no longer yellow -- covers excepted -- Trade-A-Plane remains a mainstay go-to for anyone looking for anything to do with aviation products and services. Unbeknownst to many pilots, TAP Publishing, the mother ship company, has evolved into other markets, including the construction industry, web site hosting and custom weather products and in an age where many companies farm out their grunt work to others, TAP publishing is entirely vertical -- almost everything is done in house.

Silent Presses

But there's a price to pay for that. When we visited Trade-A-Plane's Crossville, Tennessee headquarters in late-May 2013, publisher Cosby Stone showed us something the company had never experienced: a dark pressroom. Two weeks earlier, an electrical transformer fire took down the presses and very nearly the building that houses them. During our tour, repairs were underway and the presses -- a pair of big multi-gang units -- were expected to be back on line by mid-June.

In a stressed and evolving publishing universe where web searches rule, we wondered if an event like that might be the serendipitous turn of fate that could cause a company like TAP to forsake an old technology for a new one. Not really. TAP is heavily invested in the digital world and although the shadows are lengthening for newsprint, it's not dark yet.

"I've got a reader study sitting here on the table that tells me that the print product is still very effective and important for us," says TAP's Stone. "The web is an ideal tool for shopping and comparing. And delving deeper, maybe. But I go back to print, that's what helps put the thought there to shop in the first place. The web doesn't do that."

Not that TAP is hidebound in tons of newsprint. During our tour of TAP's modern building in downtown Crossville (pop. 10,903), Stone showed us a lavishly equipped data center for the company's considerable web activities. A portion of one floor is given over to design and hosting of web sites for TAP customers who are too small or don't have the wherewithal to do their own.

That kind of service is straight from the Cosby Harrison playbook. Harrison, who was Cosby Stone's grandfather, started Trade-A-Plane in 1938 after he famously cracked up a Laird Swallow and found no ready way to buy parts to fix it or to sell used aviation gear in general. From the Harrison's kitchen table in Crossville came what would be the industry's first broad-based market for pilots, owners and aviation businesses. It was a simple broadsheet newspaper with no editorial, just classified and display ads for everything aviation. Some years later, it evolved into the tabloid format we know today.

As publishing stayed in the family, so did aviation. Stone is a pilot himself, as are many TAP employees. The business has had and used various aircraft for business-related travel, including a King Air and an MU-2. These days, like many of us, Stone and his colleagues travel on the airlines or via charter, when timeliness is critical.

Almost from day one, TAP was set up in a vertical model. "Going back to the days when print reigned supreme, we were set up like a daily newspaper. We printed in house so we could turn it around very quickly," says Stone. The company hired -- and still hires -- all the in-house talent it needs to run everything, from pre-press, to art services, to web design and hosting and even weather services distribution. The company employs about 160 people, some 30 of whom are high-level IT, web and programming specialists.

Although conceived in the image of a newspaper, Trade-A-Plane never had any editorial, saving for the front page cartoon it has published in every issue since the 1930s. Stone says the cartoons were toned toward a more patriotic theme during World War II. And although private aviation all but vanished during the war years, Trade-A-Plane somehow managed to survive.

Web Plus Print

Although buying in all markets, including aviation, has migrated to the web, TAP didn't miss the wave. The associated web site for Trade-A-Plane represents a potent market of itself and TAP's other publications also have web counterparts.

Although many pilots don't realize it, TAP has the equivalent of Trade-A-Plane for the construction industry: Rock & Dirt , which launched in 1950 and now amounts to a larger business than Trade-A-Plane. For Latin American markets, there's Rock & Dirt en Espaņol. More recently, for the heavy truck market, TAP established Next Truck, which started as a combined online and print business but is now web only.

Given Trade-A-Plane's substantial web presence, will the print version soon disappear? Stone doesn't think so, due to the established momentum of the brand name and the fact that the publication has a core of readers who aren't necessarily web savvy. (Yeah, okay, it's the old guys.)

"The barriers to entry online are low," says Stone. "There's always brand power. If you build that and you get the inertia going, it's hard for someone else to jump in and say, me too." TAP has protected -- or at least lessened -- erosion of its paper product by competing web sources. "Everything we sell now is a package. Whatever you want to call it, coordinated or integrated media, we don't just sell you a four by two print ad now, we sell you a print ad, with a banner package and listings and landing pages and so on," Stone says.

TAP has even figured out a way to leverage competition for eBay to its advantage. "If someone wants to sell on eBay, they still need to draw attention to it, so if they want to list it with us, we'll link to their eBay auction. But my observation is that auctions for aircraft don't work. Buying an airplane is a personal thing. People want to see and touch the airplane before they buy it," Stone says.

Whether all this has changed the mindset of buyers and sellers is an unknown, Stone says. The web offers immediacy and efficient retrieval, but despite the name we give to applications that access the web, you don't browse it. You go looking for stuff using powerful search and sort tools. One thing the web does that print could never match is sending out alerts to readers who want to be notified when a specific airplane is listed online and that's yet another service Trade-A-Plane now offers. That accounts for more than a few sales within hours, if not minutes, of posting.

Ironically, those very same search and sort tools don't always help much with an increasingly difficult task in publishing: coalescing an audience. In Cosby Harrison's day, there was a burgeoning aviation industry actively looking for an aggregated audience to buy and sell things. Piper Aircraft started the same year that Trade-A-Plane did, but AOPA hadn't gotten off the ground yet, although Popular Aviation, later Flying, had. In other words, Harrison had perfect market timing.

Now the challenge is reversed. The aviation universe is in graceful decline with fewer participants -- including sellers looking to sell and buyers looking to buy. Direct mail campaigns to lists of pilots were once a key method to build audiences, but now the lists are tired and some aren't worth the price of postage. "At this point, we're not even trying [to build circulation]. The bulk of our publications have always been controlled circulation and Trade-A-Plane is migrating to a controlled model," Stone explains. In publishing vernacular, controlled means copies are sent to likely audience members for free, which is why you get, unbidden, at least one copy a quarter if you're an aircraft owner or one a year if you're a pilot with an active medical.

Online Weather

At a time when publishers were arguing about whether the web business model should be free and advertising supported or subscriber driven, TAP launched a product not necessarily in the center of its lane: WeatherTAP. For a small monthly fee, it delivered sophisticated NEXRAD imagery and a host of text products, only a portion of which are aimed at aviation.

"We had a relationship with Harris Corp. on the publishing side -- they're one of the major providers of weather to the FAA -- so it was kind of a natural marriage. But the original idea came from a business development group at Harris. They saw the potential for marrying Trade-A-Plane's connection with the aviation market to a faster, improved set of information services for weather," Stone says.

And that's what WeatherTAP is. While this has proven to be a good, if small, business, it has the downside of having a little too much potential. "One of the things that drives us a little crazy with WeatherTap is that there are so many directions you can go with it," Stone says. There's a natural fit with Rock & Dirt, in that construction companies often need granular weather data when pouring foundations or covering roofs. WeatherTAP also offers specialized services to golf courses, fire departments and travel centers that need on-demand local weather data.

Growth Ahead?

Like most of us in aviation, Stone is stoic about the state of the industry. Trade-A-Plane's go-go growth years extended into the late 1980s and early 1990s, but are unlikely to return to that state. "We flattened out through the late 1990s because that's what GA did. When 911 came, GA retracted severely in this country and Trade-A-Plane is a reflection of that market. We can't outperform the market. No doubt Trade-A-Plane is smaller than it was 10 years ago," he says.

During the last two quarters, Stone says the company senses a slight uptick, but he doesn't care to overstate the trend. There's no point in pretending the market is stronger than it in fact is. As we reported in this podcast, Trade-A-Plane has a significant presence in Europe and has had for almost 20 years. It's not unusual to see classified ads for aircraft in Europe, but the fleet there is a fraction of the size of the U.S. aircraft base. As do many in the industry, Stone sees market expansion -- or at least less retraction -- through the prism of fuel. "Avgas is really a U.S. thing," he says. "When you get out of the U.S., it's almost unavailable." He thus sees the largest potential for growth in the coming diesel market. And if diesel sales ignite, we know right where to go to look for the first used diesel-powered Cessna.