Sun 'n Fun Wrap
It's convenient for the media narrative to look at events like Sun 'n Fun as barometers for the overall health of GA. If that were ever accurate, I'm not sure it still is. Attendance and exhibitor numbers spike up and sag down from year to year, seemingly not connected to anything to do with the general economy.
We don't have final attendance yet, but during my annual canvass of a dozen vendors, the general perception was that things were flat or slightly down. We saw a few empty vendor spaces, but these may have filled up later in the week. More on that in a minute.
The two biggest things we weren't even expecting: EAA's announcement of STC approvals to install uncertified avionics into certified aircraft and Icon's—how to put this?—brand tarnishment. The latter really had nothing to do with Sun 'n Fun, but appeared to be happenstance timing. But it was being talked about. A lot. I was waylaid by a number of people asking me about it, including one Icon A5 position holder who had cancelled his order due to what he considered an onerous and ill-conceived buyer contract.
First, EAA. As I reported in this blog on Wednesday, this development has the potential to be a significant driver in forcing the prices of avionics upgrades from the stratosphere back down to where the air is breathable. Two shops I talked to, both dealers of major avionics companies, were salivating at the potential. We now wait to see if it will develop as we might hope. The real surprise to me came on Sunday when I was speaking to another avionics maker not related to either the Dynon or the EAA project who was pursuing his own STC for a piece of uncertified gear. And get this: He had been encouraged to do so by his regular FAA contacts. This suggests a real sea change in anticipation of the FAR 23 revision. Again, we'll have to see if it potentiates, but I'm encouraged.
None of this is going to fundamentally reinvigorate the market, but it should at least help keep people in the game at the lower end of the spectrum. We need all of that we can get. At the upper end, at least for the light sport segment, is Icon. The company was buoyed along through 2015 and early this year by overwhelmingly positive press and tightly scripted promotion. It brought itself down to earth last week when its buyer agreement demanding legal fealty from purchasers got picked over in the press. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and on Friday, it did. Icon released a statement from company CEO Kirk Hawkins conceding that Icon heard the complaints and will recalibrate. Based on the discussion I had with the would-be owner who cancelled, my guess is Icon got an earful. Hawkins complained about "misinformation and misinterpretation regarding our Purchase Agreement and the motivation behind its terms." I'm not sure I get that. We and other media outlets repeatedly contacted Icon for questions and clarifications, only to be either ignored, rebuffed or given summarily vague answers. At AVweb, we now have an amusing game with Icon. We schedule interviews and they cancel them. Two were cancelled last week. Hey, no fair complaining if we can't discuss any of this.
How about we do this, Icon. We'll record a Q&A session and pledge to publish it in its entirety in exchange for engagement on the questions we have. I think there's no better way to clarify things from the company's point of view. So can Icon turn this around? Actually, I think they can and the Friday announcement was the first step. They at least admit there's a problem and now pledge to own it and address it. Done correctly, it could turn brand tarnishment into brand burnishment. We'll see where they go. But some of those fences may defy mending. The owner I spoke with said he wasn't willing to reconsider his cancellation. And by the way, none of the people I spoke with during Sun 'n Fun felt that Icon was wrong in trying to limit legal exposure. Nor did they feel that installing a flight recorder and/or camera was wrong. I think experienced people in general aviation see the liability problem just as Icon does. The solution is one of degree and Icon simply went too far, in my view. I'm not sure Icon will ever be able to sell control of secondary sales, however. This is just a fundamental right that buyers may consider non-negotiable.
One of the questions I ask during my vendor tour is this: Is there any single thing the Sun 'n Fun organization could do to improve the show? This almost always merited a thoughtful pause, but no over-arching suggestion. This indicates to me that Sun 'n Fun has its treatment of vendors about right. A couple told me they thought Sun 'n Fun could lower gate prices a little, but without a peek into Sun 'n Fun's P&L, it's hard to say if that's doable. LP Aeroplastic's George Mesiarik told me kids of a certain age should get in free. "That brings in the next generation," he said. He also told me sales in the booth were down substantially from last year. In the G&N Engine booth, Dennis Wyman told me although traffic may have been down, Sun 'n Fun is still a must. "We have to be here. We get real benefits from this show," he said. When I cruised the show one last time Sunday, one other suggestion bubbled forth. Let the vendors go Saturday afternoon or Sunday noon. Sunday is a dead day and is jokingly known as "vendor bonding day." These businesses are usually short-staffed and need to recover all the time they can. I'd say make it a five-day show and make Tuesday a press day.
Speaking of which, I'll be making my annual plea to move the press center back closer to show center. Located as it is near the museum in the Tom Davis Center, the press center's remote location causes us great difficulty, so much so that we triage some events and simply don't cover them. Vendors count on the press as an exposure multiplier, but that doesn't work very well when we spend so much time trooping back and forth. This year, the golf cart taxi service worked better than ever—tip of the hat to the volunteers—but the setup just builds in inefficiency. I'd argue for something nearer the old press HQ, where the seaplane center is. Even a tent with tables, power and Wi-Fi would do nicely. Here's hoping they can make that work.