Sun 'n Fun Wrap

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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.

Comments (16)

The fact is that Icon's proposed agreement of indentured servitude is a logical response to a legal system run amuck. Face it, anyone building and selling airplanes is running blindly through a legal minefield. How can you not be sued for something as irresponsible as providing airplanes to a society whose idea of success is winning a gold-mine lawsuit? Our tort ( from the Latin torture and tortoise)system seems to be mostly a system of treasure hunting and legal blackmail

That said, there is no way I would agree to Icon's proposed contract.

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 11, 2016 8:01 AM    Report this comment

Attendance was down a couple this year because I had to skip my usual transcontinental Sun & Fun - Bahamas trek...bummer. But the AVweb coverage was excellent as usual.

I'm following the apparent oncoming breakthrough on avionics with extreme interest. While the steam gauge panel on my well-aged Bonanza still does the job, like most every pilot I would love to join the modern world.

Problem is I'm too practical (i.e. cheap) to throw $20K plus at a plane-and-pilot combo that realistically has less than a decade of service life left. Cut that number in half, or even more, and the idea suddenly becomes more thinkable. And I bet there is a pretty good sized cohort out there that shares my situation. Nice to see a little light glimmering on the horizon for a change!

Posted by: John Wilson | April 11, 2016 8:09 AM    Report this comment

Paul - The pilots' response to Icon's overreach was to be expected. Across this country people are just sick and tired of being pushed around. My EAA chapter has flown its last Young Eagle because the pilots are simply not going to kowtow to EAA's new policy of background checks. All very understandable in light of current liability, but you don't have to play. You can say, "No thank you."

I wouldn't consider the Icon aircraft under any circumstances; I understand the company mindset now, and I don't do business with those kinds of people. I'll just keep chugging along in my 54 year-old Skylane and try to stay out of everybody's way.

Posted by: JAMES WILLS | April 11, 2016 9:17 AM    Report this comment

@James Wills--We will fly kids, as usual--but it won't be under the auspices of EAA. No big difference--we just won't have the EAA insurance umbrella. I've always had the feeling that there was not much follow-up from EAA on the Young Eagles program anyway--we can improve upon that.

I sympathize with EAA on their "best practices" dilemma--like Icon, trying to inoculate themselves against all possible exposures, no matter how small. Like Icon, the result is that they have offended their customer base.

I'm reminded of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown during the American Revolution. The British General requested the band play "The World Turned Upside Down"--a tune not only detailing the excesses of laws created by the British Parliament in Colonial times, but also applicable to the state of the world today, when we are all expected to PROVE that we are NOT criminals. The British were defeated by those who were angry at those who would govern them--the world WAS "Turned upside down" for them--and a couple of centuries later, it's happening to US..

Posted by: jim hanson | April 11, 2016 10:00 AM    Report this comment

And the fact that Cornwallis brought a band instead of an extra company or two or grenadiers pretty much assured he'd surrender somewhere.

Students of the original Rocky and Bullwinkle will recall that rather than sending an officer to accept the surrender, Washington sent a chicken. And that's where chicken catch a tory comes from.

I don't know why I remember that, sixty some years later. But it's still funny.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 11, 2016 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Good summary, Paul. This was my sixth time at S'nF and it did seem that the attendance was noticeably down, in spite of the near perfect weather. The parking lot had a lot fewer cars than last year. Not sure if it was the timing (before tax time) or the stubborn weather up north that made travel to Florida a challenge. Considering the (relatively) low price of avgas right now, one would assume that would have encouraged people to attend.

Like you, I was very encouraged about the EAA/Dynon announcement. It represents a modest but significant change in attitude (the camel's nose under the tent?). At several previous shows I had spoken to Dynon's booth personnel about moving into the certified reallm and got the impression they had pretty well given up on the idea. I am not sure who gets credit for the sudden break in the logjam, but kudos to whomever pulled it off. My big desire is to see Dynon or True-Trak get their fine autopilots approved. Someone needs to break the near strangle hold that S-Tec has on that market. We shall see.

With regard to Icon's announcement, they could definitely use some help in learning how to deal with customer relations. I give the company credit for trying hard to build an inherently safe airplane to begin with. However, they pretty well blind-sided prospective customers with the ham-fisted approach they took on the "contract". As you said, I suspect they got an earful from angry depositors. It remains to be seen if they can repair relations now. It's sad that the root cause of the problem - national tort reform - will not be changed regardless of how Icon deals with this mess.

Overall, I like Sun 'n Fun more than Oshkosh. It just seems to be about the right mix of size and features, with friendly volunteers and staff. To me, Oshkosh is so big that it overpowers you. I go to both, but S'nF is my favorite.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 11, 2016 12:36 PM    Report this comment

I love Rocky and Bullwinkle, but it was Cornwallis himself that was the chicken; he claimed illness the day of surrender and sent a substitute to deliver his sword instead. Therefore Washington sent Gen. Lincoln to accept it.

There is a famous painting of this scene in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. In it, Washington stands back to watch his subordinate Gen. Benjamin Lincoln accept the sword from Cornwallis' substitute. Alexander Hamilton is also featured prominently in the painting. So, in this one painting you have a Washington, a Hamilton, and a Benjamin Lincoln all together, thus forming the basis for the $1, $5, $10 and $100 bills, ha ha! ... and of course the Wrights would fly their 1903 Flyer some 122 years after the surrender (just to keep on topic ya know)

Posted by: A Richie | April 11, 2016 3:12 PM    Report this comment

I was impressed--and not in a positive way--by Icon's booth, which looked to have been taking design tips from an Apple store. Also the museum-style roping off of the product to prevent one from getting a good look at the interior. Trying to be too cool for us ragamuffin GA types?

Posted by: lindsay petre | April 11, 2016 4:18 PM    Report this comment

EAA deserves praise for serving as a catalyst between Dynon and the FAA. It is a substantial precedent on cooperative work. A smart resolution. On the other hand, the EAA background check is not. I agree with Jim Hanson.

On the Icon "QUESTION OF THE WEEK". I thought if it as a fair poll overwhelmingly, loudly and clearly establishing the mindset of GA on aircraft purchase control. Kudos to AVweb.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 11, 2016 4:54 PM    Report this comment

Paul--did you study the inside meaning of Rocky and Bullwinkle at "Whatsamatta U"? Or "Fractured Fairy Tales?" Or Mr. Peabody's Improbable History, which always ended with a pun? Drama (or Melodrama) with Dudley Do-Right, Boris Badenov, Nell, and Natasha?

Here in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, the series was considered "higher education." Thanks for bringing a little levity to a sometimes all-too-serious discussion.

"and now, back to our story, after a word from our sponsors."

Posted by: jim hanson | April 11, 2016 6:16 PM    Report this comment

Rocky was loaded with puns and inside jokes. I think it was as much for adults as kids. I don't know if you saw it, but the recent movie Mr. Peabody & Sherman was excellent, too.

Link is to the original Mr. Peabody who graduated Wagga cum laude from Harvard and went on to a successful career in finance, where he was known as the Woof of Wall Street.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 11, 2016 6:49 PM    Report this comment

Every year, when I have to part with $10 to park my car and pop for another (reduced) $32 to get into SnF, I make a mental note to forego the pleasure the next year. Those folks are charging Airventure prices for a kiddieland show just because it's a season opener IMHO. And we haven't even talked about the inflated prices for food and drink or lodging or $9 for a nightcap. Anywhere else they'd be arrested for robbery. The whole thing is a giant gouge. As a minimum, there ought to be a multi-day entrance price ... perhaps something like $32 for one day and $50 for two and $60 for three. I shudder to think of what a Nancy and Sluggo family outing would cost. I AM going to try to forego the pleasure next year by attending vicariously through the eyes of "robot man" ... aka Paul B. Probably won't work.

The EAA / Dynon announcement is the first upbeat thing I've heard that impacts me -- directly -- in a long time. I hope many, many more similar announcements come our way at Airventure and beyond. We can only hope. Now then, if the 3rd class relief comes at Airventure, I may have to start smiling again? As we speak, I'm doing some magical incantations and doing some weird things with my FAA voodoo doll and ice pick. We all owe Jack Pelton a huge THANKS!

The Icon A5 blowback notwithstanding, I think the principals at Icon need to be tested for drug usage. Who in their right mind is going to pay THOSE numbers for what is -- ostensibly -- a jet ski with wings? Anyone who does might likewise need to be tested? At those prices and with that contract, Kirk will have to sing Dixie for a LONG time before burnishment occurs.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 12, 2016 6:52 AM    Report this comment

"As a minimum, there ought to be a multi-day entrance price ... perhaps something like $32 for one day and $50 for two and $60 for three."

I've been saying the same thing about AirVenture, too. No where did I see I would have to pay $10 for parking *each day* until I got there for my first time. Good thing I had a bunch of extra cash, because I was actually completely out of all cash by the end of the week and wouldn't have been able to pay for parking for the ticket I already had if I had brought any less.

I recognize these shows cost a lot to put together, but the least they could do is make it easier for attendees to pay for tickets AND parking in advance. Adding in a volume discount for multiple days would be nice too.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 12, 2016 7:34 AM    Report this comment

Saying the ICON is a jet ski with wings, is akin to saying television is just radio with pictures.

Posted by: April Talmadge | April 12, 2016 10:17 AM    Report this comment

ICON: A Jetski With Wings (Can You Tow It With A Prius?)

By Marc Cook | June 26, 2008

"Last week, ICON Aircraft introduced its A5 amphibian LSA, promising "a new dimension in sport flying" and to usher in a "sport flying revolution." The crowd at the Los Angeles venue was suitably chic and monied, so the grab for $5000 deposits to hold a place in line before the unwashed general public would be allowed to join the elite list the following day was probably both expected and sufficiently below the economic radar as to not even register. At least judging by the cars parked out front that cost much more than the $140,000 airplane being, er, launched.

The assembled guests were wowed by the A5's electrically folding wings, which promise putting the amphib on a speedboat trailer when your day in the sun is done. They were impressed by A5's sleek lines and comforted by the clear road-vehicle influence in the design, from the twin "headlights" to the motorcycle-inspired instrument panel; this was not some kind of odd animal whose language you would need to learn, but just a jetski with wings! Cool."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 12, 2016 12:00 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, Raf. And -- yes -- TV IS a radio with pictures, Amy. THESE days, it ain't even that. It's nothing but infomercials, commercials, and repeat after repeat of the very same programming. Save for a few channels with scientific or historic stuff, it ain't worth my time. I use the cable box to get music ... with pretty pics attached.

Geez ... has it been eight years since they conned the super rich of LA to buy one of those jetski thingies? Wow! Why even MY FlyCatcher fiasco didn't last THAT long!! In fact, I think I popped MY $5K down in 2008, too.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 12, 2016 2:23 PM    Report this comment

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