Sun 'n Fun In The Taillights
When I was pulling out of Sun ‘n Fun late in the week, I had one thought only: I wish I had gone to Aero instead. Because the two shows ran concurrently for the first time in my recent memory, I decided if there was a must-do show for us to cover with our limited resources, it would be Sun ‘n Fun.
Wrong decision. As you’ve read from our at-a-distance coverage, thanks to our friends at the UK Flyer magazine, Aero yielded more interesting news and developments. During the past five years, I would say more companies are now considering Aero the critical show and that show’s modest growth has reflected that. Cessna and Cirrus both had minimal presence at Sun ‘n Fun, but made a greater effort at Aero. Attendance was up at Aero by 11 percent over 2016, but 2016 had been down by 9 percent over 2015. Make of that what you will.
For us, these shows operate at two levels. There’s the obvious: the big announcements, the trial balloons and the press conferences. And the not-so-obvious undercurrent of buzz, the background interviews and invitations to visit factories. That happens at Sun ‘n Fun, but the energy level is just lower. By now, some companies are just faxing it in. For example, Cessna had its aircraft on display, but no one to do an on-camera interview.
This makes news coverage a challenge because, frankly, there’s just not much of it. This year, Daher and Mooney had announcements and so did Garmin, but none of these were a surprise in the way that Diamond’s announcements at Aero were. This is, in my view, directly reflective of a moribund market. We’re getting used to visiting the patient in the ICU.
For news coverage, there’s good and bad to this. Because AVweb’s daily coverage is a voracious pit of content, we have to hustle to find stories worthy of publication. The plus side of this is we dig around and find second-tier stories that wouldn’t get covered at all in a busier year. One of these is my interview with Avidyne’s Dan Schwinn about the company’s emerging focus on connectivity. This is likely to be the next big trend and will get light aircraft on the same connectivity footing as cars are now. You’d think we would and should be ahead of the cars, right? You know why we aren’t, but we do have a lot of cool glass displays blasting more data into our eyeballs than any normal brain can process.
I have observed that despite this focus on Europe’s Aero and the glimmer of hope for the Asian market, every sales executive or CEO says the same thing: Most of their sales are in North America. Vivek Saxena of Mooney said this and so did Daher’s Nic Chabbert. According to GAMA, 70 percent of piston shipments were to North America in 2016, while 10 percent each went to Europe and Asia. The same relative ratios hold true for turboprops and business jets, although the jets are a little stronger in Europe than pistons are. It seems to me that these ratios would support a bigger presence at Sun ‘n Fun, but these companies don’t seem to see it that way. AirVenture is another matter.
Yet, the development goes on in Europe. Here’s a fun fact. In the five years since Cessna announced the now-stalled SR-305 diesel for the 182, Diamond has certified a new twin and sold almost 100 examples and it just announced three new single-engine airplanes. Care to guess where most of them will be sold?
Part of the reason some companies don’t see shows as a sales nexus is that while show leads do sell airplanes, that’s not the primary way buyers learn about these products. It happens through news coverage, through websites, through social media and through aggressive targeted marketing. For example, ahead of Sun ‘n Fun, I got an expensive direct mail piece from Cirrus. If I had a disposable million, I’d have certainly called the number on the card for a demo.
During the show, Dan Johnson and I were lamenting about not being able to attend Aero. It’s the first one he’s missed in nearly 20 years. We also discussed whether the traditional tradeshow press conference has outlived its usefulness. I’d say—and have said—that it has. The idea that news is disseminated by a talking head yammering at a bunch of scribes who dutifully write it all down and post it is like a giant dead oak tree that hasn’t fallen over yet. Given that this is aviation, where tradition hangs on long beyond its usefulness, it probably never will.
I suppose there’s some comfort in basking in the utterly predictable. At least it keeps you from having to think too hard, something no one has ever accused me of doing. Or at all.
An Ultralight Future
Although the rest of the show seems to ebb and flow, the constant at Sun ’n Fun is the incessant buzzing of ultralight engines. If anything, activity at Paradise City seems to increase every year and there’s an apparent demographic shift.
As more of the devotees of grass-under-your-ass flying shuffle off to Jimmy Buffet’s new seniors theme parks, there seems to be a new generation of devotees filling the void. These are not the irrigation pipe and sailcloth set of the 21st century, however. New materials, engines and other technologies are on full display in some really sophisticated and capable designs. The hang gliders with chainsaw engines are long gone and thank heavens for that. If you’re looking for a future, part of it is in Paradise City. --Russ Niles
All About the Airshow
By the later half of the week, the thunderstorms blockading northern Florida cleared out to bringing cooler weather and fly-in visitors from around the southeast. In addition to a stream of highly skilled piston aerobats, airshow lovers were treated to acts by a diverse group of loud fast-movers: a harrier, a viper, a hog, and a swarm of hornets. This was my first Sun ‘n Fun and I’m told that wide display of heavy hardware is unusual. Even AirVenture can’t always match it.
Traditional industry pundits were left scratching their heads at the shortage of news (or good news) from Sun ‘n Fun exhibitors, while, as noted above, Diamond Aircraft, in the land of stifling regulation, announced plans at Aero Friedrichshafen for new singles in sectors of the market U.S. airframers had left for dead. I’d have liked to ask some of them what that means for the GA market, but no one was around for an interview. --Geoff Rapoport