Cessna’s Perfect Timing On The SkyCourier


In the depths of the 2008 downturn—I think it was probably 2009—something Jack Pelton, then CEO of Cessna, said at NBAA stuck with me. New aircraft sales had taken a nauseating plunge and bizjet inventories were as high as they had been in years. It wasn’t that nothing was selling, but not much was selling. Never mind that, Pelton said, the company would stay on the gas with new products so as to be ready when the market turned upward again. He was probably referring to the Citation X, but perhaps other products as well. The market never really took a sharp upward turn, but a decade later, it has recovered after a fashion.

Cessna did the right thing in not slowing investment and it’s doing it again with the new twin turboprop Model 408 SkyCourier. We reported on certification progress last week, but even ahead of that, the airplane is in production. It’s not so much that Cessna stayed the course as it is likely to enjoy superb timing. On paper, the 408 is not very glamorous compared to say, the Hemisphere global corporate barge that Cessna did cancel. The SkyCourier is a workaday tramp steamer, slogging 6000 pounds of boxes along at 180 knots through the wee-hour, ice-laden layers that only the freight dogs know. FedEx has already ordered 50 with an option for 50 more. Anyone who’s paying attention will know they’re likely to buy the extras.

Cessna has kept the SkyCourier on track perhaps not in spite of the pandemic but because of it. Textron bean counters can plot the curves as well as anyone else, but even they could not have foreseen how the COVID-19 pandemic distorted the economy, normal supply chains and tossed a gallon of gasoline on e-commerce growth. The numbers are staggering. Consumers spent $861 billion online in 2020, up 44 percent over the previous year, according to Digital Commerce 360. That’s triple the growth in 2019. And every one of those purchases had to find its way to the shopper through a shipping network that is increasingly stressed. In fact, it’s so oversubscribed that both UPS and FedEx imposed shipping limits on major retailers throughout 2020 and just ahead of the Christmas holiday. Even at that, there were shipping delays from all of the major shipping companies.

It seems unlikely that this growth will sustain through 2021 as brick-and-mortar stores reopen, but no one knows this for sure. In any case, as consumers have grown accustomed to the convenience of push-button e-commerce, demand for shipping will remain high. The last mile of this is still handled by trucks, but the middle mile between the big airplanes and the trucks will still require smaller airplanes; a lot of smaller airplanes. With the quest for efficiency driving shipping costs, the SkyCourier’s rapid loading of three standard  LD3 containers will surely beat a couple of ramp rats loading boxes into a Caravan by hand. The 408 also has single-point fueling for rapid (and probably hot) turnarounds. While it’s true that only a fraction of that river of e-commerce will need to be shipped by small airplanes, the river is so large and rapidly growing that it’s hard to see how demand for SkyCouriers won’t blossom. (Passenger versions are also in the mix.)

And who else will buy them? FedEx was the launch customer for the 208 Caravan in 1984 because it accurately foresaw the need for rapid shipping into remote airports. There weren’t other takers in the fast ship market then. Today, the shipping market, in addition to being underserved, is intensely competitive if not on price than on capacity. Now there’s a wild card: Amazon. The major shippers can be broken down this way: UPS is a trucking company with an airline, FedEx is an airline with trucks and Amazon is an e-commerce company with both an airline and trucks. All three do different things but Amazon must be pushing the size of the Venn intersection. On Sunday morning, I rode by a line of nine Prime trucks merging onto I-75. Sunday morning. One of those trucks delivered a RAM mount for my iPhone. On Sunday morning.  

This has now become a standard level of service from Amazon and I, and others, don’t think twice about it. It just is. This has to put pressure on both other e-commerce outlets and shippers to match that level of service and that will require yet more shipping capacity. So in my view, the thing to watch is Amazon. Its business model is e-retail with a network of 110 distribution centers, so those Prime trucks don’t have far to go. For its own needs, it has 85 757s, compared to FedEx’s 650 aircraft and UPS’s 280. Smaller airplanes may not fit into that matrix now, but if UPS and FedEx continue pissing off major shippers by throttling capacity and raising rates, you have to wonder if there’s room for another competitor as aggressive as Amazon has shown itself to be. Prime Ship would be a natural brand identity. And if they need a small turboprop for that, Cessna has one.

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  1. I like the SkyCourier. It strikes me as being “very Cessna”. Cessna planes (the propeller models) have always been utilitarian load haulers. While the Comanche pilots pontificate on speed, and the Bonanza owners brags luxury and control feel, while the Mooney has efficiency … the Cessna pilots talk useful load and short field capability. The 408 seems to come directly from that DNA. Strut-braced wing. Fixed gear. Probably hell built for stout with uncomplicated systems that just work well. Yes, it is square and boxy looking. It does a job. So I’m with you, Paul. I think it will be a hit. I think it will sit proudly next to the Caravan and the 206 in the lineup. I predict that we will see the 408 operating on floats and even skis sooner rather than later. Like a miniature Hercules.

  2. I agree, in the cargo world with FedEx this plane will be a hit. Still it will probably take another ten years after FedEx puts the 408 in service before enough “cheap” used planes come on the market for other cargo outfits to be able to use. Other cargo companies that use feeders who fly Caravans are usually low bidder bottom feeders who don’t pay that well, using well used airplanes, not multi-million dollar new ones. As far as passenger service, other than possibly Alaska or Hawaii, I just don’t see any market for 19 passenger non-pressurized airliner in the lower 48. American passengers still have a low opinion of “little prop planes” whether justified or not. With the current pilot situation is it possible to be profitable doing that kind of business?

  3. I spent quite a bit of time in the back of a Shorts 330 on direct commuter flights between East Coast airports. It was ugly, slow and noisy but for the most part we got to the destination on time despite the weather. The convenience going direct was great. Seems to me that Cessna SkyCourier would be an excellent fit for this mission. Speaking of weather, one night I was on a Shorts 330 flight into Erie, PA. It was snowing like crazy and the wind was blowing so hard that it felt like I was looking out the cockpit window due to the crab the crew had to maintain on final. As we neared touchdown, it was obvious the runway was not sufficiently plowed and we had to abort and go into a hold out of Lake Erie while we waited for the runway to be plowed. Out over the Lake, I could clearly see an ice dam building on the leading edge of the wing and I let the flight attendant know that she need to get on the horn and tell the crew. After a bit of emphasis on my part, she called the crew. The cockpit door opened, the first officer leaned back and his eyes suddenly got very large. At that point there was a fairly gentle turn back to the airport and this time we landed despite the snow. These types of rugged airplanes do have a niche.

    • …. hmmm …. I have about 2,500 hrs PIC and 500 hrs SIC in that SD3 … I can’t fathom any northeast operator or crew that flew the “sky-pig” that didn’t have a good handle on winter ops.

      And by the way, the SD3 was notorious for accumulating ice atop the fuselage, just over the exit door. And don’t ask me how I know this …. 🙄

  4. I have excitedly followed the SkyCourier development. If form follows function, then this is a beautiful airplane – just so many good design decisions. The metal construction and PT-6 engines means it can be serviced anywhere in the world. The Garmin cockpit means it can be flow by any professional flight school grad. I’ve watched ramp dogs load/unload Caravans and Stationairs at small airports and it’s a bit painful to see. This plane so obviously solves that problem that it’s beautiful. With the growth in small- and mid-sized cargo markets, a LOT more places can get overnight shipping service. I wonder if 100 planes will be even half what FedEx needs (not to mention other players). It must be fun sitting working on any FedEx/Cessna team and discussing “how do we want to revolutionize the cargo game, again?”

  5. Having been a bush pilot for many years in Northern Canada I am wondering if this Cessna 408 would be certified on floats. For some operators it may be a good replacement for the Twin Otter. I would be very interested in the specifications on this aircraft.

  6. This airplane looks enough like the Twin Otter that I have to wonder “Why is this better?” Yes, it is a little faster. No, it doesn’t have the STOL capability (but then, maybe it is “good enough”)

    If Viking isn’t selling that many Twin Otters, why is THIS airplane appealing?

    Could Viking be competitive by cleaning up the Twin Otter? Perhaps removing the draggy STOL kit?

    Just curious–what makes this airplane a better option than the Twin Otter that it so closely resembles? I’m sure I’m not the only one asking the question.

    • It will load 3 standard containers. No cargo loading by hand necessary. Just load three containers and you are done.

      • Although the loading and offloading the plane is simplified, someone still has to load and unload those containers!

        • Absolutely agreed. I have worked on an airport while studying, mainly for loading airmail, but also for baggage if need was there. And it is a very time consuming process as everything is done by hand. Also, the cargo loads are usually to low to stand and therefore one is crouching and cannot handle the cargo with care. That means that I had to throw a lot of stuff in there. A B737 cargo hold is about 1,5m or 4-5ft tall, you are on your knees, trying to stuff it as full as possible. The same for a Cessna Caravan. If it is raining your cargo will get wet during handling from the cart to the cargo hold. If it is stormy it may be blown of the conveyor belt. Putting in a few containers that were packed and delivered by the customer in his freight center is much easier.

          • Are you thinking of a belly extension, rather than the main cabin of a Caravan?

            Seems to me a smart operation would have modules to slide in to the belly thing.

      • Huge time saver. The containers can be packed on the ground while the airplane is flying. Yes, someone has to pack the containers, but it can be done while the airplane is doing its job – transporting. Time spent on the ramp is not helping the bottom line. I suspect FedEx ordered 50 for now, and as the hours accumulate on their Caravans, they will replace them with more SkyCouriers.

    • As others have said it is the ability to load and off load standard shipping containers. It will save time and money. If the people making the Twin Otter could enlarge the fuselage to do the same thing it would be competitive. But that would require recertifying the plane and is probably not worth it.

    • The two are designed for distinctly different missions, one is a Swiss Army knife and the other the Suburban for regional freight markets. A fairly good comparison is presented on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyoUIxTKnss).

      I would not envision (immediate) similar versatility of the 408 to the Twotter although I’m sure aftermarket entrepreuners will emerge to create STOL, float, jump, etc. STC’s. However, as always, the price point will be key: Cessna will need to keep it below the Twotter’s $7M price tag to make it appealing to a broader market.

      And LD3’s may not be the only ULD type it carries….;-).

    • You’re looking at it backwards, from the viewpoint of an owner/operator.

      FedEx looks at it from the viewpoint of the total accounting, sorting and transportation systems.

      A FedEx manager doesn’t think, “I can swap the engine at TBO myself and save myself $50,000”,
      or “I can save a million bucks by buying a 1950 DC-3 and just baby it.”

      Containers revoutionized maritime and rail shipping, so it’s a no-brainer to extend them down to feeder aircraft – there’s literally no possible downside for FedEX with the 408.

  7. For Europe this thing will only work if it is really, really quiet. And I mean really quiet. Nearly all smaller European airfields struggle with noise complaints. Even if you are in a glider, as long as it can be seen, people WILL hear it.
    Still a beautiful utilitarian form follows function aircraft.

      • Depends on propellers in substantial part?

        I don’t remember Electra, Herc, and Convair 640 being especially quiet.

        OTOH, in the airplane the Electra and Herc did have propeller blade synchronizing, blade spacing within two degrees using the modernized controller for the Herc. (Electra did have one two-speed engine for ground operation.)

  8. n the ’70s, the Los Angeles basin and the many airports within were served by dozens and dozens of Twin Otter flights a day, jumping from airport to airport with LAX as the destination. Passengers used these Twin Otter commuter flights to save the horrible experience of surface travel to LAX for their flight out. Maybe the time has come again with these new Cessnas.

  9. Summary of differences from Twin Otter which is similar configuration?

    – appears to have twice the payload by weight
    – Twin Otter max cruise 182 knots at 10,000 feet, speed is in large part engine power
    – while Cessna claim not-smooth runway capability, I doubt it can be as good as the Twin Otter
    – Twin Otter usable cabin volume 394 cubic feet (cabin shape looks optimized for seating as is narrower at shin level, claim for Cessna 408 is can take ‘standard’ containers, which are narrower at bottom?).
    – price is crucial
    – as for installing water floats, why bother? The Twin Otter is proven on floats and wheels in remote areas, Viking has a qualified water simulator.

    Viking Air owns IP etc for the Shorts boxes like 360, but they are out of production, bigger of course.

    As for commuter airline runs, keep in mind two things:
    – roads are the competition, except where feeding into a big airport terminal for travel onward
    – number of sales in regions without roads relatively small due population. Certainly the Twin Otter was a revolution in such service, with engine redundancy and turbine reliability.

    (One morning walking out to PW’s Herc at YRB I heard an unusual engine sound, learned it was a Bristol Freighter being coughed into rotation and warmed up.)

    • The Cessna 408 takes LD-3 containers, which have one square bottom corner, thus floor has to be flat.

      Cessna do not want to specify cabin volume in their PR.

      As for sales of Twin Otters, besides cost which I do not know, I’d check how many are sitting idle in this panicdemic – apparently a problem for marketing the far larger dash8-400 airliner.

  10. Certainly seems to be volume in package delivery these days.

    Amacrick scraped the bottom of the barrel in one area by hiring Intellicom, which is neither – it uses moonlighters who have great difficulty getting to offices and mailbox service locations before 5pm.

    Neither outfit is easy to communicate with.

  11. “Never mind that, Pelton said, the company would stay on the gas with new products so as to be ready when the market turned upward again.”

    There’s nothing apparently wrong with this plane, except what anyone outside aviation would expect in product improvement over what was flying in 1984 or even ‘64. Does this really represent staying on the gas? Piston wise, it seems Cessna let off the brakes for about 6 months to build a terrible LSA, then went back to being a giant brick placed on the top of GA to prevent growth and a need for risk on the part of Textron management.

    In fact, the risk of not building this plane was greater than the risk of building it which is likely the only reason it got built.

    Maybe we can appeal to the egos over there? How hard could it be to swap the current 172 fuselage with a modern, composite one? More room, more safety, BRS option perhaps? You’ll be feted, lauded, and loved! Do it!

  12. Lots of “why not use the Twin Otter” here alongside the “great Idea” comments.
    I have been in air freight since 1968, still am in part of that chain. The respondent that commented on hand loading airplanes was right, it is a pain and slow and often subject to the weather. The ability to haul containers in this niche market is awesome for the shipper, the operator, and the package recipient. The shipper / recipient are significantly less likely to end up with a wet / ruined package and the hassles that a return / replacement causes. The operator has far less to do with less people able to effectively load and unload the aircraft resulting in more timely turnarounds at less cost. Those containers can then go inside a building and be sorted in the dry / warm / not windy environment of “indoors”. Containers can be made in pretty much any size, yes. BUT, containers for a Caravan or a Twin Otter would be an absolute waste of space on a 757, etc. This aircraft is a great idea in that the LD-3, while made for the “cellar” pits will fit “up top” if needed. By the way, they LD-3 base is basically 5′ X 5′ X 5′ high. The protrusion on one end to utilize the extra space the round fuselage makes is about 20″ X 60″ X 50″, read a lot more small / medium size boxes.
    Yes, FDX will very likely buy up the lot and ask for more. Note the article that follows where UPS is buying VTOLs. Folks, the ecomerce market is likely changed forever and methods of transport will continue to evolve. Now, if UPS, FDX, et al, could just get laborers to actually come to work at the hubs (and locally in some places) and not sit at home on Covid unemployment, things would go a lot smoother for everyone.