The outsiders

Alan Klapmeier gets a lot of grief because he’s selling planes.

Well, it’s not because he’s selling planes — it’s who he’s selling them to.

“Our company gets beat up for trying to sell airplanes to people outside the industry,” says the co-founder and CEO of Cirrus Design Corp., which produces the SR-20 and SR-22. “I’m amazed at the responses we get from people in the industry, from our competition, the FAA and the financial world.”

Even Cirrus customers give Klapmeier a hard time about selling to “outsiders,” he says. Their beef? Outsiders don’t have any experience in airplanes.

“All we hear is ‘It’s dangerous, they have no experience,'” he said at Sun ‘n Fun. “Of course they have no experience —they’re new to the industry. Is there anybody who doesn’t understand how absurd that is?”

And, he questions, is there anyone who doesn’t understand that if GA is to survive, we must bring new people in. “We have to have new people and they will have no experience when they start,” he says. “But we must bring new people in. That’s how FBOs make money. That’s how manufacturers make money. That’s how every other company in the industry makes money.”

Just a day after Klapmeier made his comments, they were echoed by Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association. He points to the new Sport Pilot/Light Sport Aircraft rule as the way to bring in new blood.

“The toughest first step is to go from non-pilot to private pilot,” he says. “Only three out of 10 people who start learning how to fly finish. That’s a 70% failure rate.”

Time and money are the big inhibitors, he says, two items addressed by the new Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft rules. “We know that once people get into aviation, they stay in.”

But whether it’s someone interested in being a sport pilot or flying the latest technology, such as the glass cockpit SR-22s, the industry has to make an effort to communicate to those outside aviation how great flying really is, says Klapmeier.

“It’s a fantastic mode of transportation,” he says. “It’s all about utility. Outside the industry, nobody needs an airplane. The trip I made yesterday was easier and faster than on a commercial airline. I don’t ‘need’ it, but it makes life easier.”

Communicating that to the outside world is something that the aviation industry hasn’t done very well, Klapmeier says. “That’s the message I want to focus on this year,” he notes.

Cirrus, which achieved profitability for the first time in 2004, delivered more than 550 airplanes in 2004, racking up more than $200 million in revenues. “Obviously, it was a good year for us,” Klapmeier says.

The company increased production to 12 airplanes a week in its Duluth, Minn., manufacturing facility. Sales last year totaled 730, he adds.

“The real question is how to continue to grow?” he asks. “Our industry has a fantastic value for customers, but we do a really bad job of communicating it. If we were selling buggy whips, there would be a poor market because people don’t need buggy whips, but smaller aircraft have real value. We have to change how we talk to the outside world.”

We also have to change how we teach people to fly, he insists.

His theory is that people should learn to fly in the aircraft they intend to fly. “That’s controversial, even with our customers,” he admits.

But it makes sense if you get away from the idea that a student pilot traditionally solos in 10 hours and earns his ticket in 40 hours, he says. “We need to get away from getting a license and get to the point where we’re concentrating on what it takes to learn how to operate an aircraft safely and effectively,” he says.

That means it could take 50 hours of training before a pilot solos. “Big deal,” he says. “That just means you take your CFI on your next business trip.”

Why not start new pilots in the plane they will fly, whether it’s a Malibu or a 172, Klapmeier asks. “It will take longer to learn,” he admits. “But the old saying is that a pilot’s license is a license to learn, so let’s put them in a more capable plane and let them learn how to really do it.”

He acknowledges that traditional training methods are driven by insurance. “Insurance is the de facto regulator of the industry,” he says. “It determines how people are going to fly.”

And some pilots are scared off by the insurance. But does it make sense to pay $300,000 for an airplane, then worry because insurance is $15,000 for the first year, even if you know it will drop to $5,000 the second year with a safe record, he asks. “So, they go out and buy a Cessna 172 to build time,” he says. “I believe the only limited resource we have is time. Why waste a year in a plane you don’t plan to fly?”

Janice Wood is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.

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