The last year has been traumatic for GA: Orders have dropped precipitously, customers have cancelled orders, manufacturers and other companies have had layoffs, and the industry has been battered by attacks against business aviation and federal funding for GA airports.
“We’ve been through a free fall,” Jack Pelton, Cessna Aircraft Co. chairman, president and CEO, said opening day of the AOPA Aviation Summit.
But he sees signs that the free fall as stopped.
“We’re stabilizing now,” he said, noting Cessna officials are looking to 2011-2012 for recovery. “The worst is behind us.”
He noted the GA industry lags behind the economy by about 24 months, so it’s “great news” to be “in stabilization” now.
The hit that GA has taken in the last year has been “largely undeserved,” added Alan Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus Aircraft.
Now, he said, it’s time to look towards the future and redefine not only the industry’s products, but what it takes to get people into aviation.
Corvin Huber, managing director of Remos Aircraft, the market leader in Light Sport Aircraft sales, agreed.
“We may not have seen the worst if we don’t start looking outside our own community,” he said. “We need new people.”
To accomplish that, “we must make aviation more accessible,” he said.
That requires a shift in thinking, Klapmeier said. “We tend to assume that if someone is outside aviation, they just don’t get it, and that’s too bad. We need to share our joy.”
The industry also needs to realize it’s not just selling planes, but an experience.
“When it comes down to the product we are selling, it’s not just the plane — it all has to come together to get people into aviation, including training, finance, insurance, and more,” Klapmeier said.
It also means the industry has to educate potential customers why aviation is a good choice for them in terms of time and money. “We need to do a better job of communicating the benefits of aviation, while we come up with better products,” he said.
GA needs to market itself better, Remos’s Huber added, noting the automotive industry has done a much better job of that than aviation.
“We need to listen to what our customers want, which is utility, fun and freedom,” he said. “We need to give them a ‘total satisfaction package,’ so people are happy about their purchase.”
Many in the industry look to LSAs to help communicate that message. Cessna’s SkyCatcher is set to take off soon, with deliveries expected to begin in 2010. The company has more than 1,000 orders on its books for the LSA.
“We’re excited about it,” Pelton said. “There are a lot of old planes out there that are still working, but there are also a lot of people out there who want to fly and can’t get into a 150.”
The LSAs “provide a hook to get people to consider aviation and what it can do for them — at an affordable price,” he added.
The industry has always couched the conversation in terms of money, noted Rhett Ross, president of Teledyne Continental Motors. “In the last year, we’ve helped people understand that these products are not just toys — they save lives, transport business people, help people do charity work and, yes, have a lot of fun as well,” he said.
Unfortunately, the problem is that someone will walk into a flight school, ask how much costs to get a private pilot’s license and the curt reply is, “got $12,000?” Cessna’s Pelton noted. “People just turn around and walk away.”
A more pleasant first experience, a friendly face at an FBO, a banker who “doesn’t look at you like you are crazy when you say you want to buy an airplane” are the little things that will help GA grow, Klapmeier said.
“I cannot overemphasize that in the future the plane is going to be a small part of the total product,” Huber said, noting GA needs to create a “21st century experience.”
“We need to make aviation something people want to be a part of and spend their money on,” he said. “We need to show them how an airplane can get them to their tee time at 6 a.m. We need to prove that aviation does something for the person.”
It’s also important to remember the initial thrill of that first flight, Klapmeier said. “We have to remind them of that excitement on day two and day three,” he said.