First Word: May 2011

Confidence Men

Its a good thing I don’t own a TV because Id huck a brick at it the next time I heard the words “economic recovery.” As of five minutes ago, productivity is up, help wanted is down, inflation is in stasis and the consumer confidence index is …

actually, I don’t know what the consumer confidence index means, really.

But I do have a gut feeling what simple “consumer confidence” is, and thats why Im thinking about sending CEO of Cessna, Jack Pelton, a big box of heart-shaped chocolates. Cessna unveiled at Sun ‘n Fun their new Corvalis TTX, sporting a Euro-touring sedan interior and the latest Garmin G2000 avionics suite customized for the Corvalis. Thats a pretty bold move considering Corvalis sales over the previous two years probably constituted a little more than a rounding error on Cessnas balance sheets.

The crazy-like-a-fox payoff for this bravado was that Cessna sold 16 of the $733,000 beasts. Thats just shy of $12M total for those of you keeping score at home. Tack on the 13 high-wing piston-singles and the Caravan they sold, and I think theyve got the tornado damage to their display booth covered.

Call it a wake-up call that the buyers are out there, doing what weve been suspecting: Sitting on purchase decisions as much from uncertainty as austerity. Cessna made a statement, announcing they believed in the market, were willing to invest real skin in a quality product and would sell it for a fair price. The confident seller inspired confident buyers who put down real money. It happened with the SkyCatcher and the Mustang in much the same way. Do we see a trend here?

On my 2011 sweets list as we’ll is Aspen Avionics CEO John Uczekaj. Aspen already did the industry a big service in offering a stepping-stone approach to panel upgrades. Now theyve partnered with Honeywell to bring some much-needed competition to the GPS/nav/com space thats been Garmins monopoly ever since Garmin swallowed UPSAT. Honeywells KSN 770 GPS/nav/com has been stalled for years. So long, in fact, that Garmin has since raised the bar immensely with their new KTN series. But Aspen has a track record of hitting their niche with that right combination of product, price and support. Buyers believe in them and, well, buy.

Aspen also partnered with Avidyne to fill the gaping need for an aftermarket autopilot whose capabilities justify the installation cost. The idea is paring the Aspen digital gyros and GPS/nav integration with Avidynes digital autopilot. All thats missing from this picture are some digital servos, and your 30-year-old Bonanza can thumb its spinner at gusty crosswinds all the way down a GPS glidepath. Will people buy? Uczekaj says theyre lining up.

Confidence, or lack thereof, is probably at the heart of the LSA market stumbling. How can a buyer be confident he or she made the right choice when there are over 100 companies to choose from? Some buyers do their best and take the leap, others just go with what they know (Did I say “SkyCatcher” earlier?) and the rest just wait.

The twin markets of new aircraft sales and reasonable revitalization of existing aircraft are the springs that feed aviations economic tributary. Kudos to the bold souls working on the first count. The second is a tougher nut. We need engines, interiors, exteriors and avionics at all price points to keep the extant fleet viable and attractive. This may take regulatory reform, such as an ASTM process for parts similar to the LSA market. Will this hurt new sales? I don’t see the Lexus dealership suffering from Montys used car emporium across the street.

Economic recovery? Save it for the talk shows. I like the camp intoning, “The Economy is dead! Long live the Economy!” We make a lot more progress by just getting on with the business of good business. A free box of chocolates to anyone else out there whos ready to bring it on. –Jeff Van West