Hows Cessna Doing?

Quality control issues and ADs have dogged new production, but owners are happy. Most would buy again.

Since weve never shied away from loosing an arrow or two at shoddy airplanes, products and services, it should come as no surprise that were a magnet for occasional rumors of GA doom and gloom.

Shortly after Cessna rolled out the first couple of dozen new Skyhawks not quite two years ago, a reader phoned to ask if it was true that the paint had blistered off every one of them and the lot were recalled to be stripped and repainted.

Check it out, he said.

A year later, a friend of friend of the brother-in-law of an avionics field rep we know-who actually lives in Independence, mind you-reported that more than 300 Cessna 172s were sitting unsold on the ramp and the company would soon be laying off workers. Next, we learned that Skyhawks, fresh out of the factory, were being peppered with airworthiness directives to correct shoddy workmanship.

All rumors, of course. The truth is that Cessna did have some trouble with paint and its production rate is we’ll below original projections and there have been ADs for the 172R, the most recent issued a month ago to inspect for defective mufflers.

Cessna openly admits that restarting the production line has been more difficult than it imagined and competing for skilled workers with the likes of Boeing and Raytheon in the Wichita area has complicated its plans to ramp up production. And there have been quality control problems, both on the 172 and the 182.

Of course, its one thing for editors and writers to carp about such shortcomings but what do the people who really matter-the buyers and owners-think about Cessnas new products, now that theyve been in the field from a few months to more than a year? To find out, we surveyed 15 new Cessna owners selected at random from the FAAs registry list.

On a scale of 1 to 5, we asked these owners to rate Cessnas performance on negotiating the sale, providing service, warranty performance, overall impressions of quality and whether theyd buy another Cessna. We also wanted to know if they considered ADs issued against a new airplane as acceptable teething pains or an indication of serious underlying quality control problems.

ADs, Minor Fixes
First of all, lets summarize the ADs: There were three for the Skyhawk, the first issued in June of last year to correct a problem with the lower cowling rubbing against the fuel strainer in such a way that a major fuel leak could develop. This AD applied to about 70 of the first 100 new Skyhawks made at Independence.

The second AD was issued last December. It applied to a part number placard mistakenly applied over the alternate static system port. Until the placard was removed and the valve relabeled, the Skyhawk was grounded for IFR operations.

In January of this year, the third AD was announced, calling for the inspection of defective mufflers installed on some new 172s. Cessna discovered that some of the mufflers had failed pressure tests, which could conceivably cause the heater to pump carbon monoxide into the cabin.

Although all but a few 172s had to be inspected, only some mufflers required replacement. Pending replacement of the muffler, the AD required the heater to be wired in the off position. (Naturally, this came to light in the dead of winter.) Cessna expedited replacement mufflers to owners in cold climates but some owners were still unhappy with the delays.

In addition, there were 17 service bulletins mailed to new owners to correct minor production errors not related to safety of flight, including poorly fitting metal parts, missing rivets in door posts, wiring problems and door latch adjustments. More troublesome were a rash of transponder failures and other glitches with Bendix/King avionics.

Owners report that these problems have been repaired under warranty but some were unhappy about having their airplanes grounded for fixes.

A for Effort on Sales
Cessna has established overlapping sales territories and although dealers stock and sell demos, many owners we spoke to-at least early buyers of Skyhawks-actually went to the factory to pick up their new airplanes. And, in any case, would-be buyers often find themselves dealing directly with the factory at some level.

With only an exception or two, owners say the factory and dealers were responsive and aggressive in completing the deal, providing sales literature, accurate price quotes, financing information and answering questions about specifications.

Only one owner reported a less-than-satisfactory experience with the sales transaction. The Inn Flying Club, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, bought a new 172 last July. Club president Scott Silverman, who happens to be a car salesman himself, says the dealer promised $40,000 for a trade-in airplane but didnt have any floorplan cash or financing arrangement through Cessna to cover the deal.

Silverman had to execute a last-second, personally guaranteed bridge loan. He told us he viewed this as inevitable for a company coming out of hibernation. On the other hand, the issue wasnt entirely resolved until Silverman buttonholed Cessna CEO Russ Meyer at Oshkosh last year.

Minor oversights aside, owners give Cessna a 4 for tending to sales transactions quickly and effectively.

No Price Pushback
When Cessna announced its new aircraft prices in 1996 at Oshkosh, we thought we heard a collective gasp from show goers. Yet one Cessna sales exec told us that there had been no price pushback among serious buyers, a claim we chalked up to good ole GA hype.

In fact, it turns out he may have been right. Even though they had other complaints about the new airplanes, none of the owners we interviewed said Cessnas new models were overpriced. In fact, when asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how their airplanes performed compared to how they expected them to perform, most said their airplanes deserved a 4 or 5.

Our impression is that Skyhawk owners are happy with the flying qualities, speed and load carrying capabilities of their new airplanes. We heard no sour comments about expecting more speed, creature comforts or payload from airplanes costing from $140,000 to more than $200,000.

Cessnas re-design of the seats, cabin and panel lighting and quieter interior drew raves from new owners, who felt the improvements made the airplanes worth the asking price.

However, flight schools and leaseback owners tell us there’s a significant downside to putting a spanking new airplane on the rental line: It costs money to service that debt, thus rental rates for new 172s range between $75 and $95 per hour; $10 to $20 higher than an older model.

According to two flight schools we contacted-Mid-Island at Islip, New York and Professional Flight Training in Bridgeport, Connecticut-renters like the new 172s. But when there’s a choice, theyll often fly older models to save a few bucks. Dee Stelmack, who manages PFTs Bridgeport operations, told us the school may have to offer special pricing to develop a loyal rental clientele for its new Cessnas.

Lou Mancuso, who has operated Mid-Island Air Service at Islip, New York for 26 years, reports that the new Skyhawks are different enough from older models to require at least an hour of checkout time, at $87 per hour. An operator simply cant hand over the keys to a pilot experienced in an older model.

Youve got the fuel injection to deal with. The avionics arent the same. Its just different enough that you cant give the guy 15 minutes of dual and send him on his way, says Mancuso. Hes had to adjust his rental rates, bumping up the price on the older Skyhawks and dropping the price slightly on the new models.

Speaking of avionics, there were lots of beefs about the new Bendix/King avionics, which include next generation KX 155A navcomms, KT 76C transponders, KLN 89B GPS navigators and a KAP 140 autopilot.

Owners report-and Cessna confirms-a number of premature transponder failures. (Two owners told us their transponders quit on the flight home from the factory.) Two owners reported navcom failures after only a few hours of operation, others complained of wiring glitches in the audio panel and intercom that rendered one of the intercom stations inoperative.

The avionics stink, said Steven Cook of Providence, Utah, who bought Skyhawk serial number 33 a year ago and has flown it 200 hours. He said the navcoms have been out twice for repairs and the autopilot was a mess. He reported that installation was the problem in both cases, with stressed wires failing or shorting due to sloppy workmanship.

When the avionics work properly, which, to be fair, is far more the norm than the exception, owners like the new equipment, especially the KLN 89B GPS navigators, which are standard equipment in most new airplanes. For its part, Cessna says avionics failures were an early blip that has since dropped off their quality control radar as a major issue.

Interestingly, owners are surprisingly forgiving about these and other quality lapses. Even first-time owners seem savvy to the way of the world. An oft-heard comment: With any airplane, you have to expect that sort of thing.

Down Time
But thats not to suggest that owners are entirely sanguine about airplanes that need repairs shortly after picking them up from the factory. The single largest irritation we noted-after avionics-was having the airplanes grounded awaiting repair parts, either to satisfy an AD or to fix some other factory oversight.

When we asked one owner, David Christopher of Houston, Texas, to comment on Cessnas quality control, he replied: You really want to go there?

Christopher bought Skyhawk serial number 167 last fall and immediately had trouble with avionics, the EGT gauge, lights and the alternator. The fixes were covered under the warranty but the muffler AD kept the airplane grounded for a week.

A state government agency in the midwest-which bought two 172s-had a similar experience and was unhappy that airplanes they need every day were in the hangar for a week while mechanics chased down parts and repair information.

A new airplane should work better. Or at least I expected it to. I have less trouble with my new truck than with my new airplane, Christopher told us. Yet, like other owners, Christopher said that although hes unhappy with the down time, he would still buy another Cessna. Theyre [quality problems] really not that serious and I think Pipers building them the same way. And Beech, Christopher said.

On average, the owners we surveyed awarded Cessna a lukewarm 2.8 for quality control. To Cessnas credit, however, we found not a single warranty claim left unsatisfied and despite the occasional delay in parts delivery, repeated failures of a component or two and squabbles over who would pay for expressing AOG parts or for a mechanics time, all of the owners we talked to seemed ultimately pleased with Cessnas product support.

Actually, Cessna drew one beef for trying too hard. For the first 50 Skyhawks sold, factory reps made weekly calls to owners for a how-goes-it status report. (See sidebar.) Owner Steven Cook said he appreciated the follow-up interest but found the calls intrusive. Another early owner expressed a similar view.

Buy Again? Yes
Cessna has reported that quality control problems with the early airplanes have been materially reduced if not entirely eliminated. Our survey supports that.

The state agency we mentioned earlier owns two Skyhawks, one of the early models built in 1996 and a more recent model which came off the line late last year. We were told that the newer model had significantly fewer fit and finish squawks but it had accumulated too few hours to make any assessments on warranty issues.

Overall, our impression is that Cessna buyers are more sophisticated (and patient) with regard to quality issues than we had imagined. Most are resigned to the fact that new airplanes-unlike luxury cars-are largely handmade and wont be perfect right off the production line, despite costing three times as much as the car.

I figure I was buying a Chevy, not a Cadillac. Frankly, my expectations were not all that high, says Howard Small, who bought a new 182 last fall and experienced avionics and instrument faults within hours of taking delivery. He credits Cessna for doing the best they could with the airplane.

Despite widespread but minor complaints about quality, we don’t see much buyer remorse among new Cessna owners. Twelve of the 15 we interviewed said theyd buy a Cessna again, one was on the fence and two said they wouldnt buy another.

A common sentiment expressed to us was that Cessna is in the game for the long haul and deserves support. In general, most owners consider the flaws theyve encountered to be tolerable. (Including transponder and navcomm crumps.) They also say Cessna should work on improving its aircraft-on-ground response time.

Of the two who wouldnt buy again, Lou Mancuso of Mid-Island said he felt the Skyhawk isn’t the airplane for the 90s and hes more interested in Lancairs soon-to-be-available Columbia and has placed deposits on three of them.

If they get their quality act together, I may change my tune a year from now. But for now, no, I wouldnt buy another Cessna.

Steven Cook gives Cessna credit for trying but he encountered too many shortcomings in his new Skyhawk to consider buying another. My next airplane will be a Piper, he said.

Those complaints aside, our view is that Cessnas early problems with quality were clearly teething pains and even though they seem to be receding, we think its unrealistic to expect perfection on any new GA airplane coming off Cessnas or anyone elses production line.

What owners should expect, however, is prompt and fair attention to warranty claims with no squabbling about fixing faults overlooked by the factory. On that count, owners say Cessna has performed admirably.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “How Cessna Tracked and Fixed Squawks.”

Jane Garvey, Ken Ibold and Paul Bertorelli contributed to this report.