Is customer service in the airplane business dead and buried?
Not quite, but at least three buyers who recently bought new airplanes from Mooney have the impression its on life support.
Two have sold their airplanes in disgust, one is suing Mooney for breach of sale contract and another is engaged in a long-running squabble over warranty performance that may yet end in a lawsuit.
Such suits arent exactly new in the GA industry, nor are warranty disputes. Nonetheless, the fact that Mooney is subject to three at once raises this legitimate question in any potential buyers mind: Can these guys make a reliable airplane and support it to the extent that some customers wont come after them with brickbats?
As weve learned from examining such disputes in the past, every story has two sides and even though these spats sometimes deteriorate into he-says, she says finger-pointing matches, there are lessons for buyers.
For its part, Mooney admits it has had some warranty performance problems related to failed communication and innocent errors but that its still supporting its products as aggressively as ever. In fact, Mooney has just announced a new customer support program that gives buyers some additional warranty protection on models bought this year. More on that in a moment, but first the complaints. (Note: For space considerations, some details have been omitted.)
In February of 1998, Richard Jones of Payson, Arizona bought a new TLS Bravo, trading in a Mooney Allegro he had owned for six months. Price: $414, 780.
During Jones initial Bravo training at FlightSafety International in San Antonio, his instructor noted that significant blue smoke was coming out of the exhaust pipe and deemed the aircraft unairworthy. Jones drove to the Kerrville factory the next day and spoke with a service representative, who suggested that the rings hadnt seated correctly and that the engine would have to be re-ringed. Jones demurred, insisting that he wanted a replacement engine instead.
Further investigation revealed that the engines interior parts were corroded and eventually, the engine was removed and shipped to Lycoming for disassembly and inspection. A preliminary report found corrosion, which Lycoming said was consistent with an airplane stored but not flown, as was the case when the airplane was in the dealers possession in Long Beach, California. Lycoming offered to rebuild the engine to new standards.
Eventually, Jones agreed to accept the rebuilt engine and it was re-installed at the factory and delivered on April 16th, 1999. Unfortunately, Jones said the airplane still spewed smoke and the left fuel tank had multiple leaks. He was advised to operate the engine for awhile to see if the smoke problem cleared itself. Attempts by Cutter to repair the tank were unsuccessful.
By late last summer, a still dissatisfied Jones attempted to contact Mooney once more before pursuing legal action. In September, upon examining the aircraft, a Lycoming technical rep replaced a scavenge pump, theorizing that it was dumping oil into the turbo at idle. Jones says it didnt fix the problem.
In early October 1999, Jones returned the Bravo to Kerrville to fix the leaking tank, with the engine issue still unresolved. At this point, Jones informed Mooney that he would seek legal action under Arizonas Lemon Law and ahead of doing that, demanded a refund on his purchase. Significantly, barely a month after he purchased the Bravo and lodged his initial complaints, Fiesta Mooney (Cutters sales division) did offer to undo the deal, returning the purchase price of the Bravo and returning Jones traded-in Allegro. At the time, Jones declined the offer, insisting instead that Mooney make good on the Bravos problems under warranty.
On April 14th of this year, Jones filed suit against Mooney and Cutter Aviation in Superior Court of Arizona, alleging breach of contract for selling an aircraft that was faulty, defective and unfit for the purpose for which [it was] purchased.As we went to press in early May, the suit was pending.
Bob Pabian, of Key West Florida, bought a new Mooney Encore in November of 1997, having owned a Mooney 201 before that. Over the course of owning the airplane, he reported a ton of troubles, mostly related to engine issues, but also other minor problems that kept the airplane from being the reliable business transportation he sought.
When negotiating the sales contract, for example, Pabian specified shadowed N-numbers, which werent provided when the airplane was delivered. When Pabian contacted Mooney to have these fixed-along with other paint squawks-he was told to return the aircraft to Kerrville, which would be done at Mooneys expense, to have the paint repaired.
Later, to save transportation costs, Mooney agreed to have the work done at a local paint shop and reimburse Pabian for his expenses. Pabian says he had the work done, submitted the invoice but was never paid.
By far, however, engine troubles led Pabians list of complaints, especially fractured induction tubes on the Continental TSIO-360-SB, of which Pabian said he went through too many to count.
Worse, the engine developed significant cylinder problems at 200 hours with low compression and excessive oil consumption. At 400 hours, the engine was re-ringed, at Pabians expense, since the engine was beyond Continentals limited warranty and neither Mooney nor Continental offered assistance of any kind.
I got absolutely no cooperation from Mooney at all. At the time, when you bought a new airplane, they gave you an 800-number with a code to use for customer service. It never worked for me, Pabian told us.
He bought the airplane just as Mooney was reorganizing its dealer network, thus he felt the dealer was left out in the cold with regard to after-the-sale service and the factory was unwilling or unable to pick up the slack in supporting his new airplane. Although the airplane was reliable enough to fly many hours-Pabian racked up 800 hours in two years-he said he also canceled trips due to maintenance downs and recently sold the aircraft for $125,000 less than he paid for it.
In its place, Pabian bought a 1975 Navajo Chieftan and although the operating costs are much higher, he considers the 25-year-old airplane more reliable than the two-year-old Encore.
I consider the entire thing a nightmare from start to finish. Id never consider another new Mooney or any Mooney, really. The worst thing about it was never being able to get any answers from the company.
The third unsatisfied Mooney customer, Antony Fiorentino, of Pensacola, Florida, bought a new Encore on October, 1998, purchase price $406,000. Fiorentino had owned a Mooney 252 before replacing it with the Encore, so he was familiar with the performance and capability of this model. Shortly after taking delivery, Fiorentino began to note a series of squawks, most them minor but several significant.
Chief among Fiorentinos beefs was the airplanes performance: In the mid-teens, it cruised at 175 knots at 77 percent power and because of high cylinder head temperatures, the cowl flaps had to be kept half open, rather than trailed closed. (This may account for the slower cruise speed.) When we test flew the Encore in May of 1997, we noted a cruise speed of 197 knots at 19,000 feet, with no tendency toward high CHTs.
Fiorentinos Encore was equipped with a new, lighter carbon fiber cowling which he says noticeably inflates at cruise speed. Fiorentino queried Mooney about this and also asked the company how to correct consistently high CHTs.
Other items: Fiorentino felt the aircraft was out of rig in roll and he found it difficult to keep in trim, requiring constant retrimming every few minutes. Further, due to an apparent exhaust leak, the engine mount paint was burned and showed signs of corrosion. Last summer, Fiorentino returned his Encore to Kerrville where, according to documents he supplied us, Mooney attempted to correct most of the items on his squawk list. When this work was done, the aircraft was flown-without his permission-to Gen Aero, a San Antonio FBO, where Fiorentino was instructed to pick it up.
But Fiorentino wanted to pick the airplane up in Kerrville, where he also wanted to meet and talk with Mooney principle owner Paul S. Dopp. A series of curt faxes were exchanged, in which Fiorentino accused Mooney of moving his airplane without permission and in which Mooney threatened to have Fiorentino escorted off the property by security if he showed up.
As of mid-April, Fiorentino told us his Mooney was grounded with engine problems, possibly related to fuel pump or fuel injection issues. (This was being diagnosed as we went to press in early May.)
Fiorentino, an attorney who happens to be in the aerospace business, says he too is contemplating a lawsuit but would prefer to reach an accommodation with Mooney.
We contacted Mooney for their response to these three cases and spoke at length to Mooney CEO Chris Dopp and VP for sales, Rick Pitner. Although the Jones lawsuit was filed on April 14th, Dopp told us the company was only served with the paperwork on May 5th, some two weeks later. He was thus unable to comment on the suit itself.
However, Dopp was familiar with both Jones and the Bravo and conceded that there were problems with the airplane, if not when it left the factory then when Jones accepted delivery.
We had some issues with the aircraft. We recognize that, Dopp said. But he also argues that once the company identified the Bravos shortcomings and shipped the engine out for inspection and repair, Lycoming did the right thing by remanufacturing it to new standards. Unfortunately, Dopp added, the company is not in a position to replace a $50,000-plus engine with an off-the-shelf spare.
Having been familiar with Jones complaints almost from day one, Dopp concedes that Mooneys response could have been better. The reality is, I think everyone did everything they could with this airplane. Unfortunately, it took two tries to get the tank fixed.
Further, Dopp argues that the offer to undo the Bravo deal shortly after it was wrapped up strikes him as a more than fair response to Jones beef with the airplane. At one point, according to Dopp and at Jones request, Mooney even discussed replacing the Bravo entirely with an Ovation, a non-turbocharged model.
As for the Fiorentino case, Dopp said he disputes some of the details and that, as far as he knew, all of the complaints were resolved within Mooneys reasonable ability to do so. As for the cowling, Rick Pitner told us that a check of Mooneys production records revealed that it was a standard fiberglass cowling, not the new carbon fiber model. Whether it was inflating in flight is debatable, says Mooney.
I dont think any of these issues were showstoppers, says Dopp, but you have to ask whats fair and whats not.
Specifically, said Dopp, if an engine mount has had paint burned by an exhaust leak should the factory be expected to replace it or repair it? Fiorentino argued for replacement while Dopp said a competent repair is a reasonable option.
The expectation is that airplanes are the same as automobiles and that youll get the same reliability in airplanes as in cars. Thats just not realistic, Dopp said.
A Missing Check
Several hours after we spoke, sales VP Pitner called back to report that he had reviewed the file on Bob Pabians Encore warranty and had found documentation supporting Pabians claim that Mooney had agreed to pay for his paint work being corrected by an outside shop. According to Pitner, a memo in Pabians file approving the payment was sent to the companys accounting department two days later.
For reasons unknown, the check was never written or sent, probably due to a simple oversight. Pitner said Mooney rectified the error immediately in early May and got the check on its way to Pabian, who, ironically, no longer owns a Mooney. This appears to us to be a simple mistake, not a warranty dodge.
New Support Program
At Sun n Fun in April, Mooney announced an enhanced product support program that includes extended support hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. 365 days a year. The company will also offer turnkey after-the-sale support handled by a single point of contact who threads the thicket of service issues in the customers behalf.
As many do some premium car companies, Mooney will also provide free oil changes and inspections during the warranty period (up to six total) for the original owner, plus trip reimbursement of up to $500 if an aircraft is unrepairable in the short-term. This new program applies to all aircraft bought in May 2000 forward.
Judging whos right in these warranty spats is chancy at best. Our view is that Richard Jones had legitimate beefs if indeed his Bravo was delivered with a corroded engine. Applying the automobile standard, Mooney and Lycoming moved glacially to set it straight.
Applying the light aircraft service standard-which we think could do with improvement-they were on target, delivering the repaired airplane in about two months time or about as long as it takes to overhaul an engine.
Fiesta Mooneys offer to undo the purchase a month into Jones troubles strikes us as a fair remedy, albeit one every customer should have if he encounters egregious difficulties with a new airplane.
In all the warranty disputes we have examined, weve noted a common thread: Companies are occasionally unresponsive to aggrieved customers questions. They fail to return phone calls, letters or faxes, which, understandably, irritates someone who has just bought a half-million dollar airplane.
This further aggravates owners who may expect more than the warranty is supposed to deliver and cant negotiate because the company is silent. In our view, this shortcoming alone is more than enough to sour the new owners buying experience.
Mooneys Dopp concedes that Mooney needs to improve its hands-on communication with customers, thus the new flight support program. But despite these three cases, he contends that Mooneys underlying warranty support has been and remains sound and that Mooney has lived up to its end of the warranty deal.
With the proviso that improvements are in the works, we agree with that view. Despite these three cases, we dont see a consistent pattern of warranty dodges by Mooney.
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Click here to view “Is A New Airplane More Reliable? Not Neccessarily.”