Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

The New Look Of GA

How new aircraft buyers are changing the face of general aviation

new lookJust over a decade ago, buying a brand-new aircraft wasn’t an option. While you might have been able to special-order something esoteric, most legacy manufacturers had altogether stopped building new airplanes. When you could buy something brand-new, it looked just like the airplanes already sitting on the ramp, albeit a bit shinier and with that “new plane” smell. The technology, both in the cockpit and within the engine, was pretty much the same from one aircraft to another and hadn’t really progressed much in more than 40 years. The designs of the aircraft themselves had stayed pretty much the same since the 1950s.
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We spoke with several manufacturers to identify the psychographic of today’s new aircraft buyer. Each cited technology as a prime reason to buy. “The point of reference of buyers today is vastly different from 20 years ago,” says John Doman, VP of propeller aircraft sales for Cessna. “Technology is a huge driver. It has made flying so much easier than it used to be.”

The technology that buyers are after isn’t even necessarily “high-tech.” While glass panels and FADEC are certainly attracting pilots, many new buyers are simply looking for safer, easier flying. They find it in features like the Cirrus parachute system, Diamond’s cockpit visibility or Liberty’s docile stall characteristics and integrated roll bar. Where novices used to be overwhelmed by looking at instrument-panel gauge arrays, today they see clean, uncluttered panels with video-game-like display screens. The perception is that flying has become easier.

Steve Schwartz, a sales director for Cirrus agrees, “We sell lots of airplanes to zero- and low-time pilots who are really the most cautious buyers. Once they fly the Cirrus, they say, ‘Wow, this is easy!’ and we educate them about the capabilities of the aircraft.” Schwartz claims that technology and the situational awareness it provides are the main reasons customers are drawn to Cirrus. “The safety component that comes with the technology is what attracts people.”

The push for technology goes hand in hand with the changing demographic of buyers. Where once it was experienced pilots buying new aircraft, today’s buyer is more likely to be somebody who’s new to aviation and is seeking a business tool or an efficient and safe way to avoid airline travel.

“Buyers used to be older and had typically been flying forever,” notes Robert Stewart, a territory manager with Diamond Aircraft. “Today, it’s a younger buyer who sees that commercial airline travel is horrible, and needs to make travel more efficient and pleasant.” Stewart says his customers are computer-savvy professionals who are usually new to flying.

People coming into aviation today are proficient with their cell phones and PDAs, and computer displays are a normal part of everyday life. The familiarity with which they treat technology is different from buyers in the past. “These guys are using their iPhones and their laptops, and the glass cockpit is a familiar world to them,” says Liberty Sales Manager Jack Younger.


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