Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

In This Together

High fuel? Plunging dollar? We say, “bah!”

light-sport-chroniclesThis could be the greatest thing to happen to general aviation since the 1940s,” says Mike Zidziunas. “This” refers to the rise of light-sport aircraft (LSA). Industry “pundits” set the number of LSA sold so far in the United States at nearly 1,400, give or take an airframe or two. Although the credit crisis and fuel woes are doing a sumo squat on the picture as we speak, recreational pilots, aviation career seekers and flight schools intent on bringing fresh hardware and energy to aging trainer fleets forge ahead.
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One Happy Family—For Now
One of the big movers and shakers in the LSA movement is Dan Johnson, chairman of the board of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA). Johnson has made a career ( out of flying, writing about, photographing and promoting alternative forms of aviation for more than 30 years. He’s my LSA go-to guy. Compared to him, well, I’m Harrison Ford trying to drive an Amish buggy. [Read “Guest Speaker: State Of The LSA Industry” by Dan Johnson from P&P June 2008.]

Johnson brainstormed this year’s promotional coup: the LSA Mall. Sun ’n Fun attendees passed through the main gate into a rainbow forest of flapping flags and dozens of LSA models lining the pathway. Johnson and Randi, his wife/business partner, manned a large tent chockfull of LSA information: looping videos, handouts, wall photos and volunteers to help them pitch the phenomenon to the unknowing masses. Think of it as an auto mall, light-sport style.

Johnson sees the mall as a win-win for everybody. “Now you might wonder, how can competing businesses cooperate like that?” he asks rhetorically. “Because it’s easier on the customer and it increases exposure for those sellers whose main display booths are off in a corner of the field.

“In the GA industry,” he continues, “the three magic words are ‘dwindling market share.’ As the market shrinks, nobody wants to help the other guy; we’re all selling to the same people. Why then are LSA dealers letting their wings overlap the wings of competitors—and liking that fact?”

Because, says he, the LSA sector is still in mid-GA invasion mode. “If we group together, you’ll see us. If we’re scattered all over the place, we’re invisible. That doesn’t help us move forward.” But doesn’t that make it harder to compete?

Johnson answers, “Do you think someone who’s coming to an air show to buy a Cirrus SR22 isn’t going to notice that Cessna 400 a little ways down the lane? Of course they will. The mall isn’t only a great way to promote our segment of aviation, but also to show GA that there’s another way to market the products.”

What about the conventional “shakeout” view that big companies like Cirrus or Cessna traditionally make superior products, dooming little companies to failure?

“Then how,” he answers, “do you explain Maule’s half century or so in business? I believe there are many LSA companies who could make a fine living selling 20 or 30 airplanes a year.”

Looming dark over the discussion is GAMA’s research showing that U.S. piston aircraft sales have slipped 28% from last year. “LSA sales reflect that trend with a 30% drop,” says Johnson.

But this much we know: Folks across the country are jumping in big-time. And if there’s a way to make it through the current economic downturn, you can count on the Mike Zs and Dan Johnsons of the movement to lead the charge.


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