How have such tragic crashes affected other airplane programs?
Not long after the news broke that an Icon A5 had suffered a fatal accident, observers began asking the question, “what does the crash mean to the company’s future?” The sensitivity of asking such a thing so soon after a tragic crash notwithstanding, the question is one that customers and Icon employees are surely thinking of this week.
To be clear, the Icon A5 is not officially in development—it is an approved S-LSA design, though there are only a handful of planes in the field and production has not yet started in earnest.
The conventional wisdom is that the crash of an airplane during flight testing or early in its production program would cripple or end the program, but that is not in fact what has happened in the past.
Planes that have suffered crashes in flight testing or have experienced rashes of accidents early in production have included both high profile and niche offerings. These include the Piper Malibu, the Beechcraft Bonanza and Baron, the Piper Tomahawk and the Sino-Swearingen (now Cyberjet) SJ-30 and the Gulfstream G650.
There’s no objective way to analyze how a crash (or crashes) in development or early in their production lives affected the overall success of the program, but there are a couple of conclusions it’s difficult not to draw.
First, none of these aircraft programs were canceled after the crashes. There are programs that didn’t survive an early history of fatal crashes, like the Bede BD10 jet, but in most of these cases the program was either spiraling toward failure already or was very unlikely to succeed in any case. In the case of the Malibu, the Bonanza and Baron, all of these planes seemed destined for success so long as the companies struck with the program, made the fixes necessary and addressed the accidents with a high level of transparency and candor, even when there were design deficiencies or program failings identified by investigators in the aftermath of the crashes. The Gulfstream G650 not only went into serial production but became the most successful private airplane ever.
How will things go for the Icon A5? It’s tough to say. The plane is clearly a desirable product. Depending on what numbers you use, the company has orders for anywhere between many hundreds and a couple of thousand planes. That popularity might be a challenge for the company in bringing the A5 to market. Selling planes is a far less costly endeavor than building them, and Icon is, indeed, struggling to ramp up production of its amphibious LSA. As we’ve discussed in the past, the company has also struggled to understand the importance of customer communications. It seems to have learned important lessons, though. To its credit, Icon reached out to its position holders within the first few hours after the crash in order to share what details it could and continues to do so.
Regardless of what struggles the company faced before the accident, its path to addressing the crash is clear. Icon management continue to make whatever efforts are necessary to be transparent about the accident, about its participation in the investigation with the FAA and the NTSB in finding out what happened, and in accessing the causes and, if necessary, its efforts to make fixes. The company is restrained from sharing most of the details of these details while the investigation is ongoing, it should be said, an NTSB operational practice we strongly support.
The wisdom of transparency and respect for the inquiry is not new thinking. They are time honored best practices in the discipline of crisis response management. Still, when looking back at high-profile PR disasters in corporate America—think United Airlines’ ham-fisted handling of the aftermath of its treatment of an overbooked customer—it’s clear that a company’s first instincts in crisis management are often the worst possible responses.
With Icon, its initial response to the tragic accident, in which two employees and friends were lost, was heartfelt and honest. Those are the natural response we all have when tragedy strikes. They are also the instincts that will help Icon survive the business challenges of the crash and, indeed, help it go about solving the business challenges it faced even before tragedy struck.