Five years since the birth of the sport pilot certificate and the light sport aircraft (LSA) industry some basic trends and truths are emerging, although overall it hasn’t grown as quickly as hoped.
Dan Johnson, chairman of the board and president of the Light Sport Manufacturers Association, noted that not as many pilots as hoped have been awarded the sport pilot certificate. The FAA says there are 3,064 sport pilots on its roster.
“Growth in the pilot population is a problem that general aviation has been unable to solve. So, why would a startup industry be able to solve it when it is busy creating an infrastructure?” asked Johnson.
The number of LSAs sold each year is well below expectations. There are 1,688 LSA registrations recorded, not counting powered parachutes and weight-shift aircraft, Johnson said.“By now we expected to be at 1,000 per year and are at less than half that for 2009,” Johnson said. The majority of that can be assigned to the economy alone, but there are mitigating factors. A lot of it goes back to infrastructure—before you can sell, you need a place where pilots can be trained. Despite the economy, one of the successes the industry has seen in 2009 is more entries of LSAs into established flight school fleets. That’s because in tight times, flight schools seek greater economy.
So if LSAs are entering the aircraft registration list at about half the rate as originally hoped, why are there more than 100 LSA models from which to choose? And what happened to the industry shakeout, rumored since the LSA industry began, that was supposed to have reduced LSA manufacturers to a half-dozen companies?
“FAA regulation changes and adopting ASTM standards lowered the barriers of entry dramatically,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t take tens of millions of dollars to enter manufacturing, at least at the LSA level. Manufacturers need only certify to the FAA that their aircraft meet industry-agreed-upon ASTM standards, thus saving millions that would be required for traditional certification. Also, manufactures can survive at low rates of production. That also means, however, there is less profit to kick out to marketing and infrastructure building. There is less capital to build the overall enterprise.”
The fact that there are so many models from which to choose can be credited to consumers who demand choice. “They are used to having a perfusion of car models and sub-models and sub-, sub-models,” Johnson said. At the same time, having so many choices creates a problem when the still-expected shakeout does occur. “We don’t have much experience at preserving support to a brand when a company goes away,” he added.
The strongest trend, one that may serve to preserve the industry and lead to ultimate success, is its global nature, Johnson said. “Today, two-thirds of all LSA airplanes sold come from outside this country. The promise of tomorrow is the acceptance by an increasing number of countries of ASTM standards—meaning one certification scheme allows you to sell in many countries. That may be the brightest spot on the LSA horizon,” Johnson said.
It is likely manufacturing costs for LSAs will remain low due to the global nature of the manufacturing process. “The ability of the small producer to manage his enterprise by segmenting manufacturing and assembly is an under-observed benefit of this scheme,” Johnson said. An Australian producer, for example, could make components and parts that are sent to the United States for assembly, even though the U.S. assembler didn’t design or test the aircraft. We haven’t seen that sort of thing previously in aviation on this scale among small enterprises.” That method has not been lost on the larger manufacturers. Cessna will have its SkyCatcher mass-produced in China, although it was designed and tested in Wichita.