2006 AIN Product Support Survey: Part Three - Avionics

 - September 27, 2006, 12:37 PM

AIN asked pilots, mechanics and department managers to rank avionics suppliers in seven key categories: parts availability; parts cost; AOG (aircraft-on-ground) response; warranty fulfillment; technical manuals; technical reps; and overall product reliability. More than 1,600 readers filled out the survey forms, with most providing written comments in addition to numerical rankings.

Forecast International collected data provided by AIN readers for this year’s report, which also included sections on aircraft OEMs and engine manufacturers (the results from those portions of the survey ran in the August and September issues, respectively, of AIN). Avionics suppliers not mentioned in this report received too few responses for the results to be considered statistically meaningful.

Garmin once again scored highest among avionics suppliers in AIN’s annual product support survey, edging out Universal Avionics and Rockwell Collins for the top spot on this year’s list.

Customers ranked Garmin highest in every category but one, giving the Olathe, Kan. manufacturer an average score of 7.18 on a scale where a 1 equaled inadequate performance and a 9 indicated overall excellence. Universal Avionics finished second with an average score of 7.01 on the strength of the company’s technical representatives (who were judged to be tops in the industry) and overall product reliability. Rockwell Collins lifted its ranking two spots this year after an improvement in the parts-availability category. Its overall score of 6.95 was good enough for third place.

Avidyne and AirCell rounded out the top five, each recording scores that put them among customers’ favored companies in several categories. The least favorite companies to deal with for product-support issues based on this year’s scores were Meggitt/S-Tec, Thales and Trimble, which trailed competitors in most categories and wound up with scores near the “average” ranking on our scale. (Interestingly, none of the suppliers on this year’s list ended up with an overall score of “below average” in any category.)

Based on anecdotal written responses from pilots and mechanics, Garmin finished in first place because its products rarely need to be fixed. “I wouldn’t know about Garmin’s parts prices,” wrote one respondent in the comments section of the survey form. “Our units (GNS 430, GNS 530, 340 audio panels, 327 and 330 transponders) never break!”

Unlike some of its competitors who outsource production to factories far from their corporate headquarters, Garmin has its own manufacturing facilities (the main one is right outside its front door in Olathe, Kan.). The strategy appears to be paying dividends based on its score of 7.96 for overall product reliability, the highest score for all suppliers across all the categories. Noted one pilot, “We have four GNS 530s and three GNS 430s and none of them over the past two years has had a problem.”

The only category for which Garmin finished out of the top spot was technical reps (it placed third behind Universal Avionics and Rockwell Collins), although one operator noted, “We usually get questions answered in a timely fashion.” Garmin’s AOG response was judged to be the best in the industry, although it finished only a hundredth of a point ahead of Universal Avionics (7.09 versus 7.08).

It will be interesting to observe whether Garmin maintains its hold on the overall top spot in future surveys as the company’s G1000 avionics system enters service with very light jet and turboprop operators. There is no reason to suspect the company will show a precipitous drop, but Garmin executives nevertheless might want to take a closer look at the company’s tech rep group to ensure it can continue to meet customers’ high expectations in years to come.

Honeywell managed to finish in fifth place in a number of categories, but it wound up in a tie for sixth place overall based on a weak showing in the cost category (where it placed ninth) and its scores for parts availability, warranty fulfillment and overall reliability. Honeywell dropped one spot in the rankings this year, in spite of a reorganization of its customer support unit last year that it said would help it better serve customer needs.

A disproportionate number of negative write-in comments also were directed at Honeywell. This can be explained in part by the fact that more respondents graded Honeywell equipment than any other supplier. Also, legacy Honeywell gear is likely to be older and therefore probably more susceptible to problems than products from, say, Garmin or Avidyne. Still, several operators leveled particularly harsh criticism at the Phoenix avionics manufacturer.

Stanley Hepler, manager of aircraft maintenance for Biomet, a Challenger and Citation operator based in Indiana, seemed at his wits’ end with the numerous issues he said he has had to face with Honeywell EFIS displays, symbol generators and radar units.

“Honeywell has a serious reliability problem,” he wrote. “Their warranty policy is exceedingly poor. The majority of replacement units are ‘no-fault-found’ repaired units. Then in our aircraft we experience the same failure that was listed on Honeywell’s repair form description that they were unable to duplicate on the bench. The problem is, any airplane the unit is installed in has the same failure. [The] warranty is six months [and] if the unit fails in four months it is replaced at no charge. But if the warranty replacement fails three months later, there is no warranty coverage because it is beyond the original six months of warranty. Honeywell should be ashamed of its product reliability and its warranty policy. Both are disgraceful.”

Honeywell’s strongest showings were in the tech rep category (where it finished fourth) and AOG response (fifth place), yet customers still rapped the company in written comments. “Honeywell tech response is very poor,” wrote Donald Paddock, chief pilot for SC Johnson and Son. Another pilot noted, “High tube failure rate backed by one loaner shared by all operators. Dismal.”

Still another complained, “The Bendix/King RDR 2100 weather radar has been unreliable since the day it was installed and the manufacturer has been unresponsive.” David Grimm, a captain for Owens Corning, simply wrote, “Honeywell was the weak link on the Hawkers and continues on the Citations.”

Even when customers had positive things to say about Honeywell support, they still managed to criticize. “AOG response is very good by Honeywell,” wrote one flight department manager, “except that the cockpit display tube we were waiting on went first to New Zealand, then to Hawaii and finally to Tahiti–where we needed it two days earlier.”

In a bright spot for Honeywell, few customers complained specifically about the Primus Epic avionics system, which has been the target of airworthiness directives to correct display blanking problems. A lone Agusta AB139 operator wrote that the Primus Epic system “doesn’t function as advertised” and that “Honeywell has failed to help with avionics integration.” This operator lamented the fact that one of its helicopters has been grounded for more than two months because of Primus Epic-related issues.

A number of operators praised the GNS-XLS flight management system, but they complained that needed software upgrades for the unit are so expensive. Honeywell is offering a software upgrade for the GNS-XLS covering precision area navigation (PRnav) in Europe and compliance with AC 90-100 for new U.S. Rnav requirements. List price for the upgrade is $10,000. A recent notice sent out to GNS-XLS owners, meanwhile, confirmed what Honeywell has been saying all along: due to hardware limitations, the FMS will be ineligible for upgrade to WAAS functionality.

Rockwell Collins
Even with a drop in scores in the warranty-fulfillment and AOG-response categories, Rockwell Collins still managed to move from fifth place in last year’s rankings to third place overall this year. Where Collins shone was the technical reps category, in which it placed second. Customers also gave high marks to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based avionics maker for good parts availability, AOG response and overall reliability.

Of the EFIS 85/86 system in his aircraft, one operator wrote: “One tube failure across two airplanes in six years. Excellent!” Another respondent wrote, “Fortunately, very reliable.” Still another noted, “Our Pro Line 1 system is starting to show its age, but Collins does a good job of supporting it.” A chief pilot for a corporate flight department wrote: “Collins radios are solid and we hardly ever have to request parts.”

A couple of negative write-in comments were directed at Collins airborne weather radars. “Good,” wrote one flight department manager of overall systems reliability, “except the Collins weather radar.” Bjoern Hoerner, chief pilot for Royal Unibrew, echoed that assessment: “Apart from radars from Collins all seem to be doing very well.”

Hurting Collins’s overall average ranking was a poor showing in the parts-cost category, where the manufacturer finished in sixth place. Beyond that single blemish, Collins finished in the top five in all other categories and usually in the top three. Last year, Rockwell Collins had only one top-three finish (in the warranty-fulfillment category).

Universal Avionics
Universal Avionics performed well again in this year’s survey, moving up to the number-two spot after finishing in third place last year behind Safe Flight, which did not make the list this time due to a low response rate. Write-in comments directed at Universal were almost unanimously positive, although a few wrote that the company’s technical manuals leave something to be desired.

But where it really counts–delivering reliable products and providing top-notch support–Universal excelled, as customers were quick to note. “Universal bent over backward to quick-turn an item in one day to save us a rental charge,” wrote one pilot. Highlighting the consistently superior level of service put forth by the Tucson, Ariz. company’s technical reps, another wrote, “All seem to do their job according to the amount of effort required to satisfy most customers, but Universal seems to be doing that little extra.”

Like Garmin, Universal Avionics is a supplier that is still challenging its well entrenched competitors (namely Honeywell and Rockwell Collins), despite the fact that it has been in business for 25 years. Lately the company has managed to attract extra attention as buyers eye Universal’s Vision 1 synthetic-vision system and corresponding EFI-890R retrofit cockpit. Until now Universal had been known primarily for its family of flight management systems, but that appears to be changing rapidly. And it could pose problems.

As Universal continues to branch out into the market for glass cockpit displays, the company’s management team will need to marshal all its product-support experience to ensure it remains near the top of future surveys. For the time being, however, Universal seems up to the challenge. Wrote one pilot, “Universal reacts promptly to any or all problems encountered.” Noted another, “They are extremely good at fostering an image as a serious business partner.”

Pilots also praised Universal’s FMS products, with one Flight Options captain writing, “Best of all worlds, user friendly, intuitive, many ‘plus’ features.” One of the few complaints about Universal, however, centered on the recent required updates to meet AC 90-100, which affected several FMS suppliers. “Universal charges for software upgrades to correct known issues in the UNS-1 series FMSs. These should be free,” commented a captain for a major charter/management company.

Avidyne finished in fourth place overall again this year in spite of a relatively weak showing in the AOG response category. Warranty fulfillment, cost and parts availability all were bright spots, as were Avidyne’s technical manuals, which were judged to be among the best in the industry behind only Garmin.

AirCell recovered somewhat from a seventh-place finish last year after grabbing third place in the 2004 survey. The company finished fifth overall this year, just ahead of L-3 Avionics Systems and Honeywell. Based on write-in comments, some customers still seem to have a bitter taste about AirCell’s decision to abandon the air-to-ground cellular calling market, but since then the company has become a leading reseller of Iridium satcom equipment and apparently is doing a good job supporting that gear. AirCell’s best showing in this year’s survey was in the parts-cost category, though it received high marks for parts availability, AOG response and warranty fulfillment.

While Honeywell overall tied for sixth place with L3/Goodrich, the company’s Bendix/King and Global Wulfsberg product lines wound up in the ninth and eleventh spots in the survey, which was about where they were last time. Smiths Industries secured the eighth-place spot, while Airshow, a division of Rockwell Collins, came in 10th. MagnaStar ended up in 12th place, but this could be the last year it is included on the survey form in light of Verizon Airfone’s plan to exit the air-to-ground communications market in December.

Trimble finished in last place, but this wasn’t a huge surprise considering the company got out of the aviation business a few years ago (of note, one pilot called Trimble’s Freeflight GPS “user hostile,” as opposed to the usual user friendly or unfriendly). Thales finished next to last, despite opening a parts warehouse recently in New Jersey and making a pledge to focus more attention on customers in North America.

That leaves Meggitt/S-Tec, which finished in 13th place this year, the same spot as last year. A few survey respondents hammered the company for the poor reliability of its standby gyros. Noted one flight department manager, “These things are extremely unreliable. We replaced one that had been in for about two years. The replacement lasted 23 minutes!! This was not the first time we had problems like this. The thought of this system being the backup in case the primary fails is very disconcerting!” Meggitt/S-Tec brought in a new management team last year. It will be interesting to see if these fresh faces can lift the company’s ranking in future surveys.

Check out the complete 'Part Three: Avionics' (PDF)