AIN 2009 Product Support Survey: Avionics

 - August 28, 2009, 5:06 AM

For the first time since AIN has been conducting its annual product support survey, a company that doesn’t start with Gar- and end in -min has claimed the top overall ranking among avionics manufacturers.

Flight Display Systems of Alpharetta, Ga., edged out perennial winner Garmin for the coveted number-one spot in this year’s survey, finishing with an overall average score of 8.08–on a scale where a 10 is judged to be excellent and a 1 inadequate–on the strength of its rock-bottom pricing strategy and the way customers perceive they are treated by the company. Garmin’s 8.00 overall average ranking this year put it solidly in second place, and an impressive top score of 8.68 for Garmin in the overall product reliability category left little room for doubt that the Olathe, Kan. company is still the undisputed product-support champ among cockpit equipment makers.

For this year’s survey, 20 companies received enough votes from AIN readers to warrant inclusion. Of these, 12 primarily produce cockpit avionics and the remaining eight manufacture cabin equipment. Rounding out the top six finishers were usual survey standouts Universal Avionics and Rockwell Collins in third and fourth places, respectively, followed by Rosen and Shadin in fifth and sixth places. The strong showings by the latter two were somewhat surprising considering that Rosen and Shadin landed in the lower half of the survey rankings last year.

Enhanced-vision system maker Kollsman, meanwhile, posted the biggest gain in the survey, rising from 18th place last year to capture the eighth overall spot this time around. The biggest year-over-year drop fell to 2008’s last-place finisher, Audio International, which saw its overall score drop from a 5.79 average last year to 5.33 this year–a score that was almost a full point lower than the next lowest finisher in our 2009 survey.

Each year AIN asks readers with specific firsthand knowledge of the avionics they use and maintain to rate manufacturers in categories for parts availability; cost of parts; AOG (aircraft on ground) response; warranty fulfillment; technical manuals; technical representatives; and overall product reliability. Some 4,000 avionics ratings were received, in addition to dozens of written comments under each category–some of them quite colorful. Following the usual trend, AIN readers say avionics components generally cost too much and they complain that the larger electronics suppliers need to focus on responding to AOG situations and do a better job of answering routine questions.

Still, based on the high marks avionics makers generally received in the categories for overall product reliability, the industry as a whole continues to do quite well meeting the expectations of its customer base, namely corporate flight departments, charter operators and other users of turbine-powered business aircraft.

Flight Display Systems
Flight Display Systems’ meteoric rise to the top of the AIN rankings is an impressive feat for the privately held company, founded earlier this decade with a single moving-map product. Flight Display Systems was included in our product-support rankings for the first time only last year after garnering the requisite number of minimum votes from readers. The company finished in fourth place overall in 2008, but that debut was good enough to make it the top vote getter among cabin electronics manufacturers. Since then the company, led by founder David Gray and fielding a stable of more than 50 FAA-approved cabin products, has been relentless in its efforts to ensure customer needs are being met and that its Chinese suppliers deliver top-notch components, according to company officials.

The hard work clearly has paid off, based not only on the scores Flight Display Systems received but also the written comments from AIN readers. Survey respondents praised the company for delivering low-cost products and responding promptly to warranty claims when issues arose. “David Gray is the best in the business,” wrote the chief pilot for a Memphis-based Citation operator. Another respondent, this one a chief pilot for a Beechjet operator, said he’s had only one issue among several Flight Display Systems products his company has purchased, adding that the problem “was taken care of quickly and, much to our surprise, at no cost.”

Flight Display Systems made a name for itself by publicizing prices for cabin components that were often many thousands of dollars below competitors’ prices. Some early reliability issues were corrected and the company has turned its attention to expanding its circle of niche cabin products, including Blu-ray DVD players, mass-media storage devices, cabin management systems and HD displays. The challenge for the tiny company as it continues to expand its product portfolio will be in meeting the expectations of a growing legion of business aviation customers. Clearly, Flight Display Systems has set the bar high for itself with its first-place finish in our 2009 survey.

Garmin’s consistently strong showing in the annual AIN survey is made all the more impressive considering that thousands of G1000 integrated avionics systems have entered the field and, consequently, issues would be expected to appear in the installed fleet as the equipment ages. And while there were a couple of negative comments related to G1000 reliability, the overwhelming majority of responses were positive, with most survey respondents heaping praise on the “bulletproof” build quality of the equipment. “Garmin products never fail,” noted one chief pilot. “We have always been completely satisfied with everything Garmin,” wrote another. Still another satisfied user summed up his experience this way: “Garmin is Garmin! It works, it works, it works!”

Delving a bit deeper into the survey numbers, Garmin personnel should be justly proud of the job the company has done serving its large and growing customer base. AIN readers judged Garmin to be the top equipment maker in the categories for overall reliability and parts availability and second behind Flight Display Systems in every other category except for technical reps, where Garmin finished fourth.

The technical reps category, in fact, was the only one in last year’s survey where Garmin did not finish with the top overall score, possibly pointing to an area where the company could make improvements if it wants to regain its number-one product support ranking. Still, Garmin finished with a nearly identical overall average score this year as last (8.00 versus 8.03), a testament to the remarkable consistency
the company has shown over the years, even as it has matured from an avionics maker to a consumer electronics giant.

Universal Avionics
After an uncharacteristic drop to sixth place in our 2008 survey, Universal Avionics rebounded to take the third overall spot this time around. In truth, Universal would have wound up in third place last year too, if it weren’t for the inclusion of three survey newcomers. The Tucson, Ariz. avionics maker received several positive written comments about its EFI-890R retrofit avionics system, along with the usual plaudits for its line of FMS equipment. Customers clearly appreciate the introduction of Waas capability to the Universal FMS line and, as usual, they judged Universal Avionics technical reps as some of the best in the industry.

Pilots and maintenance managers also gave Universal high marks for parts availability and AOG response, with many saying the company will do whatever it takes to get a customer back in the air. But that level of customer service apparently comes at a price. Several survey respondents complained about the high cost of replacement components, with one stating simply that “gold is cheaper” than Universal equipment. In fact, the cost of parts category was the one area where Universal finished with an average score in the 6s, relegating the company to an eighth-place ranking in this column, but still slightly ahead of primary competitors Rockwell Collins and Honeywell.  

Rockwell Collins
Scores for several finishers in this year’s survey were remarkably consistent with last year’s results, no more so than for Rockwell Collins, which posted an identical overall average score in 2009 and 2008. Still, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa avionics maker slipped from third to fourth place in a contest where a mere two-tenths of a point separated it from the next highest spot. Once again this year Rockwell Collins suffered in the cost of parts category and excelled in all others, especially under the heading for technical reps, where it finished second behind only Flight Display Systems.

Reader comments served as a study in contrasts as several respondents lauded Rockwell Collins’s technical representatives as being “very helpful,” “responsive” and “knowledgeable” while terming Collins’s cost for parts as “way overpriced,” “always out of line” and “too, too expensive.” Several noted that the Rockwell Collins CASP service plan helps eliminate costly, unwelcome surprises for repairs, but one chief pilot noted that “with some of the failures we’ve had, if we weren’t under warranty the repairs would have exceeded the cost of running the aircraft.”

Again this year, some respondents knocked Rockwell Collins cabin equipment. Bombardier Global Express operators were particularly harsh in their criticism, with one writing of “constant problems with the cabin entertainment system in the Global Express” and another saying “the CES system in our aircraft is a nightmare. Always a problem, very complicated and our principal is not happy.” Rockwell Collins’s Airshow division, meanwhile, moved up three spots to 13th place, with a number of respondents complaining of problems in early Airshow systems but saying the reliability has much improved lately. “Excellent product since Collins took over,” noted the chief of maintenance for a Challenger operator. “Much better than before.”

Honeywell moved up two spots in the survey rankings to seventh place overall after notching a slight improvement in its average score compared with last year. The Phoenix avionics maker made the biggest stride in the category for technical reps, where it recorded a score of 7.58, good enough for fifth place in the rankings. Overall product reliability also improved slightly, but Honeywell nonetheless saw falloffs in the categories for parts availability and cost of parts.

This year’s survey marks the fourth in a row that Honeywell has posted a higher overall average score than the year before, an indication that the company’s efforts to improve its customer support are having the desired effect. Still, a number of Gulfstream and Falcon operators complained about the Primus Epic avionics system, with one large East Coast Gulfstream operator writing, “It seemed Honeywell hit a low spot this year in reliability, possibly due to the economy. Somewhat disappointing.” A Falcon operator wrote, “The EASy system is still buggy after Step Three plus. When is Phase II going to be available?” Yet another Gulfstream operator noted, “Honeywell’s answer to everything is ‘the next software update.’ They need to be more proactive with updates instead of getting exemptions.”

Still, despite some of the complaints about Primus Epic, a large number of the written responses praised the reliability of Honeywell avionics and the people behind them. Several judged the reliability to be a strong suit, with one director of maintenance summing it up by writing, “I’d say reliability [of Honeywell avionics] has been very good or excellent. In my experience things seem to go very well for quite a while and then in a period of two months I might need a display controller, two tubes and perhaps [an FMS] Perf computer, but for the most part the Honeywell equipment is very reliable. I believe Honeywell has improved its equipment over the years with various modifications.”

Cockpit Avionics Makers
Among the cockpit avionics manufacturers in our survey, Sandel Avionics suffered the biggest tumble, falling to ninth place overall after an impressive debut in the number-two spot last year. Still, overall product reliability remained one of Sandel’s strongest areas, and the Vista, Calif. firm recorded an impressive score of 8.28 in this category. Sandel didn’t fare as well in other areas, particularly in the categories for cost of parts and technical manuals. It will be interesting to review next year’s survey results to see which one–2008 or 2009–was the anomaly.

L-3 Avionics Systems finished in 11th place this year, in exactly the same spot as in 2008. L-3’s overall score dropped slightly, but its ranking for product reliability showed an improvement from a score of 7.79 last year to 8.04 this time around. Honeywell Bendix/King moved up to 12th place after recording one of the bigger percentage increases in overall score, a positive trend for the company as it seeks to improve product support across all categories.

Canada’s CMC Electronics also posted a big jump percentage wise, lifting its overall average score from 6.36 in 2008 to 7.01 in 2009. That was the second biggest gain in the survey after Kollsman, and it came on the strength of improvements across every category. As a result, CMC moved up six spots in this year’s rankings to 14th place overall. For the third year in a row, Avidyne lost ground in the AIN survey, finishing with an overall average score of 6.93 that relegated the company to 15th place after it managed to secure a 10th place ranking last year. Clearly, the gulf between Avidyne and chief competitor Garmin remains wide. Rounding out the cockpit avionics finishers was Thales in 17th place, which improved its overall score for the third year running.

Cabin Equipment Makers
Apart from the strong showings by Flight Display Systems and Rosen, cabin electronics suppliers generally occupied the bottom of the survey rankings. Proving that it’s all in how you slice the numbers, Aircell managed a 10th place finish overall, but that was good enough for the third spot among cabin equipment makers and number one among satcom equipment suppliers. Still, a number of Aircell’s direct competitors are not included in our survey this year due to a low response rate. It will be interesting to see how Aircell scores next time, now that the company’s air-to-ground high-speed data system is certified and approved for operation. Based on written comments, Aircell’s score was hurt somewhat by customers’ frustration with not being able to access the service, which before now had been limited to use by the airlines.

Once again this year, satcom equipment makers Thrane & Thrane and EMS Satcom occupied spots near the bottom of the AIN product support rankings, proving that last year’s poor results reflected the true sentiment of customers. Looking at the survey comments, it’s clear that buyers of both companies’ gear are frustrated by the high equipment costs and the fact that the systems don’t always work as advertised.

Survey respondents in general had nicer things to say about Thrane & Thrane than EMS Satcom. A handful of operators complained about the AOG response from EMS, with one writing, “It’s basically nonexistent. They’re more interested in troubleshooting than replacing faulty routers.” Of the company’s technical reps, the same operator noted, “The reps know their stuff, but are very defensive about their product. They seem arrogant in that they believe it’s user error and not their faulty product.” Of the cost of EMS Satcom replacement parts, another operator simply wrote, “Whoa, Nellie!”

Landing in the basement of our survey again this year is the aforementioned Audio International. The director of main- tenance for a large East Coast corporate flight department judged the company’s technical reps to be “the worst out there.” Another department manager claimed the firm has started charging for technical assistance. Commenting on the reliability of Audio International’s products, one AIN reader summed things up by writing, “Worst avionics manufacturer in the industry. Horrible products, horrible quality control, horrible technical reps.”

This year’s survey was devised by AIN’s editors and administered by Newtown, Conn.-based Forecast International. The results from the aircraft portion ran last month, and the results from the engine portion will run next month.

'2009 AIN Product Support Survey - Avionics' pdf