Maybe for general aviation to survive, we need more disruption.
An article published in Wired magazine (Clayton Christensen Wants to Transform Capitalism, by Jeff Howe) discussed how successful companies often fail to recognize that new companies with “disruptive innovations” are about to take over their marketplace.
As Howe wrote, “Successful businesses, Christensen explained, are trained to focus on what he calls sustaining innovations—innovations at the profitable, high end of the market, making things incrementally bigger, more powerful, and more efficient. The problem is that this leaves companies vulnerable to the disruptive innovations that emerge in the murky, low-margin bottom of the market. And this is where the true revolutions occur, creating new markets and wreaking havoc within industries. Think: the PC, the MP3, the transistor radio.”
There may be parallels in the general aviation industry, which by all accounts is still stagnating. Maybe some disruption would help.
For example, when Embraer made a strong push into the business aviation market with new clean-sheet designs, that was disruptive. And the old-line manufacturers did little, at the time, to counter this disruption. Cessna finally scrambled to field new models to compete with Embraer and the former Hawker Beechcraft experienced a wrenching bankruptcy, shutting down its jet manufacturing business in the process. Should these companies have moved faster to counter Embraer’s disruption? Probably, but maybe no one recognized the disruption.
For another example, Garmin recently revealed that an internal group called Team X has been developing low-cost but powerful avionics for the experimental market. While these avionics are built and tested to high standards, they don’t meet all of the certification requirements that avionics for certified aircraft must meet. Yet the builder of an experimental airplane can fly IFR in instrument meteorological conditions with experimental avionics, sharing the same airspace with the rest of the certified aviation world. These experimental avionics sell for far, far less than their equivalent certified big brothers, but are probably just as reliable and safe. Disruptive? I think so.
What would be even more disruptive would be the FAA recognizing that certification in some cases adds very little safety value. Flying magazine editor-in-chief Robert Goyer captured this in a blog post, suggesting that the FAA relax certification requirements for retrofits of older aircraft weighing less than 6,000 pounds. The least expensive certified glass panel PFD for retrofit costs more than $10,000. What incentive is there for the owner of a $30,000 Piper Cherokee to upgrade? But what if that Garmin G3X glass panel cost just $4,375, and adding an integrated two-axis autopilot cost another $1,500?
Garmin is not new to the idea of disruption. The company’s Garmin Pilot iPad app, consistently growing in capability, could be viewed as another example of internal disruption. The app costs a fraction of what a new Garmin portable aviation GPS unit costs, although the app doesn’t (yet) offer all of the portable’s features. Of course, the iPad itself disrupted the electronic flight bag market.
Here’s another idea. The Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category was supposed to be disruptive, but I’m not sure that has been the case. Cessna jumped into LSAs with a relatively low-cost airplane—the Skycatcher—which quickly garnered deposits for more than 1,000 orders. Last year, Cessna delivered just 19 Skycatchers. Some think this is because Cessna’s new leadership raised the price too high. Others think that the new leadership is simply not interested in the LSA market and is trying to shut the program down.
Whatever…so how about some real disruption, Cessna? Give away a Skycatcher with every new aircraft purchase, from a new 172 to a Citation X. This would either lead to a huge reduction in flight training and rental costs and a fresh crop of new pilots who admire Cessna products, or it would prove once and for all whether Cessna ought to serve the LSA market. Either way, the results will be dramatic, and Cessna will learn something new. Lessons like that often deliver extraordinary value.