The new rules promised a few things: the creation of well-constructed, less expensive airplanes through more realistic certification standards; easier pilot certification through the companion regulation creating the Sport Pilot certificate; and an equivalent level of safety even given the relaxed safety standards of both LSA and Sport Pilot.
LSAs have a safety record that isn’t bad by light GA standards. It’s worse than the admittedly disappointing record for Part 23-certificated airplanes, though not by a lot. The fatal accident rate for LSAs is probably better than the FAA had hoped for, though everyone agrees there’s room for improvement.
While no one really knew if self-regulation would work, the method the FAA chose was ingenious: Instead of having LSAs meet FAA standards as inspected and enforced by the FAA, they would meet their own industry-consensus/ASTM standards. The message was not that there would be no regulation but that the industry could regulate itself.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle toward improving LSA safety is in preventing runway accidents. By regulation, LSAs are light airplanes and very lightly wing-loaded on top of that — in order to meet their low-stall-speed requirements. The end result is almost unavoidably an airplane that can be challenging to control near the ground, especially under windy conditions. Improved training and better transition training for pilots coming from larger GA models are the most promising remedies.
The Cost Predicament
When Light Sport regulations were adopted, the dream of many was to have LSAs go for around $50,000 nicely equipped. You know how that went.
Manufacturers failed at getting the prices down to even half that level, and others, including Piper and Cirrus, have abandoned their LSA programs altogether.
Moreover, three of the most popular LSAs, the Cessna Skycatcher, Remos GTX and FlightDesign CTS, go for around $150,000 typically equipped. It’s rumored that, at its former selling price of $110,000, the Skycatcher was losing a lot of money for Cessna every time one of them went out the door.
If the dream of a $50,000 LSA was silly, the notion of a $100,000 model is pushing the envelope, as Cessna discovered. The price of a Rotax 912 engine alone pushes $30,000 installed. Throw in the avionics — most buyers are insisting on flat-panels in their LSAs — the airframe, the prop, fuel tanks, landing gear, seats, glass and a hundred other components, and see how quickly those costs add up, even before you’ve worked in labor or other overhead costs, without even considering profit.
Is it possible to build an airplane for $50,000 and still make a profit? Maybe. But for further guidance, I’d refer to FAR Part 103: Ultralights.
There’s no question that the LSA industry will have to hold the line on prices. At the same time, it will need to keep improving its products to answer customer expectations. But the overall story of LSA is that regulation “lite” really can work. While the regulations and the process need some tweaking, the framework is solid, the products are good and the need is there.
I’d go a step further. I hope the FAA sees the successes and realizes that many of the lessons of LSA could be applied to larger, faster, more capable airplanes. A four-place LSA-like segment, along with a new companion pilot certificate for such airplanes would make great sense for all involved and help stimulate another cost-challenged market segment.
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