How to Revitalize General Aviation
There is an easy way to make existing airplanes more valuable and get pilots flying more: make them easier to upgrade.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Mar 26, 2013
As the Part 23 rewrite proceeds, it has become more and more clear that the light airplane segment needs a boost, and rethinking how we certify airplanes is a good place to start, though it might not be the best place.
The problem is obvious to anyone in the market for a new set of wings. Prices of new airplanes are out of reach for most potential buyers, and existing airplanes suffer from outdated avionics that are often too costly to replace, as in many cases the cost to overhaul the panel outstrips the value of the airplane.
If we could make our retrofit avionics more capable, less expensive and easier to install, it would transform the used marketplace and invigorate the training, maintenance and aftermarket industries at the same time.
At the Aircraft Electronics Association convention in Las Vegas today, Garmin announced its lineup of avionics for amateur-built aircraft, and it was an eye opener. See my story on the basics of those new products.
In short, what Garmin has done is create a suite of products for the homebuilt world at price points that make pilots of certificated airplanes drool. The reason that Garmin was able to create a lineup of such products and do it in record time is that the certification part of the equation was eliminated from the process. Moreover, those products interface with each other, giving pilots the ability to add new capabilities as they go instead of having to do it all at once.
I won’t mince words. The issue is with the FAA and its outdated sense of safety criticality. By making the certification of aftermarket avionics so complex and time-consuming, the FAA has created a negative safety outcome. What’s safer, I ask, a mid-1960s vintage single with avionics that are crusty, unreliable, poorly conceived (though state-of-the-art in the day) and that offer very poor situational awareness or a mid-1960s vintage airframe single with affordable and modern digital aftermarket avionics and engine monitoring? It’s an easy call. For light airplanes — let’s say 6,000 pounds or less — substantially lower avionics certification standards could dramatically improve the safety capability of the fleet.
Exactly how that might be done is being haggled over in FAA Part 23 working groups right now. We would encourage the FAA to err on the side of technology instead of bureaucracy, something it did when it adopted LSA. The progress it makes with avionics certification modernization would quickly dwarf the good impact of LSA on the state of light GA.
I know that propulsion is a big issue, as well, but that’s a subject for a different time and one that requires solutions that are not mature or that don’t yet exist.
With avionics, it’s an easy and quick fix. Making retrofit avionics easier to get in existing airplanes would quickly create a marketplace in which existing airplanes that are high in potential value would be able to realize that value.