Light Sport Aircraft: A Segment in Critical Condition
We love LSAs, but there’s little room for optimism.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jan 29, 2013
What’s wrong with the LSA picture?
In the creation of the Light Sport Aircraft category, the FAA did a lot of things right in promoting a new segment of light airplanes intended for sport use that would allow manufacturers to come up with easier-to-certify models. The key was the use of industry consensus standards for certification, and it was a stroke of brilliance. Only problem was, it didn’t work.
Consensus standards are fine, so long as the manufacturers stick to them. An audit by the FAA more than a year ago found out that few manufacturers were (the one’s you’d guess would comply are the ones who did, by the way). That’s an enforcement problem, and probably one that can be solved.
The other linchpin of LSA was cost savings. Presumably, the manufacturers would save money in the simplified certification process and pass that savings along to the end user, the consumer, the pilots aching for that new airplane smell in an affordable package. Only problem was, neither of those things has happened either. LSAs are, well, pretty expensive, with many of them coming in well north of $150,000 and the cheapest ones costing around $75,000 (there are exceptions, but not notably successful ones, so far as we know).
Cessna did its part in promoting the LSA segment with its Model 162 Skycatcher, which, unfortunately, has been a miserable failure. It’s a nice airplane, many owners love them, but the hoped-for price point of just over $100,000 turned out to be a fantasy, and the market for the airplane at the new price, set many tens of thousands of dollars higher than that, turned out to be nearly nonexistent. Moreover, Cessna suffered a terrible PR blowback from its decision to build components for the 162 in China. My rule: if you’re going to lose a lot of money, don’t take a big PR hit along with it.
Indeed, Cirrus and Piper were successful in the LSA game by opting out early on their development programs of branded LSA models. We can hear the sighs of relief from Duluth and Vero Beach on this one. (It was a sad irony that Piper spent the better part of last year celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Cub, the prototypical LSA, while declining to build anything resembling it.)
The market for LSAs is small because buyers know what they get with an LSA, a modest performer that’s hard to handle in the wind and whose most noteworthy benefits are that the pilot in command needs no FAA medical certificate.
There are a few successful LSAs right now, and tops on the list is the Van’s RV-12, which has sold in the hundreds. All the early ones were easy-to-build kits, but completed airplanes are on their way. Pilots haven’t bought the RV-12 because it was an LSA; they bought it because it was a Van’s.
Another success story is the Cubcrafter’s Carbon Cub, a terrific flying airplane regardless of what you call it. People buy it, too, for the rate of climb and short-field performance, not for the LSA sticker.
Perhaps the best hope for the category is that it will lend its DNA to other ventures, perhaps a four-seater LSA category, perhaps to liberalized rules regarding Part 23 certification, who knows.
LSAs will continue to make a place for themselves, though the market, we believe, will likely never be strong. Let’s face it: The dream of a big influx of LSAs and Sport Pilots in the wake of the new rules is dead. Now we can figure out what the reality is and go from there.