Going Direct: Stepping Up

Stepping up to bigger and better airplanes and user-fee myths debunked.

Citation Mustang

Citation Mustang

** Some pilots who step up, step up to jets,
like this Cessna Citation Mustang.**

(October 2011) Those of us who have been around airplanes for any length of time understand the concept of stepping up, whereby a nonpilot becomes a pilot, learns to fly in a certain brand of airplane and then remains loyal to that brand while gaining experience and moving up through the model lineup to bigger, faster and more expensive airplanes.

Let me be quick to point out that this concept is no more a theory than is density altitude. It's an explanation of how things work. When you learn to fly in a Cessna, a Piper or a Cirrus, you tend to want to stick with that brand if there is an airplane available for you to move up into. I was talking with Cirrus sales representative Adam Hahn the other day about that company's Cirrus Vision, its under-development single-engine jet. I mentioned to Adam that I'd spoken to a couple of Cirrus owners who would write a check today if they could get a jet. Adam looked completely unsurprised. He said, essentially, that nearly every customer who buys an SR22 also wants a Cirrus Vision jet. It's the perfect step-up model. Except that it isn't yet available.

The fact about stepping up that manufacturers have to realize is that many pilots are going to do it.. The only question is: Will they be buying one of that manufacturer’s airplanes or one of its competitors’?

On a small scale, my family with our modest aircraft sales business saw this effect way back in the 1970s. It works the same way today, or it should.

This is what would happen. Lots of people would come to the airport to learn to fly. In short order, every one of them would fall in love with the whole experience — we can thank our terrific instructors for that fact. A few of those pilots would indeed buy an airplane (sometimes within weeks of soloing).

A few of those former newbies, the ones with the means and drive, would move on quickly and purposefully to ownership of bigger, faster and more capable airplanes. For many of them, the pinnacle was a Skylane or a Centurion. For more than a few others, that love landed them in the left seat of a cabin-class piston airplane — a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle or a Beechcraft Duke. Even though we were dealers for just single-engine airplanes, we were thrilled to see our customers moving up in the world. (The check we got for the referral didn’t hurt either.)

My dad, ever the curmudgeon, often said the only reason he had the flight school in the first place was as a way to lure people into aviation in order to eventually sell them an airplane. I never really believed him about not caring about the flight training, but his simple scheme to sell airplanes worked like a charm. Indeed, in numerous cases, the entire aviation history of a pilot who owned or owned and flew a multimillion-dollar turbine airplane could be traced directly back to their having read an ad written by my mom and placed by my dad in our local newspaper.

These pilots are everywhere. The first customer for a Mustang, David Goode, the ski pole mogul, is that guy. He started out flying Cessnas and kept moving up. He traded in his Cessna 310, an airplane that hasn't been built for 40 years, for the Mustang. Well played by the Wichita icon.

Goode's sticking with Cessna is the kind of loyalty that everyone who's ever worked selling airplanes at the company knows about firsthand. This loyalty is, in fact, a big part of the proud foundation on which the company is built. Today, Cessna is the standard bearer for that model, as the only airplane manufacturer that builds a comprehensive lineup of training airplanes and that supports a network of dedicated flight-training centers, its Cessna Pilot Center network.

It used to be that every reasonably sized airplane manufacturer and even some smaller ones had a ground floor, an entry-level airplane in which its customers could learn to stretch their wings or even buy an airplane for a reasonable amount of money. That would lead to more ratings and a larger, faster airplane. But without that starting point, there was no way for the company to get that prospective customer through the door and then, at some point, sell him an airplane.

Cessna was the company that pioneered this model and the airplanes that made that model work. The Cessna 150 was a two-place, 100 hp high-wing tricycle gear airplane that, let’s face it, folks, was designed for one thing: teaching people how to fly. And it did that superbly. It also got people to love Cessnas.

Because of its success, Cessna had a few serious competitors and clever imitators. In the 1960s both Beech and Piper tried to go head-to-head with Cessna, with some degree of success, and largely with four-seat airplanes. By the 1970s, each rival came out with a low-wing two-seater, Beech with the Skipper (a great-flying little airplane, by the way) and Piper with the Tomahawk. Both companies had comprehensive training packages, with instructional materials for pilots working their way up through the ratings. Filmstrips and faux wood-grain binders were big back then.

The whole thing came to a crashing end in the early ’80s, when the piston airplane market collapsed. Even Cessna folded its single-engine lineup, along with its flight schools, in order to cut costs. For 10 years Cessna let the single-engine pipeline run dry.

Eventually it learned its lesson. In the early ’90s it reintroduced a greatly condensed piston lineup, along with its Cessna Pilot Center (CPC) network. It had taken only a few years for the company to realize that it had made a mistake by cutting out the two elements of its business that created future customers for its lineup, but it took a few years longer for the company to recertify its singles and re-create its CPCs. It took investment, but it was an investment that paid off, not only in customers, but also in brand recognition and market clout. Because of its bottom-to-top lineup, ongoing commitment to flight training (including the introduction of the Skycatcher LSA) and award-winning customer support, Cessna is the indisputable market leader.

And there's little doubt its efforts have the unintended effect of selling airplanes for its competitors, as Cessna customers move up into King Airs, SR22s or Embraer Phenom 100s. In 1972 — though the airplanes at the end of the rainbow were different — the effect was the same. Cessna's efforts in flight training sold a lot of King Airs.

That's why I'm sad to see that Cessna is nearly alone in its commitment to flight training. Piper has made some noise about re-establishing itself globally as a flight-training provider with its still-relevant single-engine lineup, though this remains a work in progress today. Diamond Aircraft, with its trio of fine trainers from two-seater to twin, has made some impact in the training world over the past 15 years, an impact that everyone hopes will survive this protracted economic downturn.

Despite the economic challenges of the day — and it’s a fact that Cessna is a much smaller company than it was three years ago — Cessna continues to step up to the challenges of getting pilots flying. With its excellent digital multimedia training curricula, a world-class current-production trainer in the 172 and a lineup of remarkably successful airplanes that step-up customers can keep their eyes on, the company stands to make its brand stronger than ever for the long run.

User Fees Exposed
One of the most important issues facing general aviation today is the ongoing fight against user fees.

The idea of a user fee is to charge the “users” of a resource, in this case the National Airspace System (NAS), their rightful share for using that resource.

This sounds fair. Why shouldn’t we be asked to pay for the services we use? Why should nonpilots foot the bill for our weather briefings, vectors and clearances? Why shouldn’t every flight be treated like every other flight?

There are two things that are critically important to understand in this argument. First, the user fee argument isn’t a fight to raise enough money to keep things running. It’s already running. It’s a duplicitous attempt to shift the costs away from the airlines to us, saving them billions and costing us more than our fair share.

Oh, and any notion that the airlines would pass along savings to the customer is nonsense. For proof, just look at ticket prices during the temporary FAA “shutdown,” during which there was no law in place allowing airlines to charge ticket taxes. The airlines kept their prices where they were and pocketed the part that formerly went to taxes.

The other myth underlying the user fee argument is that we don't have a way to fairly spread the costs. It's a lie. The fuel tax is a perfect way to do just that. The users of the airspace are not the pilots who fly the airplanes in the system but the pilots and the passengers who do. A fuel tax on a Mooney is much less than that on a Gulfstream G450, because the Mooney uses less fuel. It can also carry fewer passengers, just four (or two, if the tanks are full). The fuel tax is equitable, elegant and in place. Replacing it with some other scheme is madness, the kind of madness that is perpetrated only if there's money to be made by the people behind the scheme.

The other fact of the matter is that those folks who never fly benefit from the NAS every day of their lives in too many ways to count. When they get their environmentally friendly flip-flops from Zappos delivered the very next day, for instance, do they think those sandals came by way of llama train? I’m thinking it was more likely a 757.

Aviation benefits us all. Let’s keep the costs spread accordingly, and maybe add in a general budget fund contribution to keep our airspace system the best in the world.