One of my favorite sources for management wisdom is Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. This week’s strip has the president of the company telling the pointy-haired boss that the experts and consultants keep saying that, “We should be willing to kill off our best businesses.” The pointy-haired boss replies that he’s been working at killing off the best businesses for years!
Sounds a lot like general aviation except we’ve been working at it for decades and have been way too successful. Some of the decisions were made with presumably good intentions. Remember when Very Light Jets would fill the skies with low-cost, easy-to-fly machines costing not much more than today’s high performance single? Many got into the business but the reality of FAA certification and building something that would operate safely at the flight levels intervened. They also had to be operated by a transitioning GA pilot community which has some difficulty at times separating what they need from what they want and are capable of flying.
The bottom end of the business struggled with cost and complexity as more equipment was added to basic airframes. Fewer choices, not much innovation, and some high costs relative to inflation make this a challenge. The new Small Airplane Revitalization Act may help—more on that later this year. I remember too long ago when one could buy a basic aircraft and then add to it as time and finances permitted. Cessna used to sell light twins with the deice plumbing installed but nothing else relative to the deicing package. That made it very simple to add on boots, pumps, and heavy duty alternators later without having to rip the airframe apart. It was perhaps 20-30 percent of the cost of the whole system. Brilliant! You may also remember when one could buy avionics incrementally as opposed to a fully integrated system or autopilot systems one axis at a time.
Even in the best of times aircraft have been expensive, and in tough economies the value equation is essential. Which brings up another bit of management wisdom, this time by the late Peter Levitt of Harvard who asked the perfect question: What is the primary purpose of a business? Many will answer that it’s “to make money.” That motive drives much of the GA business today—go for the big bucks and hence the focus on jets. Levitt’s far better answer for business success is “to get and keep customers.” Do that and the money takes care of itself. Try the question on some friends and see what the responses are. If there isn’t a broad product line, the big oak trees won’t grow without acorns. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea.
Having spoken to many owner friends about the buying and maintenance experience on both high- and low-end aircraft, let’s just say that in too many cases it was about short-term dollars rather than long-term value. Most pilots don’t mind paying a fair price if they get what they thought they were paying for. Where things come apart is where the focus is on money as opposed to the customer. To be sure, there are companies who stand behind their products—even some in GA, but for 2014 it would be wonderful if we had more of them!