Made-to-Order GA & Economic Exclusivity

By Scott Spangler on April 18th, 2016

Economically, Piper Aircraft’s recent announcement that that it has gone totally made-to-order, makes sense. Unsold aircraft, commonly called “white tails” (a term that first described unsold airliners, identified by vertical stabilizers unadorned by an airline logo or livery paint scheme), can sequester needed finite financial resources redeemable only when the aircraft is sold. Only manufacturing new aircraft to each customer’s order preserves scarce resources in a more liquid form, ready to irrigate some aspect of business in need of financial hydration.

But making anything to order says something more than efficiently using financial resources. It implies exclusivity, a degree of access or acquisition available only to those with the requisite supply of money, time, and dedicated determination. Consider, a synonym for made-to-order is custom made. Clothing is a common consumable that costs more when custom-made than purchased off the racks.

General aviation is no different in this regard than a suit of clothes, and the Brits employ a term that connotes perfectly the exclusivity of anything custom-made: bespoke. Born in the 16th century, it derived from the verb “bespeak,” whose definition is “to order or arrange in advance.”

Before the Industrial Revolution and the miracle of mass production, almost everything was bespoke. Affordable mass produced products created the mass market that turned the surviving made-to-order artisans who catered to those who could afford their prices unreduced by any economies of scale.

Changes in market desires can have the same effect, and this certainly seems to be the general cause of general aviation’s decline. Just as the average person turned away from the critter-powered wagon when self-propelled modes of transport became affordable, the average person has turned to other recreational and professional activities that require a substantially less significant investment of time, money, and effort than aviation.

Still, there are connoisseurs of animal-powered wagons, and if they don’t possess the necessary means to invest in the custom-made recreation or the restoration of the vehicle that is their passion, they will make the sacrifices needed to achieve their goal. It seems clear that this is where aviation is today.

For myriad reasons, both financial and emotional, aviation is not for everyone. The resulting reality is that rather than pining for what was, we aviation aficionados should accept and work within the new normal. For those who’ve been flying through this transition, bespoke GA is way more expensive, but such is the price of participation.

There are alternatives, but the ultimate made-to-order airplane, the amateur-built experimental aircraft, is another subset of the fraternity of aviation geeks. For those not ready to bust a knuckle now or in the days after, Piper’s decision to make every airplane to order will ensure general aviation’s future for as long as there are individuals with the dedicated interest and ability to pay the price of their passion. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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7 Responses to “Made-to-Order GA & Economic Exclusivity”

  1. Jim Bauer Says:

    Scott, i think you are seeing the death spiral of Piper not the birth of a new market… There is no way that they can maintain and hold a skilled eexperienced work force building an occasional airplane on special order at an affordable price. Don’t take my word for it, go look at the yacht industry,a lot of them perished trying to downsize,the boutique builders are sspecializing in multi million dollar yachts. The comparable aircraft market is not one that Piper has ever competed in……

  2. Jim Lanahan Says:

    Jim Bauer has it right. Henry Ford moved away from this production model and created automobiles for everyone. The economies of scale will disappear and customers will be priced out of the market. So long, Piper…we knew ya’ when.

  3. Tom Schuyler Says:

    I think GM should follow this model: Only build cars to order, stop advertising on TV and radio, only place limited ads in car magazines, and only display a few models at some car shows.

  4. Russell Turner Says:

    I agree with Jim Bauer. Piper’s move to build to order only is the beginning of a down hill slide. We saw this earlier with the trend in over used imported flight instructors within the training side of the aviation industry.

    The persons who should be learning to fly are generally too young to afford the cost of the training, those with the means to afford the custom built airplane or aircraft are often too busy with their businesses or working life to efficiently use the aircraft, and those who have the necessary training and skills are aging and leaving aviation(willingly or unwillingly). Our pilot force has been declining for years. Review the figures.

    It is almost impossible to find an airplane dealer with whom to talk or a salesman who knows about a particular line of airplanes unless you attend a regional show of one kind or another. We should go back to affordable basic aircraft and tailor a specific aircraft for the job or jobs that we need it to complete.

  5. Steve Says:

    I don’t know where you live, Russell, but there are Southeast Piper reps everywhere in Florida, Georgia, etc. When I bought the plane for our company, I did exactly what they’re proposing. Rather than order from inventory, we ordered exactly what we wanted. Just because the model makes no sense to you doesn’t mean there’s not significant demand for it. Piper only sells its trainers in bulk to flight schools these days, unless you special order one. Their focus is on the PA 46 family, which sells very well, and at a price point that makes sense for custom builds.

  6. Marc Says:

    GA decimation has everything to do with the dying middle class but that is another debate altogether. Long gone are the days of the 10k + more new GA airplanes built every year.

    Then again technology and especially disruptive propulsions like electric drive that ride atop modern post industrialism give me some hope to bring cheap personal air travel to young pilots.

    Away from the relics of the past and onto the new. Hopefully Tesla will start to make small planes soon, as Elon Musk expressed such an interest.

  7. Russell Turner Says:

    Steve, I do not believe you understand my post. I did not mention bulk purchases or sales to flight schools. I could track down an airplane salesman if I wanted to do all of the work in addition to my own job but I do not wish to work that way. In my opinion, marketing places more responsibility on the sales force to maintain working relations with potential customers than is demanded of the customer. I watched, years ago, when the airplane manufacturers withdrew from the dealer model to the direct to customer sales model on a large scale. This did not work in my opinion. And it is only my opinion; however, it is based on personal observations.
    I live in middle Georgia and fly mostly in the Southeastern states. I did not fault anyone for buying a customized airplane. However, few persons with whom I have interacted have placed a custom order for the first or even the second airplane which they purchased. Nor for a car that they used. It would be nice to find an airplane that has aged nicely outside of the flight school atmosphere. As to Piper, I hope I am wrong and that they prosper as never before. I like their airplanes.

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