The Light-Sport Aircraft Industry Is Alive

The Light-Sport Aircraft is still around, but it is a niche or specialty industry with some breakout winners.  The first Light-Sport Aircraft rule has been with us for more than 15 years, so plenty of time to get real data on things.

First, let’s be precise about what we’re measuring. Discussions about “light sport” flying comprise both LSAs as an airplane group and the Sport Pilot as a pilot certification level. All these are related ideas but different; a commercial pilot can fly an LSA, but a Sport Pilot cannot operate a Cirrus.

Setbacks

As a certificate, the Sport pilot has not set the world on fire. Less than 200 were added in 2019 to the FAA rolls, compared to 27,000 Private Pilots. That statistic does not tell the entire story because many more pilots are flying under Sport Pilot rights with a higher-level certificate (for example, a Private Pilot “downgrading” to the looser medical criteria).

For those elderly pilots, the new certification is undoubtedly welcome, but calling that a win seems like running the goalposts: a vital purpose of the new rule was to welcome new pilots into the business with reduced training requirements. That’s not really happening. More pilots can be added by a busy Florida flight school in an average year than the Sport Pilot training market.

There are several LSA models, but none have caught on.

As a sort of Plane, Light-Sport Aircraft has been a little more successful. Just under 700 LSAs were enrolled this past year, according to the always-interesting Dan Johnson site. That leaves the entire LSA fleet at around 8,800, which seems impressive. The footnotes matter. These numbers involve “Sport Pilot kit aircraft,” a broad term involving experimental planes that may be operated by a Sport Pilot–not real LSAs.

Actually, these kit aircraft accounted for most of Light-Sport Aircraft registrations last year. For “factory-made” LSAs, the numbers are relatively small: just 60 Tecnam LSAs, 41 Icon A5s, and 63 Flight Design CTs were delivered annually. These are the best selling models. The end of the Sport Aviation Expo last year surely isn’t a positive sign, either.

For comparison, Diamond, Cessna, Piper, and Cirrus delivered over 900 piston singles this past year. Curse those pricey Skyhawks and SR22s if you prefer, but they sell much better than many factory-built Light-Sport Aircrafts. Heck, also Robinson helicopters make better revenue than most LSAs.

Reasons For Setbacks

Why have the LSA deals been weak?

There are loads of reasons, but three stand out. Most importantly, prices have remained stubbornly high, eliminating one of the essential advantages the category was supposed to provide. The Icon A5 seaplane is the most striking example, with a cost that has burst from under $150,000 at launch to over $380,000 now, but it is not the only one.

That chic Carbon Cub SS can easily top $250,000 with popular options. Even utilitarian models cost more than $150,000 with conventional equipment.

Are LSA Manufacturers just ripping off customers?

It sure doesn’t look like it: these aren’t high margin businesses, and many are small businesses that struggle to break even. The common complaints regarding product liability, low volume manufacturing, and regulation apply lies here.

Yet, another cause of high costs is that owners simply need these planes to do more than they were designed to perform. “Ball, needle, and airspeed” make a terrific catchphrase, but most customers prefer “datalink weather, glass cockpits, and autopilots.”

Glass Cockpit and autopilot in a two-seat taildragger?

It is surprisingly common in LSAs.  Whether an airplane is a fantastic value or not depends on what you compare it to.  While a $250,000 LSA represents substantial savings over a brand new Cessna, that is not the actual competition. A potential airplane owner is more likely to compare an LSA to a used-Part 23 plane, such as a Piper Archer.

A quick search finds some appealing models available for less than $70,000–and remember that these are four-place planes with modern IFR avionics. Yes, the airframes are aged, but the money invested in them still offers you a far better value.

Another reason for reduced revenue is flight schools, a crucial goal for LSAs in the initial days because they were allegedly hungry for a new kind of training airplane. That market has not really materialized.

Some schools have found success with planes such as the RV-12, and Sport Pilot-only training facilities do exist. The new boom in pilot training, however, is powered by Cessna and Piper. In actuality, Skyhawks are so popular right now that prices of used ones have skyrocketed (if you have a 172S, then you should answer the phone!).

Piper even introduced new training variations of their most famous plane, years after canceling a short-lived LSA program.

One final frustration relates to upgrading and maintaining LSAs, which has turned out to be trickier than anticipated. Because the plane manufacturer must approve most updates, owners are entirely dependent on the mill for support.

Several LSA owners have learned this lesson the hard way with ADS-B Out, a relatively minor update that has demanded serious paperwork changes for many owners. So an airplane group that was supposed to provide flexibility has, sometimes, be more challenging to maintain than a 50-year-old Beech.

The New Cool Kids

In a practical sense, the perfect verdict comes from client attention and business investment. In both cases, the business has moved on from Light-Sport Aircraft and Sport Pilots. Electric planes and vertical takeoff (VTOL) patterns are the hot new designs, with enterprise capital flooding into new businesses with futuristic designs. The solution for “democratizing aviation” resembles to be urban heliports and economical octocopters, not two-seat sport planes. And pilots? The future envisioned by the most starry-eyed technology boosters entails no pilots in any respect. The majority of them are probably years off (and many will not make it in all), but they’re where the action is right now.

Experimental Planes, such as Van’s RV-10, are the hottest segment of the market.

While we await our Jetson’s future, it is worth recognizing the real winner in private aviation: experimental aircraft. This is where low price innovation is taking hold and where general aviation pilots are excited. You can go much faster than 100 knots, you can operate IFR, and you may also carry four people in specific models. The most exciting new Cub design is not the LSA model but the Carbon Cub. For travel, the Van’s RV-10 provides performance similar to a Cirrus but at 1/3rd the cost. There are loads of other options, from the SubSonex private jet to the Zenith CH750 bush plane.

Customers are voting with their wallets. Over 10,000 RVs are flying now, a number that has more than doubled since 2008. The LSA registration numbers show a long list of kits, not factory-built S-LSAs. They’re first and foremost and kit planes, and if they happen to meet the LSA rule, so much the better.

On The Flip Side

It’s not all bad news. LSAs have not found momentum because, like a good football trainer at halftime, the remaining general aviation market has reacted. This way, the Sport Pilot and LSA principles are successful–because they have prompted meaningful, significant change elsewhere.

BasicMed is the most obvious example. The “driver’s license medical” that includes the Sport Pilot certification has not proven to be a significant security threat, so the FAA felt far more comfortable extending this notion to Part 23 airplanes in May 2017. No, BasicMed is not as relaxed as the Sport Pilot rules for health certification, but it is a significant step in the right direction. AOPA estimates that more than 50,000 pilots are flying under BasicMed, which is a remarkable adoption for a relatively new rule, and many pilots do not have any use for a Sport Pilot certification.

Beyond BasicMed, the looser airplane certification criteria helped usher in a new era of avionics. The notion of industry consensus standards was initiated by LSAs. Once more, the business provided good evidence to authorities that a new certification approach could lower prices without reducing safety. The measures were tentative at first, but the past five years have seen a flood of modern avionics, from cheap primary flight displays to “non-certified autopilots” in certified planes. This is real progress for thousands of plane owners, breathing new life in older airframes.

LSA Outlook

LSA rules have to be updated to allow more powerplant choices.  The LSA industry is not dead.

A recent Flying magazine edition features an advertisement for the Colt from Texas Aircraft, a new LSA that seems to be well made and functional. Another new LSA is the Vashon Ranger, a $100,000 LSA crafted by the owner of Dynon Avionics. However, the Colt costs over $150,000, and fewer than 30 Rangers are currently flying. Hardly revolutionary numbers.

There is some hope for regulatory relief, which might drive a new round of airplane designs. The FAA seems serious about upgrading the LSA rule to possibly raise the maximum weight, increase the maximum speed, and permit electric powerplants (a crucial shortcoming at this time for innovative companies).

These are desperately required to prevent LSAs from being passed by conventional accredited airplanes concerning flexibility, but any change is probably a year away from being a reality. By the time it comes into force, Part 23 certification criteria themselves may unlock some of the same potentials as an LSA but with some constraints on functionality.

In reality, the ultimate goal for plane manufacturers and industry groups might be to remove the fine lines between experimental, LSA, and certified in the first place. The FAA would like to move to “performance- and – risk-based divisions for planes.” As the plane goes up in performance or as the sort of operation goes up in risk, the terms for aircraft and pilot certification will harden, but without today’s arbitrary classes. At that point, LSAs might discontinue being called LSAs.

Regardless of how you consider it, LSAs have not changed flight training or reinvented recreational flight. They are and likely always will be a small market. Likewise, the Sport Pilot certification hasn’t played much of a part in the growth of student pilots–for that, we mostly have the airways to thank. Evidently, a pilot hiring boom is worth more to the business than a new certification level.

Regardless of the disappointment, however, there’s reason to celebrate. The average GA pilot has more options for medical certification and equipment than he did ten years ago, and the Light Sport industry earns some credit for that. Louis Brandeis, US Supreme Court Justice, once called countries “laboratories of Democracy” for their abilities to check out new ideas on a small scale before being adopted at the national level. Maybe that’s LSAs’ legacy: Labs for the FAA.

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