03 April 2008

The New Cessna 162 SkyCatcher - Three Controversies for the Price of One!

Cessna's new two seater, the Model 162 is a remarkable aircraft for a number of reasons.

It is the first two-seater Cessna has produced since C-152 production ended in 1985. It is the lightest aircraft Cessna has produced with an LSA gross weight of 1320 lbs. It has control sticks, instead of the ubiquitous Cessna "ram's horn" wheels. It even has swing-up doors, unique in the Cessna line-up.

Overall, though the Model 162 is remarkable, it is not that innovative. It is made of sheet metal, like all the other Cessnas have been, although the up-and-coming NGP may break that rule as do the Cessna 350 and 400, although Cessna bought those designs already flying. It has a Continental O-200 engine, just like its Cessna 150 predecessor of 1959. Despite its lighter weight it will have a performance very close to the 150 or 152 as well.

Where the 162 does stand out is that it has proven so controversial. In fact there are three controversies involving the SkyCatcher, not including the choice of name, which most pilots seem to dislike.

The aircraft's name is pretty minor compared to the biggest controversy - building the C-162 in China. Cessna announced on 27 November 2007 that the 162 would be built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, which is a subsidiary of China Aviation Industry Corporation I (AVIC I), a Chinese government-owned consortium.

This decision resulted in a blog article by Cessna spokesman Tom Aniello on the aircraft's website www.skycatcher.com. Don't bother looking for that website - it doesn't exist any more and that is part of the story, although you can read an archived copy of the page here.

Aniello's blog was an attempt to put forward the logical business case for building the aircraft in China. His best two arguments were that the aircraft would have cost $71,000 more to produce in the US and that Cessna was out of plant capacity in the USA anyway.

Aniello also pointed out that Shenyang is a long standing producer of airliners and fighters and that they build parts today for Boeing's airliners. They are a reliable source.

The blog was just like this one, an article with a chance for readers to post their thoughts. And they did - thousands of them. I read them all. About 10% were positive about the decision and expressed understanding. The remaining 90% were very negative. They cited shoddy Chinese products being subject to recall in the USA, Chinese products being painted with lead-based paint, China's human rights record, exporting of US jobs and China's less-than-friendly relations with the west and the USA in particular. Many posts were from people who claimed to have either been considering buying a 162 and now wouldn't, or from people who had ordered one and canceled their order. The outpourings were sometimes ill-thought out and sometimes very eloquent and well written.

Cessna's response was also ill-thought out. On January 25, 2008 they deleted the whole website and issued a new statement.

It says:

"First off, we would like to personally thank everyone who has joined the conversation about our new Cessna SkyCatcher. Your comments and opinions surrounding this bold new venture are extremely valuable to us and especially as first flight gets closer."

"As the excitement builds, our site has also evolved. We’ve implemented new methods and editorial protocols to better facilitate communication. At the same time, we’ve added a new site feature that will include all of the very latest SkyCatcher product updates. This section is called e-Briefs."

"Here’s how the site works: we now invite you to submit your comment to our site editors for consideration of on-line posting, much like traditional publishing. This will give us a better opportunity to respond with our own comments on a more regular basis. You can rest assured that views representative of all sides of an issue will be chosen for display on the site by our editorial staff."

Naturally most people have understood this to mean: "to serve you better, we are ending all debate." Other aviation blogs have taken up the cause, but at least Cessna isn't hosting their own criticisms anymore. Obviously Cessna' mistake was to host a debate in the first place. They completely underestimated the results. Someone in Wichita got debriefed over this one.

Incidentally despite their new invitation to submit comments it looks like no negative ones have been posted. Big surprise. Lots of people are still unhappy over the decision to produce the aircraft in China and also that Cessna invited and then cut off debate.

There are two other controversies that the 162 has produced, but these are talked about less often, overshadowed by the Chinese out-sourcing issue.

The first is the cost. Cessna is now offering the 162 for USD$111,500, having sold the first 1000 orders at $109,500. Cessna's statements indicate that the price, if it were built in the USA would have been $182,500. This seems like a far-fetched claim. The current price of the bare-bones C-172R is currently $234,500. Given that, $182,500 doesn't sound out of line for a smaller two-seater. The odd thing is that other companies are building LSAs in the USA and are making money selling them for a lot less. A good example is AMD who sell the Chris Heintz designed Zodiac XL for USD$99,900.00.

Why would it cost Cessna twice as much as a small company to make an airplane in the USA? The size of Cessna and its experience should make aircraft cheaper, not more expensive, one would think. They must be making a lot of money building them for $111,500 in China, or perhaps the profits are eaten up by shipping the made-in-USA engines, avionics, etc to China and then back again?

The last and least-mentioned controversy about the 162 is its full fuel payload. With a gross weight of 1320 and a full fuel load of 26 US gallons (144 lbs) the aircraft has just 346 lbs remaining for occupants and baggage. That means that it won't even carry one standard TC weight man (200 lbs summer) and one standard weight woman (165 lbs summer) without draining an hour's worth of gas out. Don't ask about baggage.

Of course many will argue that with an LSA-imposed gross weight of only 1320 lbs how can the plane have any payload? Here is what the competition offers for full fuel payload:

AMD Zodiac XL - 370 lb and that is with 30 gallons of gas. With the SkyCatcher's 24 gallons it would lift 394 lbs

Flight Design CT - 476 lbs and that is with 34 US gallons on board. With the SkyCatcher's 24 gallons it would lift 536 lbs.

So why is the SkyCatcher so heavy, compared to other designs in its class? I don't have an answer to that question.

For me the most interesting controversy involving the 162 is its sales figures. Cessna claims to have over 1000 firm orders for the aircraft. If so that would mean that once these orders are filled almost half the LSAs in the USA will be Cessna 162s. Given the higher price and the poor load carrying capabilities, not to mention the huge backlash against the Chinese outsourcing, why is it selling so well?

Perhaps the answer there is the same answer as why brand-name Tylenol outsells the identical and much cheaper generics by ten to one: the power of brand names and advertising.

The Cessna 162 is a fascinating story to follow, more controversial than any other aircraft that Cessna has ever built. I am sure that as production starts and C-162s are delivered to customers we will hear a lot more about it!

Further recommended reading

1 comment:

Adam Hunt said...

Just in case anyone wonders why all these comments have been removed - it isn't censorship - the blog is just getting spammed a lot!