ORLANDO, FL — The cockpit of an airplane is an unlikely place to do an interview while on the exhibit floor at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention.
But Alan Klapmeier, president and chief executive officer for Cirrus Design Corp. (one of two airplane manufacturers to exhibit at NADA this year) thinks it makes perfect sense. He is at the convention to introduce and promote the idea that owning a Cirrus airplane is a great business value for car dealers.
“NADA is the perfect place for us to be,” Klapmeier says. “As a market, dealers will more quickly understand the value. The people here have busy lives and places to go. We want to show them why they need to do this.”
Greg Cole, a General Motors Corp. dealer with a store in Pocatello, ID, and three in Georgia, says he had started the process of buying a new plane prior to NADA.
His conversations with Cirrus at NADA pushed him “over the curb,” Cole says. “The tax advantages had a lot to do with it.”
According to the Internal Revenue Service, small businesses can write off up to $105,000 before calculating depreciation on the balance.
But there is more to it than just tax advantages says Cole, who has been flying since age 15. Owning an airplane — any airplane, not just ones built by Cirrus — makes great business sense for dealers, he says.
Cole started selling cars when he was 18, and because he had his pilot's license, the dealer decided to buy an airplane.
“We started flying it to auctions,” Cole says. “I saw then how useful a plane could be in this business.”
Cole continued to fly after he bought his first dealership in 1995. A member of GM's National Dealer Council, and a former president of the Idaho Dealers Assn., Cole travels often.
He estimates that having an airplane saves him potentially an entire day on most trips. If he flies from Idaho, he bypasses the probable connections of the commercial airlines.
If he flies commercial from his Athens, GA, dealership, it is a three-hour minimum trip just to get to the airport. With his own plane, Cole says he can fly to Detroit in less time.
He likes to go to auctions to buy used vehicles and often goes to a Manheim auction near Toledo, OH.
“The plane gives me a lot of flexibility,” Cole says. “Usually, auctions don't post their inventory till the day before the sale. It's expensive and difficult to get there if you have to fly commercial.”
Other dealers, such as Cornelius Martin in Louisville, KY, and Fred Hertrich in Delaware, both on the Ward's Megadealer 100, say having their own planes have enabled them to add new dealerships and expand their businesses to other areas of the country.
Cole says he opted for a Cirrus plane because of the “speed, or I should say, the safety features.”
But after rattling off several of the safety features, Cole returns to the performance, saying, “And then there was the speed, and the speed, and the speed….”
The model he purchased, the SR22-GTS is the newest plane in Cirrus's stable and comes with a 310 hp engine with a cruising speed of 185 knots (approximately 212 miles per hour, or 342 kilometers per hour), the best of any single-piston engine plane in its class.
But the safety features are what Cirrus is known for. Cirrus's Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) has generated the most attention including, surprisingly, criticism.
Pulling a lever in the cabin will fire a rocket with the parachute attached from a concealed compartment atop the plane. The parachute unfurls and the plane slowly floats to the ground.
Other standard safety features include high ‘G’-force energy-absorbing seats, airframe roll cage, 4-point harness restraint system, and airbag seatbelts.
Klapmeier, who started the company with his brother Dale in the 1980s, say their vision is to build the safest aircraft possible. It is deeply personal. He survived a mid-air collision in the 1980s in which the pilot of the other plane was killed.
There have been seven deployments of the parachute (possibly saving 14 lives) since Cirrus began building its planes in 1998.
But according to the National Transportation Safety Board there have been 31 fatalities in crashes with Cirrus models, which has led to another criticism, that the plane's safety features may be attracting pilots with little experience. Six incidents, three of which were fatal, during a recent three-month period (December 2005 through February 2006) have generated such discussions on several online aviation message boards.
Some aviation experts pan the parachute system, saying it takes control from the pilot and may encourage pilots to make rash decisions they otherwise would not make.
Klapmeier's rebuttal is that pilots, even good pilots, make mistakes, and why should they die as a result?
Cole says the airplanes are not designed for hobbyists. “They truly need to be used for business.”
Cirrus requires all of its customers to take delivery of their new planes at the firm's headquarters in Duluth, MN, a fact that Cole says did not impress him at first.
Included in the price of the plane is a required intense three-day training course at the time of delivery.
“They kept me moving from eight in the morning to eight at night,” says Cole, who now says the process is the right one.
“I got to meet everyone there and tour the plant which helped me understand how the plane is put together,” he says. “And meeting the assembly workers made me more comfortable with the purchase.”
Klapmeier believes Cirrus builds the safest single-engine planes, and not just because of CAPS. Instead, he says the best safety feature is the “glass cockpit,” which changes completely how the pilot manages the flight. The glass cockpit is made up two glass display screens — the Primary Flight Display (PFD) which shows the pitch, head and roll of the aircraft, and the Multifunction Display which is a map that shows terrain, weather systems and the location of nearby planes along with all of the other necessary flight information.
These screens replace the old analog displays that are in all of the older competitor planes. The system is computerized and makes most of the necessary flight calculations that pilots used to have to make themselves.
“The PFD is the single most important thing we have done,” Klapmeier says. “And now everybody has them. There is not a plane being built today that doesn't have them.”
The planes also have systems that vocally warn the pilot of either ground obstacles or nearby air traffic.
Ultimately, Klapmeier wants to reduce the barriers of entry for people wanting to get into general aviation. He envisions a future where personal aviators will be the norm.
But first, Klapmeier has to revolutionize how the general aviation industry promotes itself. Typically, flight schools are concerned only with teaching people how to fly.
The industry does not focus on bringing new people in and is not very customer friendly or easily accessible, says Klapmeier.
To counteract that, he is on the board of Be A Pilot, an organization trying to raise public awareness about the personal and business benefits that becoming a pilot provides. The group provides low-cost, introductory flights for people interested in learning how to fly to show them how easy it is.
“One thing we're trying to do as an organization, is convince flight schools to not only teach people how to fly, but to show them how to purchase and own an airplane,” Klapmeier says.
He believes the industry can learn a lot from the automotive retail industry.
“Being here (NADA) the first time, I'm surprised how vibrant this industry is,” Klapmeier says. “Everyone of the vendors — their business pitch is, ‘We'll make it easy for you.’ And that is our philosophy. Our industry is so desperate for this kind of customer service.”