Piper Abruptly Exits Light Sport Market

I think most of us were pretty excited when Piper entered the LSA market by adopting Czech Sport Aircraft's SportCruiser as their own. Their well-established name gave credibility to the market as a whole and to SportCruiser itself. We were shocked and disappointed to read in Aviation Week and a Piper press release that they have officially terminated their relationship with Czech Sport Aircraft. Piper cites "differences in business philosophies" as the driving reason for this split.

All of Piper's statements now feel like they're trying to distance themselves from Czech Sport Aircraft as quickly as possible. It's a surprisingly rapid turn-around from an advertising campaign that basically named the PiperSport as the successor to the iconic J3 Cub and pictured them next to each other in advertisements.

Piper's stated reasons for this split could mean a lot of things. If you look at many parts of Piper's website it seems like a vast majority of the company is focused on developing their PiperJet Altaire.

This situation seems very reminiscent of the Cirrus SRS to me. A solid GA company wanted to get into the LSA business. Instead of spending millions developing a plane, they chose a high-quality model already being produced in Europe and licensed it as their own. Then, the company had to make some tough decisions as it also tried to develop and and bring a new VLJ to market. In the end, the VLJ won out over the LSA and the Cirrus SRS was forgotten.

I've also noticed that geographic, regulatory and language barriers can make it challenging for a European aircraft company to provide customer support in the United States. I've been involved in several glider clubs that had headaches trying to get parts and/or support for Blanik gliders from LET Kunovice, another Czech company, even with an American intermediary Blanik America in place to help relations. I wonder if Piper was feeling some of that pain.

Whatever their reasoning, they seem to have made it clear that they are done with LSA for now. Based on their press release and some comments by LSA authority Dan Johnson, Piper still supports the idea of the LSA market without having any plans to field another airplane for it.

The "why" behind this may not matter much anymore. More important may be the question of what will this do to the market overall? At first, I didn't think it'd make much difference. After a little research though, I'm a bit more interested:

How will this impact the LSA market? According to bydanjohnson.com, Piper sold 54 of their LSAs last year. This chart shows that the model itself holds a very strong overall position among LSAs. (It has been selling and will presumably continue to sell as the SportCruiser.) A different article by Johnson shows the SportCruiser in third place for overall LSA sales with 148 registered. That out does Cessna's Skycatcher 5-to-1...a pretty big lead for Piper to give up over a long-time rival. My guess is that this vacuum will be mostly filled by the other LSA leaders.

It looks like Czech Sport Aircraft sold enough planes on their own to hold 7th or 8th place without Piper's help. I'm sure that losing Piper's endorsement will hurt them a little bit, though if their plane was good enough to sell so well before Piper, I expect it'll continue to do well on its own.

I don't imagine any of this year's PiperSport customers are very impressed with Piper right now. If Czech Sport Aircraft can take care of them, it could come out of this with some good press and preserve their image significantly. I think their support of current PiperSport owners will say a lot about their company and their future.

I've always thought it was a pity that Piper didn't jump right into the LSA market with a J3 remake. American Legend and Cub Crafters are the #2 and #4 LSA companies on this chart. They both got there selling variations on Piper's original J3 Cub. Another opportunity lost I suppose....

Overall predictions:

  1. The current LSA leaders will stay at the top and share some of the leftovers from Piper's exit.
  2. Cessna won't complain that Piper's out of the LSA picture.
  3. Czech Sport Aircraft will either take really good care of Piper's former customers, get a great reputation from it, and boost sales...or, this whole incident will hurt their credibility a lot. (We hope they'll take the first option.)
  4. Piper will start deliveries on a single engine VLJ sometime after 2014 (recently revised timeline.) They won't even consider a move that has any further influence in the LSA or flight training markets until sometime after that.

That's just our perspective though. What do you think?