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