ICON Aircraft has enjoyed almost uniformly positive press since it introduced its A5 amphibian to the world in 2008. From the beginning, the company has behaved very differently than typical general aviation manufacturers, with slick marketing programs and bold promises. Their self-proclaimed mission is to “create products that not only deliver great functional benefit but also deeply inspire us on an emotional level.”
But inspiration isn’t the word that comes to mind right now for many ICON position-holders, and the media coverage has suddenly turned sour. As the A5 finally gets close to being delivered to pilots, the company’s lengthy purchase agreement has raised a number of questions. Among the unique requirements of the contract are:
- Either agree not to sue ICON (exception for defects), or pay $10,000 to avoid this requirement
- ICON reserves the right to approve future sales of the airplane
- Owners agree to pay ICON $5,000 if future owners don’t agree to the contract
- All maintenance must be performed by ICON-approved shops
- All pilots must be complete ICON-approved training programs
- The airplane must be overhauled every 10 years or 2,000 hours
- The airplane is limited to a life of 30 years or 6,000 hours
- All A5s will include flight data recorders (and eventually cameras), which cannot be removed
As you might expect, some ICON position-holders are not happy with the extensive list of requirements, most of which seem very one-sided. To skeptics – and there have always been plenty – this is just the latest example of a company that is all hat and no cattle. Sure, their ads are sexy and their videos are gorgeous, but the airplane is years late and costs almost 100% more than its initial price. This contract is a last-ditch attempt to shift significant cost and responsibility from the manufacturer to the airplane owner.
It’s particularly galling to some that ICON is so concerned about potential accidents or negative press, since their marketing shows nothing but low flying airplanes and aggressive maneuvers. The suggestion is that you can do anything you want in the airplane, just don’t blame ICON if something goes wrong. And if you do, expect to hear about your flight data recorder.
Finally, the restrictive maintenance requirements and overhaul intervals would appear to dramatically reduce the value of the airplane. For an owner who only flies 50 hours a year (completely reasonable for a recreational airplane), 10 years will be just 500 hours. If the overhaul cost is $50,000, that equates to $100/hr in overhaul cost. So much for “democratizing aviation.”
There are some defenders of ICON, though. They argue that the company has always taken a different approach and has been unafraid of ruffling a few feathers along the way – that’s the price of dramatic change. It’s thus hardly surprising that their contract would be any different. One of the most significant costs for any airplane company is liability, and most of these lawsuits are frivolous. By forcing the owner to take more responsibility, and by using flight data recorders instead of “he said, she said” statements, ICON is simply being smart. You can’t expect cheaper airplanes if you don’t address the legal question.
Other pilots have pointed out parallels with Robinson Helicopter: they require their aircraft to be overhauled at regular intervals, demand type-specific training (with an FAR no less), put strict limitations on maintenance, and are notoriously tough on product liability claims. However, this hands-on approach has ensured that the Robinson safety record has improved significantly over the years while prices have stayed low. The company is now the largest helicopter manufacturer in the world, by a wide margin. The pain seems to be worth it for thousands of Robinson owners. Might the same be true for ICON?
What do you think? Is ICON being irresponsible or just adapting to the reality of selling airplanes in 2016? Control freaks or revolutionaries? Add a comment below.