A reader commented on a recent blog that if the FAA required less safety equipment the price of new airplanes would be a lot lower. At first that makes some sense, but when I thought a moment, it just isn’t the case. The FAA really hasn’t added many safety requirements for light airplanes, and certainly nothing on the order of automobile safety equipment changes in the last 30 years.
The writer cited the ELT requirement as one of the FAA required cost drivers for new airplanes. But ELTs have been required for more than 40 years, and were required during the golden age of GA production in the second half of the 1970s when annual production reached nearly 18,000 airplanes. Clearly the cost of ELTs wasn’t anything that bothered new airplane customers then.
The only two specific FAA required safety equipment changes that come to my mind since the 1970s are for seats and restraints, and Mode C transponders.
In the 1970s the FAA began requiring shoulder harnesses in at least the front seats of new airplanes. An added cost for sure, but one we all welcome. And again, airplane production was booming at the time so the added cost didn’t harm sales.
The crashworthy seat rules came later in the late 1980s and 90s and applied only to newly certified airplanes, not those continuously in production. The seat and the restraint system in new design airplanes has to protect a calibrated crash dummy from spinal injury in a 21, or in some cases higher, G load impact. At first seat design was a big challenge, but engineers worked with seat foams and seat pan designs to meet the rule without a lot of complicated seat support structure. Again, some new cost, but by then airplane prices had already soared so it was not a significant addition.
The transponder requirements that evolved from the 1970s on were safety additions, but primarily aimed at the safety of airline passengers. The public simply would no longer tolerate collisions between GA airplanes and airliners and requiring transponders in all airplanes flying near airline airports was a solution. And it has worked. Mode C transponders allow the TCAS collision warning systems in airliners to function effectively, and since the requirements for transponders and TCAS there hasn’t been a midair involving an airliner in the U.S.
GA airplane owners and pilots also benefited from the transponder rules because controllers can provide effective flight following that is not possible without Mode C. Almost universal equipage of Mode C transponders also allows the traffic warning systems in thousands of GA airplanes to “see” and warn of nearby traffic. Transponders were an added cost, a big controversy, but now something we learned to live with and are not, overall, a huge factor in airplane prices.
What did add to airplane cost over the years were the changes manufacturers made to make a better airplane even though it wasn’t an FAA requirement. For example, when Cessna put its piston singles back in production it changed to entirely fuel injected engines. Carbureted engines are perfectly FAA legal, but they can lose power because of carb ice. Cessna wanted to eliminate the chance of carb ice so the Skyhawk returned with a fuel injected engine. The 182, too. An extra cost, a nice benefit, but nothing to do with the FAA.
Nearly all airplane manufacturers transitioned from vacuum pumps and spinning rotor gyros to electronic flight instruments, not because the FAA required it, but because electronics are more reliable and pilots want it. More safety potential, more cost, but not the FAA’s fault.
Consider the Beech A36 Bonanza. It has been in continuous production for more than 45 years and the last FAA “required” airframe safety change was made in 1984 when Beech redesigned the cockpit flight controls. Because the system changed from a central column with throw-over yoke to a standard dual control wheel Beech had to conduct the full range of flight tests to be sure the control mechanism change didn’t impact handling qualities.
The flight test revealed the A36 didn’t meet every FAA requirement for low speed and stall behavior in all configurations so a wedge shaped vortex generator was added to the leading edge just ahead of each aileron. The wedge solved the flying qualities issues and the A36 has flown on for the last 30 years without additional FAA required changes. But the price of an A36 has raced ahead of inflation like all other new piston airplane prices.
We can all assemble our own very long lists of why airplane prices have risen faster than other manufactured products such as automobiles or consumer electronics, but when you look closely, the FAA really doesn’t get much of the blame for changing requirements, particularly for airplanes in production.