Life of a Salesman

Guys who sell airplanes don’t always make the deal, but they always have the funniest stories to tell.

At the Sun 'n Fun airshow in Lakeland, Florida, Cessna salesman Bruce Keller taps out a siren song to potential buyers. (Tyson Rininger)
Air & Space Magazine

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The man ended up buying the Saratoga. Today, the land around what was his private airstrip has been converted to an exclusive fly-in community called Jumbolair. John Travolta lives there with his Boeing 707.

As Ahles learned, vetting a prospect is something of a black art. “You develop a ‘gut meter’ of who to qualify and who to spend your time with,” says Mark Woods, a Brighton, Michigan-based Mooney salesman who typically flies 100 to 150 demonstrations annually. Woods sold Plymouths and financial services before migrating to aircraft. “Nobody is perfect, but we get it right more than we get it wrong,” he says. “There are all kinds of dilapidated airports with wealthy people nearby. Just because a client is wearing a T-shirt and jeans doesn’t mean that he is not financially able.”

The sales cycle can be a lengthy dance, according to Woods. “There are guys I talk to for two years before they buy an airplane,” he says. But two-year or two-day sales are the exception. Woods says 80 percent of his sales are completed 60 to 120 days after he first makes contact with a customer.

Even trickier than gauging financial ability is assessing a customer’s flying skills and diplomatically steering him into a more appropriate aircraft. During demonstration flights, salesmen are the pilots in charge, and they are responsible for maintaining safety in the air.

“You generally know when to take the airplane away,” says Jeff Ermish, a regional sales manager with Symphony Aircraft.

“You don’t want to insult anybody,” says Keller. “But sometimes you just go bouncing down the runway and you turn to the customer and say, ‘Good job, sir. The ELT [emergency locator transmitter] didn’t even go off.’ ” (ELTs automatically emit a homing beacon when an airplane crashes.)

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Dave Bardeau, who sells Cessnas for Executive Aircraft out of Fort Lauderdale. “Your livelihood revolves around making that sale. If a person wants to buy an airplane, then, by God, they want to buy an airplane, and it is not my place to tell them they cannot or could not be in it. But on the other hand, my best customer is the one who comes back to buy repeatedly, and to that end you don’t want them to get hurt in an airplane. And you don’t want them to do something stupid, so you have to handle it. You have to tell some people what is right or wrong for them.”

In these situations, salesmen can also fall back on the authority of insurance companies. “The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] makes the rules, and insurers enforce them to their standards, and that is a much higher set of standards than the FAA will ever create,” says Bardeau. “You better have experience, and if you don’t have experience, you are going to get training or you are not going to get insurance. You are going to be trained to a standard that is way higher than it was in the past. That’s a good thing. It needs to happen.”
Thanks in part to insurance company pressure, most general aviation aircraft companies offer some sort of pilot training for their customers. Mooney, for example, offers a five-day course that comes with the airplane.

AIRCRAFT SALESMEN OFTEN have a love-hate relationship with the home office. Even in the best of times, manufacturing light aircraft has always been a tough way to make money, and just about every manufacturer has been bankrupt or near-bankrupt, creating special stresses for the sales troops in the field.

Mooney has filed for bankruptcy four times since 1930, most recently in 2004. Mark Woods remembers trying to sell Mooneys as the company teetered on the edge of insolvency in 2001. Production was shut down, employees were laid off, and to Woods’ disappointment, product support for customers evaporated. “They were so leveraged and they owed everybody,” says Woods. “So when we restarted production [after bankruptcy], nobody would give us credit, and everything [for] the production line had to be bought with cash.” Production continued, slowly. Today the company is on sounder financial footing, and in 2005 Mooney delivered 85 airplanes.

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