The aviation industry needs to focus on how to add value to its customers if it wants to succeed, the chairman of an aircraft manufacturing company told industry professionals and students Thursday evening at the University of Oklahoma.

Alan Klapmeier, chairman and co-founder of Cirrus Aircraft, spoke at the OU Aviation Spring Banquet, where awards and scholarships were presented to aviation students.

Klapmeier said many in the aviation industry have started to think only incredibly smart and technically-oriented people should be able to fly planes, and as a result they miss out on potential customers.

"The problem is that in aviation we get caught up in thinking of ourselves as supermen," he said.

Airplanes need to be more accessible to more people, he said. As the chairman of a company that makes the best-selling airplane, he knows something about this.

Klapmeier said the way to make flying more accessible is to focus on what value can be added for the consumer. That applies to both commercial and general aviation.

Although Klapmeier usually flies his own Cirrus when he travels, he flew commercial to come to OU. He said the experience was awful. No one wants to stand in long lines, he said. There were no aviation-related problems in the poor experience, it was all business changes that needed to be made, he said. How did the commercial airline industry get in such a state? It lost site of its customer, he said.

"The airlines are suffering because of this," he said.

Klapmeier said many commercial airlines have begun to think that the customers need them more than they need the customers. The commercial airline industry needs to become more customer-friendly, he said.

Klapmeier himself has tried to emphasize value added to the customer in his business of general aviation. He's tried to break down the technical barriers to people flying their own planes in order to increase his business.

A physics and economics major in college, Klapmeier started Cirrus Aircraft with his brother in 1984. They started it because they loved aviation, but also because they wanted to start a successful business, Klapmeier said. They used innovative technology to improve aircraft design, he said, but never lost sight of who would eventually fly the machines.

"User friendliness is one of the most essential aspects of customer value," he said.

That led to an emphasis on performance, comfort and safety.

Cirrus was the first to put a parachute in its planes, which have saved 21 lives since 2002. They widened the cockpit to just make the whole experience more comfortable. They also focused on ease of use in the cockpit, leaving data collection up to computers and freeing pilots to make decisions when needed, Klapmeier said.

"We really can make flying a lot easier," Klapmeier said.

Making flying more accessible to people is good for the aviation business, but it's also good for the country, Klapmeier said.

"Aviation is one of the keys to creating an increasingly productive economy," he said. "So we're the good guys." Invention in the field of transportation always leads off a new period of expansion in history, he said, for example, the steam engine and the automobile.

By focusing on increasing customer value, Klapmeier said the aviation industry can be saved.

"There's solutions to these problems that we can solve now," he said.

Also at the banquet Thursday, the Stick and Rudder award was presented to Eric Gaffney, a Broken Arrow junior majoring in professional pilot.

Each year the recipient of the Stick and Rudder award is voted on by the department's cadre of FAA flight instructors. The winner is the aviation flight student who has consistently demonstrated "readiness for flight" through meticulous preflight planning and preparation and who demonstrates an attitude of airmanship excellence.

In addition, the student voted by their peers as the outstanding member of the Sooner Aviation Club for the year was Richard Montgomery, a senior from Moore, and a professional pilot major.

Julianna Parker Jones 366-3541 jparker@normantranscript.com

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