The ‘High’ Cost of Avionics

Pilots often complain about the high cost of new avionics, especially when compared to the value of the venerable airframes they’re often installed in.

I have a slide in my GPS for IFR Pilots presentation that shows a state-of-the-art avionics package from Narco in 1962.

This “dream package” included ADF, DME, VOR/ILS, dual transmitters (360 channels), and a marker beacon receiver. No transponder. No autopilot. No intercom/audio panel.

The stack cost $8,000 in 1962 dollars (about $62,000 in today’s money, according to the CPI calculator here), and it weighed 65 pounds. Of course, it was made of components that are far less reliable than today’s solid-state gizmos, and it didn’t include RNAV capability, moving maps, weather and traffic display, and a host of other features we’ve grown accustomed to in the 21st century.

How did that system compare to the cost of new aircraft of the same era?

The base price for new C172 in 1955 was $8,995 (about $78,000 in today’s dollars), according to Wikipedia. The 1960 model had a list price of $9,450 ($75,000). By 1966, the list price for the basic model was $12,450 ($89,700); the upgraded Skyhawk listed for $13,300 ($95,900).

So, “Nancy Narco’s” snazzy 1962 system cost some 85% of the cost of a new Cessna 172 of about the same vintage.

Now, the median family income in the U.S. in 1960 was $5,600, according to a report from the Bureau of the Census. The average price of a house that year was around $18,500.

By way of comparison, the Household Income: 2012  report from the Bureau of the Census says the median household income in the U.S. in 2012 was $51,324.

Now, it’s certainly true that the cost of new aircraft has risen much faster than the general rate of inflation since the 1960s. A new 2012 180-hp C172S listed for $307,500 (that’s an airplane with a G1000 avionics system, including a sophisticated autopilot; a much nicer interior; and other improvements over its ancestors—but still).

That leap in price is a well-worn subject of debate (liability costs, low levels of production, cost of certification, etc.). But avionics have remained a relative bargain, especially when you consider the additional capabilities and reliability of today’s electronics.

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