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Off the Radar Screen?: When It Comes to Aircraft Tires, Dealers Might Consider Taking a Flier

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A tire is a tire is a tire. Nope. Consider, if you will, a typical P205/75R15 passenger tire. Load carrying capacity is about 1,600 pounds. Recommended air pressure is 35 psi. Maximum speed is around 112 mph.

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Now consider that tire’s aircraft counterpart. An aircraft tire, in exactly the same size, boasts a load rating of 9,650 pounds and requires an air pressure of 200 psi. Maximum speed for this bad boy is 225 mph.

These statistics show just how extremely different tires can be depending on their intended use.

As Tire Review has shown over the years, dealer sales are in no way limited to just passenger and medium truck tires. Lawn and garden, golf, industrial, trailer – and all of the other segments you can squeeze into the ‘specialty tire’ category – offer bonus profit opportunities for tire dealers.

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One we haven’t explored, though, is aircraft tires. If dealers can offer tires for golf carts, lawn tractors and fork lifts, why not airplanes? Seems logical.

Not so fast. While there’s no specific, clear-cut reason an independent tire dealer couldn’t sell and service aircraft tires, there are some business-related roadblocks. And, as you know, whether you sell tires or paper clips, the bottom line is cold hard profits.

When is a Tire Not a Tire?

First of all, consider this oddly true statement: Aircraft tires are not considered ‘tires,’ per se. In aviation circles, the black rubber things that go on airplanes are ‘airplane parts,’ and they are treated as such.

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“The aircraft tire business is a distinct departure from [a tire dealer’s] normal business model,” says Harvey Stackhouse, global director of sales for general aviation at Michelin North America’s Greenville, S.C.-based aircraft division.

“When aviation flourished at the end of WWII, there was only a handful of aviation specialists,” Stackhouse explains. “From spark plugs to propellers to tires, they served as parts houses for all of aviation. That business model is still alive today.”

That means aircraft tires are distributed through an entirely different channel than other tires. “These tires are airplane parts, not tires,” concurs Richard Brown, general aviation sales and marketing manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Brown says Goodyear aircraft tires, produced mostly in Danville, Va., are sold through 14 airplane parts distributors in North America. These distributors serve the 170,000 private and business airplanes known collectively as the general aviation market.

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The fact that distribution channels for aviation tires and other tires are so divergent can make getting into this business a big headache for the average tire dealer.

A Different Business

That’s not the end of it. Other aspects of the aviation tire business make it a cost-prohibitive – or even profit-draining – undertaking for the typical independent dealer.

Take service, for one. For dealers, mounting and servicing tires is part and parcel of their day-to-day business. But that doesn’t translate to aircraft tires. Mounting an aircraft tire is very different than mounting a passenger tire, says Stackhouse. For one thing, airplane wheels have to be assembled by hand. “A typical mechanic is not qualified to do the wheel assembly,” he says.

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Add to this the fact that servicing technicians must be certified by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). No exceptions. Even mechanics who work on single-engine Cessnas have to carry the FAA seal of approval.

Besides, most (about 75%) of aircraft tire servicing is already done by fixed base operators (FBOs), special service centers set up right on airport property, according to Steven Chlavin, president of Desser Tire & Rubber Co. in Montebello, Calif., a private-label manufacturer, remanufacturer, distributor and retreader of aircraft tires.

So, what if a dealer just wants to sell the tires? That’s doable. Still, as with any other segment, that dealer has to compare the capital investment required with the potential for profits. It’s the old cost-benefit analysis that is the cornerstone of any business.

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For starters, the FAA has mandated special administrative requirements that sellers of aircraft tires must follow. The idea is to maintain traceability – a distinct paper trail, according to Stackhouse. So, just to sell the tires, money must be spent on training and recordkeeping.

Far Flight

Training is also required to understand the aircraft tire market; it is heavily regulated and complex. Not only must new tires be built to FAA Technical Standard Order C62d, aircraft makers also commonly demand additional requirements on top of the FAA’s.

“Once approved, the FAA allows for a technical designation on the tires,” says Goodyear’s Brown. “But the buck stops with the installer. It’s a very niche market that takes specialized players.”

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Chlavin from Desser Tire would agree. “We’re only one of two private companies in the U.S. to do FAA-certified high-speed retreading,” he says. “It takes about $30,000 to have one tire approved. You need about 30 tires for a sufficient line, so it costs almost a million dollars just for testing.”

Since 1920, Desser has been involved in nearly all aspects of the tire industry, from scrap rubber, passenger, truck and OTR to retail. Over the last 25 years, however, the company slowly withdrew from other segments to focus primarily on the aircraft tire market. Though Desser handles some motorcycle and ATV tire business, its major claim to fame today is aircraft rubber.

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For Desser, the decision to invest in the aviation market made sense after it acquired several aircraft tire retreaders and aircraft wheel and brake overhaul companies. But the highly specialized business of aircraft tires required a big commitment – so big, in fact, that it eventually became the dealer’s bread-and-butter business. Desser found that being successful in a specialized market means, well, specializing in it.

Aircraft tires are a far flight from consumer tires. The modern aircraft tire is a highly engineered product designed to carry heavy loads and handle high speeds. Tread patterns, footprints and construction methods are different. Buyers care more about durability than things like cornering and noise reduction. Moreover, aircraft tires are designed for intermittent use, whereas passenger tires are built for regular, high-mileage service.

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Brown also points out that about 75% of the aircraft tire market is still bias. That’s because it’s difficult to retrofit existing planes with radials, he says.

“Less rolling resistance on an airplane can be a disadvantage,” he says. “Less rolling resistance means more brake power is needed for landings.”

Switching from bias to radial may also require modification of the landing gear. And, each time an aircraft’s landing gear is modified, the manufacturer can be required to go through the costly process of recertifying the aircraft with the FAA.

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Don’t forget inventory. According to Stackhouse, aircraft tires are more expensive than most consumer tires – even the 28-inch big boys – so maintaining an effective inventory requires considerable investment.

And, volume apparently won’t make up for it. Stackhouse says that the sales volume to justify this kind of expenditure simply doesn’t exist. “This market is small compared to passenger,” he says. “A dealership that may sell 50,000 passenger tires a year may only sell 200 aircraft tires in that year. Aircraft owners may only go through a set a year. A dealer has to ask himself if it’s worth the investment. It has to make good financial sense.”

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So, it all comes down to that all-important business question: What is the return on investment? That’s a question each tire dealer has to answer for himself.

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