Cirrus Vision Center Brings Focus To Ownership As Orders Grow
KNOXVILLE, Tennessee—Over the years, Cirrus Aircraft has grown from a small aircraft manufacturer to an organization focused on developing a full ecosystem dedicated to aircraft ownership.
That was apparent during a July visit to Cirrus Aircraft’s Vision Center campus here, located at the foot of the Smoky Mountains.
It is where the company’s aircraft–the Cirrus SR20, SR22, SR22T and Vision Jet–are flown from the assembly line in Duluth, Minnesota, for customer delivery. The site is where customers select custom fit and finish of aircraft on order, down to the color of the rudder pedals, part of the company’s XI custom design program. It is also where pilots come for customer service or for training on the Vision Jet and SR-20 and 22 aircraft. There, pilots receive jet transition training, earn a type rating on the Vision Jet or receive recurrent training for Cirrus aircraft. More than 80% of the pilots coming for Vision Jet training earn their very first type rating. It is home to three Vision Jet and one SR Series simulators, plus hot benches for avionics training and classrooms. It may soon add another simulator.
Cirrus has always produced great aircraft, says Zean Nielsen, Cirrus Aircraft CEO. Now, it is focusing on the owner experience.
“I think we have evolved as an organization,” says Nielsen, a former Tesla executive. “We’re doing everything around the ownership experience ... It’s very important to me and the rest of the leadership team that we make it easy to own and operate a plane. It should be like buying a car. That means that buying it, owning it, maintaining it—the fuel, insurance, the financing, all that—should be an easy button. We have developed and rolled out more of those tools over the last couple of years that helped the main engine go faster.”
As a result, Cirrus is bringing first-time customers to aviation. More than 25% of aircraft sold are to new customers who are not pilots.
“It’s important for us that everything we do is about bringing more people into aviation, bringing people through the PPL (private pilot license) program, through the training and into the ecosystem,” Nielsen says. “This is about making a much bigger marketplace. We have more regions covered with salespeople now than we did before. Every one of them has an airplane. If you want to get a test flight tomorrow, there’s somebody who will come see you tomorrow.”
Cirrus creates its own training curricula and operates an in-house media center with a green screen to create videos for training, marketing, customer gatherings and other purposes.
The company, which operates manufacturing sites in Duluth and Grand Forks, North Dakota, opened the Vision Center in 2017. In 2020, it opened a customer support and flight training center in McKinney, Texas, and a second one in Chandler, Arizona, in 2021.
In Knoxville, Cirrus plans to break ground on a new hangar complex in 2022, then turn its attention to expand manufacturing in Duluth. Eventually, it will expand the Knoxville campus with a new main facility.
Nielsen joined Cirrus in mid-2019, replacing its co-founder Dale Klapmeier in the position. Klapmeier remains a senior advisor to the company. The following year, Nielsen was charged with managing the company through the COVID-19 pandemic. Cirrus had a strong backlog going into the pandemic and kept production running at first. But suppliers began closing down facilities, and Cirrus had difficulty receiving parts.
As a result, Cirrus paused production for four weeks. When employees returned, safety measures were in place, such as an app to replace a physical time clock and sequential start times to spread out the labor force. It bought 100,000 masks for employees’ use and began manufacturing personal protective equipment and ventilators for the local hospital.
“We did everything we could to turn a bad situation into something palatable,” Nielsen says.
Meanwhile, as more people across the country began working from home, there was a marked increase in those taking up pursuit of a private pilot’s license. What normally could take a couple of years to obtain now took a few months.
“We saw a surge first in flight training utilization in our training centers, and then came a wave of orders,” Nielsen says.
Another dynamic is a change in people’s lifestyles and priorities. “People’s worlds just changed in the last year and a half ... Life is short,” Nielsen says. That has led to an increase in buyers of second homes and aircraft to get there.
The result has been a healthy order book. “We’re selling more now than we did pre-pandemic,” he says.
Company officials expect total deliveries in 2021 to surpass those of 2020 and 2019. It has a backlog of 380 customers for the Vision Jet.
Besides a boost from the pandemic, product launches and introductions has also meant strong demand, Nielsen says.
On July 20, Cirrus unveiled the G2+ Vision Jet, an updated G2, adding inflight Wi-Fi and increased performance on hot days in high altitudes. In 2020, the FAA certified Garmin’s Safe Return Autoland for the Vision Jet and launched the Cirrus IQ platform for its SR models, an app that provides pilots with preflight status information.
With increased demand, Cirrus is hiring. Employment today is up about 180 employees from before the pandemic. It currently employs 1,500 people, including 250 here, with about 265 total job openings in manufacturing, product development, engineering, marketing, pilot positions and other areas.
“We’re pretty confident in our growth trajectories over literally the next five years,” Nielsen says. “We’ve got a solid line of sight to it. The backlog is strong, and the team is coming together well.”