PLANEMAKERS SAY that curbing legal bills will revive the small-plane business, which has taken a nosedive of late. In 1979, manufacturers made 17,032 small planes; by last year, production had plummeted to 964. Planemakers put most of the blame on product-liability suits. The legal burden is the chief reason Piper says it is in Chapter 11. As a result, Congress is poised to exclude from suits piston planes older than 15 years, turboprops over 18, and jets over 22.
IN REALITY, the problems are more fundamental. There's no denying that the suits are onerous (40% of them involve 15-year-old-plus planes), costing up to $500,000 in legal bills even for those a planemaker wins. But lobbying hype has exaggerated the suits' impact on the industry. More important is that most of the production decline has come in single-engine planes, which sell for around $125,000 each. Demand for new single-engines is down because they have seen few technological improvements in the past 30 years to offset the sticker-price advantage of secondhand models. Christina Del ValleEDITED BY LARRY LIGHT AND JULIE TILSNER