Among All The Things Threatening GA, One Stands Above All Else: Flying Today is Reserved Only for the Rich

9:42 PM

I am not about to try and define "rich" as it is used in the headline of this post. And no, it is not news to anyone that flying GA aircraft – or learning to fly one – costs too much money these days. So to spare you from having to read the obvious, let's look at aircraft ownership and flight training costs and see if there might be some sort of wiggle room.

This post was prompted today by a very good post by Rob Mark published on his site, entitled "Playing Jeopardy with Aviation’s Future," it is a must read. Rob is well connected in the industry, and there are parts of this post that are worth repeating:

"Without pilots, there is no aviation industry, period. No Part 135 charter, no corporate flight departments, no sightseeing flights and most of all, no airlines … nothing. We need to stop pussy footing around trying to grab a few new students here and there to fly our shiny new Cessnas, and Cirrus SR-22s and Piper Warriors. Let’s be serious, none of the previous incarnations of any Learn-to-Fly programs have ever come even close to returning us to the old days when 17,000 new airplanes were delivered in a year and a commensurate number of pilot starts kept the Government Printing Office in business producing student pilot certificates. We’re all so focused on Learn-to-Fly though as the solution as if the only audience we need to succeed with are those potential customers for flight schools."
Mark makes a great case that our current programs for recruiting new pilots are not working, and to that I agree. Again, from his 08.23.10 post:
"We all hate listening to the fact that 75 percent of new student starts last year quit before they ever earned their Private Pilot certificate. But for the moment, how we deal with that one issue is irrelevant. The Big Picture question really is why are only a few of us appear to see the writing on the wall … that very soon, we’re again going to be short of qualified pilots not simply to teach people to fly, but with the commensurate skills to compete for professional pilot cockpit jobs coming down the road?"
In this pull quote is the big clue to what lies at the very heart of this problem. It is not ambition, it is not the amount of dreams to fly that are being cultivated in young minds across this country. It is the cost, plain and simple and how that cost converts student starts into students bailing out:
There was a day when a farm boy could pull his granddaddy's J3 Cub out of the barn and blast off across the pasture into the sky. Gas was cheap, insurance was unheard of, and he never had to worry about buying $15,000 avionics packages just to find the next patch or spending two grand to upgrade his ELT. But those tales of dirt cheap flying are now just aviation lore, beloved hangar flying stories told by a dwindling number of Old Timers sitting under a tree in the Vintage Aircraft area at Oshkosh.
Today, flying is anything but cheap, again not a news flash. But costs to fly and learn to fly haven't just come up somewhat, they have rocketed out of sight as if duct taped to the belly of SpaceShipTwo. When it can cost as much as ten large to earn a private ticket, it is not a surprise that 75 percent of those who begin training can't continue to pump thousands into their dream. That has to change:
Nobody can blame the flight instructors, or the flight schools. I know plenty of CFIs who can confirm that they are making less profit these days than just a few years ago. While the hourly rates of training aircraft continue rising, there are limits to what the average flight student can afford or will pay for training. When ragged out 172s with steam gauges rent for $150/hour wet with instructor, anything with glass well north of $200/hour, and worn Senecas touching $300/hour, the flight schools are struggling to keep prices down to keep students flying while paying increased fixed day-to-day costs for everything needed to keep the doors open and the lights on. Rob Mark is right on, this is indeed the perfect storm.
But if you can't blame the flight schools who are just trying to stay alive in this economy, who can we blame? Is it the airframe makers that have caused the cost of flying to go off the charts? Not entirely, but they could be the only players in this game with enough at stake to do the only thing that might keep GA alive so my granddaughter can afford to enjoy it:
I am overjoyed to be the owner of a 1964 Piper Cherokee 235. With her fixed pitch prop, "down and welded" gear and predictable 12 GPH Lycoming 0-540 engine, flying Katy is about as cheap as it gets for a comfortable ship with enough payload and range to actually carry four people and all their stuff on a nice long cross country. But even before the tach starts moving, my fixed costs just to have the luxury of going out to wax her comes close to $400/month. When we do fly her, I can expect to pay about $100 per flight hour for fuel. Again, not like driving a Citation, but from Oregon to Cali and back at 8.0 on the Hobbs works out to $800, just for the dead dinosaurs. Even a little flight to see a client in Portland – about 2.0 r/t – means dropping $200, just for gas. Unless you have endless money, we all think twice about sending $200, for anything.
I mention the costs of flying my older Cherokee to illustrate just how much flying anything costs. What happens when you want to enjoy that new airplane smell on the same trip. Here is where – in my opinion – the makers have dropped the ball:
Yes they are fast, and yes, they have the latest and greatest avionics. But let's get serious, new airplane prices have crept far out of the reach of Average Joe and Jane. A new 2010 Cessna 400 Corvalis TT lists for $644,500, while a Cirrus SR22T GTS Turbo goes for $657,000, for a used factory demonstrator. Sure, this is the top end, but even a new light sport such as Cessna's popular Skycatcher lists for $111,500. Very few of us have the money for new airplanes today, which is the largest stumbling block for anyone considering a run at their pilot's license. People are struggling to keep their house, and buying a slick new ship that costs just south of three quarters of a MILLION dollars is ridiculously out of the question for anyone except the seriously rich.
Flight students are not stupid. They can read Trade-a-Plane, and see that once they get that ticket, maintaining it or actually going anywhere will cost truckloads of money. And somewhere between that first demo flight and the day they quit training, those 75 percent realize they really don't have the money to be a pilot. Dream. Goes poof.

But what if this all changed? Hmm, let's ponder that for a moment:
The big airframe makers know their sales are down, but they continue to build expensive ships with six-figure buy-ins. But when Lexus can build a very nice automobile for $45,000, why can't Cessna or Cirrus also build an entry-level cross country ship for maybe twice the same amount? Not an LSA, but a full-on IFR-certified cruiser. Yes, I'm deep into Fantasyland, and yes, we know this will never happen due to the incredibly high costs of certification, union labor, litigation prevention, research/development and the components themselves. But when the car guys can do it, the physical cost of hanging two wings and a tail on a Lexus doesn't cost that much in actual materials. The Lexus has sophisticated computers commanding a beautifully smooth, powerful engine, and a "glass" panel with a GPS navigation system that is a distant second cousin to those you find in the high-end GA ships. When you compare vehicles, yes, the Lexus doesn't FLY, but is is 1/10th the price of the SR22T or Corvalis! That price point gap just can't be ignored...and you don't need to wear headsets when traveling at cruise speed in the Lexus.
If GA is to survive for decades to come, the airframe makers must make development of an affordable entry-level ship their top priority. This ship needs to be about as expensive as an Escalade, with insurance premiums about as much as Cadillac's behemoth SUV. A new engine must power this ship at "get there" cruise speeds north of 130 knots while burning far less fuel, five GPH would be groovy. This ship must seat four people, and be sold with the same kind of "seven year/70,000 miles (XXX hours)" kind of warranty we have come to expect from the new car keep maintenance costs cheap and predictable.

Do this, and training costs get cut in half, flight schools again prosper and factories again start cranking out affordable new planes that Americans in present day America can actually AFFORD. But if the makers continue only servicing the extremely rich while ignoring the bottom end of the flying food chain, then Rob Mark and a million other prognosticators are correct, we indeed are really screwed.

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