The Future of U.S. Aviation: Again, the Resiliency of the GA Family Will be Tested

11:08 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

I have been dreading this blog post for two weeks, and have put off writing it many times. It's not because I wasn't eager to share my thoughts on the future of U.S. aviation, it's that I was afraid I'd deliver a blow of uncharacteristic negativity to what is normally a positive, "cup half full" blog.

While the other "formation" bloggers might be better suited to discuss the future of U.S. aviation as it pertains to airlines or large, expensive business jets, I am most comfortable writing about "Airplanistas" who fly airplanes with recognizable names like Piper, Cessna, Beechcraft, Cirrus...the hamburger-chasing crowd. You'll find more of these Airplanistas at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh than you will at the Paris Air Show.

In order to understand what the GA world looks like now, let's ask the General Aviation Manufacturers Association's GA Facts page to set the scene:

"Over 223,000 general aviation aircraft including helicopters, piston-powered airplanes, turboprops, and intercontinental business jets are flying throughout the United States. GA aircraft in the United States fly over 23 million hours each year, two-thirds of which are for business purposes. There are over 600,000 licensed pilots in the U.S., including 188,000 private pilots operating from 4,000 paved GA airports open to the public in the U.S. GA directly contributes more than $150 billion to the U.S. economy annually and employs more than 1,265,000 people whose collective earnings exceeded $53 billion."
The numbers above look sizable, and indeed GA is healthier today thanks to the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (GARA), which changed liability laws and allowed U.S. aircraft makers to again step gingerly back into the marketplace. That year, 1994, GAMA says U.S. makers delivered 1,132 total shipments, and the final tally of 2012 - 2,133 total shipments - is indeed a grand improvement. But compared to the heyday of GA manufacturing in the United States, these numbers are a shadow of the past according to this Wiki:
"General aviation aircraft manufacturers, in the 1980s and 1990s began to terminate or reduce production of their piston-powered, propeller aircraft, and many struggled with solvency.  General aviation aircraft production in the U.S. dropped from approximately 18,000 units in 1978 to 4,000 units in 1986, and to 928 units in 1993. At the same time, the average cost of manufacturer's liability insurance for each airplane manufactured in the U.S. had risen from approximately $50 per plane in 1962 to $100,000 per plane in 1988, according to a report cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a 2,000-fold increase in 24 years."
It's pretty clear that in 1994, GA was on the canvas flat on its back, gasping for air. GARA got the assembly lines running again, but today, the industry continues a struggle to retain current growth and set a path for a stronger tomorrow:
Now, in 2013, the aviation family is once again facing significant challenges against a tag-team of opponents that are proving quite formidable. These include increasing FAA regulations, ridiculously high new aircraft prices, environmental pushback, and a Federal government that at times seems to have declared war on anything that flies not owned by an airline or The Pentagon.
But as 1994 shows us, the GA family is a resilient bunch. We do not take these issues lightly, and we fight back hard when our options become limited and our livelihoods are threatened. We have a solid team in our corner, with AOPA and NBAA delivering effective representation in Washington, D.C. when Congress needs to be reminded of the vital role aviation plays in the American landscape. And while those two associations are up on "The Hill" on our behalf, EAA is fanning out all across the country at the grass roots level, organizing, communicating and educating both pilots and the public.

AOPA is leading the charge right now to rally GA around one principle: that growth = survival. They are working to develop Flying Clubs through their new Center to Advance the Pilot Community, a brilliant and critically important initiative that is "designed to arrest a decline in the pilot population that has been occurring for several decades."

Another brilliant program that will make GA flying easier and less expensive is OpenAirplane, a brand new initiative that simplifies airplane rental nationwide by eliminating the need for repetitive and redundant insurance check rides.

What will GA look like in 2020, just seven short years from now? It's a pretty safe bet that new aircraft and fuel prices are not going down, and new regulatory demands for ADS-B "Out" capability coming our way will only make flying more expensive. Even the FAA cannot say with any amount of certainly what the actual buy-in will be to retrofit older aircraft for everything needed to legally fly in the vast majority of U.S. airspace.

How these mandated avionics upgrades will effect a large portion of GA's legacy fleet remains to be seen. But unless inexpensive solutions are invented, owners of aircraft with less-than-modern panels will be forced to make a tough decision: Spend thousands on ADS-B "out" capable avionics, or sell their ship for a major loss to a buyer who has to buy that equipment. This is a lose-lose for many owners who are putting off major panel upgrades just to be able to afford flying in today's expensive aviation environment.

 As we discuss the future of U.S. aviation, we must look at active pilot counts to recognize any trends. Take a look at what the FAA says about the number of active pilots today versus the recent past:
FAA U.S. Civil Airman Statistics shows that when GARA was passed in 1994, there were 654,088 active civil pilots. That number slowly eroded to 625,581 in 2000, and declined further to 590,349 in 2007, when GA was again tanking along with the economy as a whole. Our numbers grew comfortably to 627,588 in 2010, but in 2012, there were 610,576 active pilots, showing that while we were moving north nicely, something is amiss these past couple of years and active pilot counts are again dropping.
I believe pilots are capable of again developing the technologies and strategies to keep GA at least at current levels. Flight schools are busy, flying clubs are popping up all over and driving the cost of ownership down, and some collegiate aviation programs have waiting lists for students trying to get in. The next generation has been brought along well thanks in part to the tireless efforts of 1,000s of EAA Young Eagles volunteers, and it is safe to say there will still be people interested in GA in 2020.

Every day, in every way, we need to look inward and dig as deep as possible to find ways to contribute on every level, large and small. We do that, and GA thrives in 2020 and beyond. But if we slack off, if we pull back the power and stop swinging, GA may find itself flat on its back again, this time, down for the count. 

It is our duty as pilots to see that this never happens. 

This "Blogging in Formation" article leads off another exciting week where six bloggers will lay down their best stuff on one topic. This round's schedule is as follows:

Saturday, June 29: Dan Pimentel (Airplanista)
Sunday, June 30: Andrew Hartley (Smart Flight Training)
Monday, July 1: Brent Owens (IFlyBlog)
Tuesday, July 2: Karlene Petitt (Flight to Success)
Wednesday, July 3: Eric Auxier (Adventures of Cap'n Aux)
Thursday, July 4: Ron Rapp (House of Rapp)

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