In 2004, the FAA passed what has been called the “biggest change in aviation in 50 years”—it created the LSA category and sport pilot license. “So what?” you ask. You’ve already got your private, commercial, instrument, CFI and MEI ratings, and your Eagle Scout Badge. Why should you care about the sport pilot license? Well, these two seemingly insignificant changes, which fall well below the experience level of many of us “real” pilots, may have the potential to revitalize our industry by enabling new consumers to take up flying at unprecedented levels. With many more people learning to fly, the entire GA industry stands to benefit—from business jets to ultralights.
Consumers Are Leaving GA
For this discussion, we’ll focus on piston singles, whose cost, complexity and pilot requirements make them reasonably accessible to motivated mainstream consumers. For reference, the U.S. population has increased by more than 33% since 1980—225 million to 300 million—and real GDP per capita has increased by 65%. There are a lot more people today with a lot more disposable income than there were 30 years ago (even considering the recent economic climate). This has led to dramatic market growth among such products as cars, boats, motorcycles and virtually every other transportation and power-sport vehicle. During the same period, however, personal aviation has experienced the exact opposite. Mainstream GA consumer participation has atrophied at an alarming rate. Since 1980, the total number of active pilots decreased by 25% (from 800,000 to 600,000), and the number of annual student pilot starts dropped by 40% (from more than 100,000 to less than 60,000). On a per capita basis, total active pilot numbers are down 44% and annual student pilot starts are down 55%!
Mainstream consumers are telling us something: They’re losing interest in what aviation is offering. They’re taking their discretionary time and dollars, and going elsewhere. What could be causing consumers to leave GA? Well, the answer may be that consumers aren’t leaving GA; rather, GA has been leaving consumers. Somewhere over the past several decades, most regulators, manufacturers and associations have positioned flying as primarily a convenient mode of transportation. In our quest for more speed, range and payload and fancier glass cockpits—we seem to have forgotten what brought us to aviation in the first place—the freedom, the fun and the adventure of flying! How many of us can remember zooming around the house at age seven, holding a plastic airplane over our heads while making airplane noises? Well, I bet none of us were thinking, “Boy, I could really save some time getting to grandma’s house, and think of the TSA lines I’ll be avoiding!”
GA Transportation Myth
As long as we continue to justify personal aviation to our spouses, bosses and the IRS based solely on its functional benefits, we’re going to continue to lose that argument, along with market share. A few basic assumptions and calculations show why single-engine GA has such low adoption rates: Less than 1% of the population have the financial resources to justify it solely for transportation (based on Census Bureau and IRS data). Given a relatively efficient highway infrastructure and a relatively abundant airline infrastructure, there are few cases where single-engine private GA is the most time-efficient solution (even assuming a single-engine speed of 200 mph). The pilot enthusiast in me hates to admit these facts, but there’s only a narrow band of ranges from approximately 200 to 500 miles where single-engine GA has a time advantage over cars or airlines. There are far fewer scenarios where private GA wins on a cost basis. Bottom line: Most of us who engage in personal aviation do so primarily for its emotional value rather than for its utility.
Recreation Vs. Transportation
The industry’s positioning of aviation as solely aerospace transportation hasn’t been entirely our doing. It has been driven mostly by the FAA’s philosophy and corresponding regulations. The FAA’s primary mission is to provide “safe, efficient aerospace systems” for all users, whether transportation, recreation or otherwise. They’ve done a commendable job of prioritizing and ensuring safe aerospace infrastructure for the transportation markets. The recreational flying markets, however, have been largely neglected. In the past, the entry-level pilot competency was single-engine, all airspace, day or night transportation. As such, being able to operate a C-172 out of O’Hare at night, cross-country into JFK was, in fact, the minimum pilot qualification as defined by the FAA. This is a high bar—arguably too high as an entry-level license for consumers.
Furthermore, the prior requirement that every production aircraft had to be manufactured under FAR 23, regardless of size and complexity, significantly increased the cost of light aircraft development and production. The net effect of these nonmarket restrictions on the GA industry has been to create extraordinarily high barriers to entry.
But there’s hope! The GA world as we know it just changed. The FAA has brilliantly revised the regulations that have artificially constrained personal aviation. In 2004, after 12 years of comprehensive analysis, the FAA created the LSA category and the sport pilot license. Together, these new regulations make flying safer and more accessible to mainstream consumers. Safety is improved by giving recreational flying a viable set of rules while eliminating several problem areas that existed within the ultralight market. Accessibility has been greatly improved: The sport pilot license can be achieved in just 20 hours and for approximately $3,500—less than half the time and cost of a private certificate. Additionally, brand-new production LSA don’t require FAR 23 certification and can be brought to market in the $100,000 to $150,000 price range. In all, these are groundbreaking changes to aviation that may have significant long-term effects. If LSA and the sport pilot license are embraced and allowed to reach their full market potential, they have the ability to revitalize GA by releasing enormous amounts of pent-up consumer demand for safe, affordable, fun aircraft.
Why is this good for all of GA? If we want increased airport access, fewer airport closures, increased airport funding, the ability to resist user fees, lower-priced aircraft, additional aircraft offerings and generally better awareness and acceptance by the public—well, we may want to welcome more of those mainstream consumers into our shrinking industry. Otherwise, in a democratic society, the interests of groups as small as private GA become increasingly marginalized and difficult to protect.
How do we recapture the imagination, attention and, ultimately, the discretionary time and resources of mainstream consumers? One answer is to inspire them with products that give them the freedom to express themselves and to meet their emotional and functional needs.
Flying For Fun! It’s Okay.
I’ve had the good fortune of flying everything from ultralights to airliners to F-16s. And of all the flying I’ve experienced, the most rewarding has been in sport planes—flying at low altitude with the windows open, a friend sitting next to you, and seeing and interacting with our amazing planet in a visceral way that’s only possible in a light aircraft. That’s the kind of flying the Wright brothers and early aviators knew so well. That’s the kind of flying we dreamed about as kids. And that’s the kind of flying that once inspired hundreds of thousands of mainstream consumers to fly. Orville Wright said it best back in 1903: “The exhilaration of flying is too keen, the pleasure is too great, for it not to be a sport.”
It’s clear that the roots of aviation lie in the pure sport of flying and what it symbolizes to the human experience. It’s ironic that in today’s increasingly advanced world, the very fate of personal aviation may lie in how successful GA is at putting the “sport” back in flying.