Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bringing The “Sport” Back To Flying (Kirk Hawkins)

Appealing to the emotional rather than the practical may be the key to revitalizing GA

guestIn 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.


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