GA and the middle class: The Great Divergence

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

My General Aviation is for everyone — or at least for a lot of people of varying wealth and incomes. What inspired me in the 1960s was that firemen, farmers and school teachers in my town were flying. What a wonderful American story. But now?

A recent series in Slate examined the change in U.S. wealth distribution. Recall the Gilded Age and The Robber Barons when captains of industry lorded over the economy. The middle class was small, while tens of millions worked in factories or fields for a desperate living wage. By 1915, a landmark study calculated that the richest 1% of Americans held 15% of all wealth. Now, it’s 24% — despite the remarkable mid-century emergence of a robust middle class. Today, the middle class is generally squeezed and some (among others) are again desperate. Implications for GA abound, but first some details.

Turns out, 20th Century wealth shifted in three phases as detailed in the Slate series. The Great Depression (1929-1941) was followed by The Great Compression (1941-1979.) Compression? The gap between the richest, the middle class and lowest wage earners narrowed. Familiar to my age group were the increasing incomes and opportunities of World War II’s “Pax Americana,” our technology leaps and our global market supremacy of the 1950s-1970s. Writing for Slate, Timothy Noah says, “There probably was no better time to belong to America’s middle class.”

The Great Compression ended in 1979, Noah says, when wages stagnated and inflation raged. The Great Divergence began in 1980 and, except for 1990s prosperity, continues today. Through 2005, Princeton economist Paul Krugman says more than 80% of income growth went to the top 1% of Americans. Virtually none went to middle and lower incomes.

“The Great Divergence may represent the most significant change in American society in your lifetime,” says Noah.

I’d say that trend can be seen in General Aviation in spades. And it didn’t begin yesterday.

I started working in GA full-time in December 1980, right between GA’s Go-Go ‘70s and its miserable ‘80s. Rust Belt manufacturing jobs were decimated; farm sector wealth crashed. (Back then, GA veterans told me 50% of recent new pilots were Blue Collar workers who enjoyed motor sports, hand-eye coordination and machinery. Rural and farm customers were major buyers of aircraft.) Broken only by a 1995-2005 intermission after this 15-year downturn, the Divergence trend re-emerged during the past decade (although perhaps blamed on post-9/11 effects.)

Today much of GA looks like a Rich’s Man’s Game, as it did in the 1930s. I think most of us strain to avoid the admission. Economic historians say don’t be surprised. According to one, “The share of national income going to the top 1% more than doubled during The Great Divergence.” Moreover, they now cite three categories of “rich,” topping out with “The Stinking Rich” who enjoyed “truly dizzying gains” since 1990. Imagine that group! (Gordon Gecko, enjoy your sequel!)

We have witnessed vast growth in business jets and VIP transportation. Big money has flowed into bizjet sales, corporate aviation, fractional ownership, jet charter and the like. GAMA’s annual billing numbers (driven by jet deliveries) astounded us at $2 billion in 1980. In 2009: $20 billion (down from $25 billion in 2008!) The problem for everyday GA? The really rich don’t generally fly. They are flown. And their expectations and demands for convenience and seamless service are a world away from what we put up with to fly ourselves.

The Great Recession has put much of the middle class out of work, into marginal employment and out of flying, for now. But long-term trends can’t be passed off on just a recession — or apparently race, women in the workplace, computers, immigration or other classic socio-political targets. (Read the Slate series for full details.) It seems that the macroeconomics have changed as well as the price of a Cessna or the cost of avgas. There are bigger forces at work, at least if you believe in The Great Divergence.

I long for the “good old days” of busy, friendly airports and admiring neighbors who want to join in. Will they return? There’s another factor. The Great Divergence also brought on significant debt for those of us who continued to live as we had before. Cynically, it was “Let ‘em eat credit.” Now, with a tremendous debt overhang, the “piper” must be paid before my group buys a new Piper (or learns to fly one.)

I hesitate to raise such incendiary issues, perchance generating partisan blame and revisionist history. I offer only a heads-up to oft-overlooked macro factors affecting GA. Read up and draw your own conclusions, but look around. The bizjets are still flying and keeping some of us (and our infrastructure) in the game. And thank heaven for those many pro pilot jobs. But there aren’t many school teachers and firemen out at the airport on a Saturday morning.


  1. Duane says

    I am a pilot and airplane owner. I did not buy a plane until I was over 50 years old. Here was my formula:
    1. I have worked at least 60 hours a week since I was 18 years old. In addition to my work, I went to college and obtained 4 degrees (at my own expense – financial aid was for those that could not work).
    2. After financing the education for my children, I finally had some disposable income to buy a plane.
    3. Each time I was better educated and was able to make more money, the federal government asked for a higher percentage of my income. Yes, it seems like a punishment for working hard and doing better, to me. Had I been able to keep more of my money, I would have purchased an airplane much sooner.

    Some comments suggest that capitalism is to blame. It was exactly that capitalism that allowed my purchase of a plane. Even if the government were to confiscate all income above middle class level, I doubt the government would be handing out airplanes to those of us that want to fly.

    My method was difficult, but it worked. I had a PPL for nearly 20 years before the dream of ownership came true.

    I don’t consider myself rich, but I am glad there are rich people out there that have planes. Their purchase of fuel helps fund the system in which I fly.

    As to the main topic of the story, “the middle class can’t afford to fly,” I take exception.

    The middle class may not be able to afford a new plane, but there are plenty of ways to fly without massive costs. For an example, prior to purchasing my airplane, I was able to fly a powered parachute for very little $$’s per hour. Everone that could afford a motorcycle, RV or boat could afford to fly a powered parachute. Not much utility, but a lot of fun.

  2. Maynard McKillen says

    Drew, I’m glad you dared to broach the topic. Of course, it is incendiary and it will elicit partisan responses, denials, venting of pet peeves, conspiracy theories, name-calling, and the like. I’d like to respond in kind. (That was a laugh line.) I’m glad, however, to see thoughtful responses as well.

    One commentator recommended that I never believe Paul Krugman. Should I instead believe John Kenneth Galbraith? Have we achieved an affluent society (his phrase), solved the economic problem of scarcity? I gotta say, you supply-siders, the way things have been looking lately, you’re gonna have to polish that turd before you hawk it.

    Another commentator described the article as “…a repeat of the same, tired, class-envy diatribe that Krugman and others of his elite liberal ilk have been spewing for generations.”

    Now that was pretty sly, to claim “class-envy.” A very subtle misdirection. Makes those who find merit in the article seem petty.

    In fact, the article details how for decades the wealthy have engaged in class-warfare. Hmmm, not so petty. Predatory, really.

    Reagan set the ball rolling. Many of his policies were double-edged swords, doing some good and more harm. His tax cuts benefited the wealthy far more than the rest of the tax base (Let’s not sing and dance around that.), but the supply-side defense of this move was to argue that all taxpayers would have more incentive to work, output would rise, and inflation would subside. Business taxes were chopped, and a twenty three percent cut in personal income taxes was phased in during 1981 and continued for three years. This government-sponsored “gifting” of revenue which the democratic republic used to provide services, fund regulatory agencies and redistribute wealth would prove a poison pill for the nation.

    Many conservatives these days float a muddled notion that the U.S. has, or should have, a capitalist economy. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. The U.S. has a mixed economy, with private and public sectors. Though the avaricious whine about it, our federal and local governments are charged with collecting taxes and yes (Here’s what makes the laissez-faire capitalists and Robber Barons’ blood boil.), they redistribute some of it to those who cannot participate fully in the economy and marketplace. The old, the poor, and the disabled are citizens too, as are people who aren’t infected with money-madness, and all are entitled to protection from threats external AND internal. The deregulated market now allows corporations to raid public sector and quasi-public sector spheres for profits. The widening income disparity, sad to say, and predation by the affluent have become an internal threat to our national security.

    But government is inefficient, drone the greedy. Private sector entities have to compete, so they’re more efficient and responsive. So, those private firms we hired to feed our troops in Iraq actually saved the government money, they actually cost less than having armed forces personnel do the very work some of them were trained to do? Did those private security firms hired to protect Bremer and other officials also cost less than having U.S. Forces handle the task? Wrong again.

    Gonna argue that the health-care insurance oligarchy is more efficient than any regulated alternative? Actually they epitomize the dis-economies of scale. That handful of players wallows in inefficiency, ranging from bloated salaries, benefits and golden parachutes for under-performing execs, the horrendous excess that attends duplication of administrative services, to the armies of gnomes hired to craft the wording in policies which enable the insurers to stall and deny claims for coverage in myriad ways. No one can hold up this racket as an example of a free-market. It is a failed market.

    Reagan’s successful push to deregulate the private sector of the economy and cripple government oversight has proven just as dangerous to our nation, if not more so, than his victory in the battle for corporate welfare and tax cuts for the wealthy. Arguably, deregulation had a role in spurring, but not causing, the ten-year-long economic expansion in the 1990s (Computerization was a larger factor.), but that sword slashed both ways: it also fostered the housing and credit bubbles, the resulting mortgage meltdown, and the (I love this phrase.) “financial innovations” that took an under-regulated Wall Street and Financial District by storm and helped create a “shadow banking system,” which also collapsed. Anyone hear echoes of 1929 bouncing off those buildings? These are only more recent examples. Here’s an older one.

    Fill in the blank: The Savings and Loan ____________.

    Actually several answers are correct. They include Scandal, Crisis, Debacle, Meltdown….

    The Savings and Loan “difficulty” blossomed into a scandal because Reagan’s advisors worshiped a simplistic belief that problems limiting the growth and profitability (never mind the accountability and stability) of this industry could be addressed by merely deregulating it, the “Government is the problem” mantra Reagan liked to intone. Real solutions required greater intelligence, courage and long-term thinking.

    Deregulation made it easier to make money off of money (if you already had the initial ante of discretionary income), which does little to expand a real economy but does promote bubbles in certain markets. It also creates new opportunities for lazy pseudo-entrepreneurs to prey upon the less-affluent through avenues previously administered by the public sector. The growth of for-profit colleges is one sad example. CEOs at these “institutions” take salaries in the millions but can’t be reached for comment when students find their class credits don’t transfer to legitimate colleges. Nor will these “innovators” speak up when graduates fail to find employment, despite the “I’ll-say-anything-to-get-you-in-here” claims made by recruiters at these for-profit colleges. “Graduates” are handed a worthless degree and promptly saddled with student loans they cannot repay, because they can’t find work in their field of study. Nor will bankruptcy lift the burden of these loans.

    You can call that class-envy if you like, or if you’re really ballsy, call it innovation. I call it predatory. I’ll foot the bill for that CEO’s new office in solitary confinement.

    So the political right wants to defund government, shrink it, cripple its ability to protect honest citizens from a minority of greedy sociopaths, then turn around and blame the government they created for being ineffective in its weakened state, and give the rich more freedom to exploit both the poor and what’s left of anything resembling a “middle class.” That’s not a threat to national security?

    Several respondents try to cloud the discussion by claiming that the standard of living has risen in the last century. That bland generality is another subtle misdirection. If you compare wage increases with the rate of inflation for the past thirty-odd years, it quickly becomes apparent that the former haven’t kept pace with the latter. Real buying power is shrinking for the Chevrolet-buying crowd. They have little discretionary income, their pensions vanish due to mismanagement and fraud perpetrated by pension fund executives, and their children face the real prospect of being the first generation that will not have a higher standard of living than their own parents. The standard of living for all but an elite fraction of America has been eroding since the 1980s, despite the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of right-wing blowhards.

    One reason so many of them deny it is that they don’t see it. The glass of the moral, social and economic fishbowl they live in distorts the view. Several commentators talk about how it can’t be true that the middle class is vanishing or under attack because when they look out the window of their McMansion they see those ridiculously bloated pick-up trucks and SUVs, boats, snowmobiles and ATVs crowding the neighbors’ driveways. Makes it hard to see the in-ground pool, to be sure. Ladies and Gentlemen, that is not the middle class you are seeing when you look at your neighbor’s compound…

    Such a through-the-keyhole assessment would be laughable if it weren’t so prevalent. Hey, Ebeneezer, tell your chauffeur to turn left as you leave your gated community, and ask him for a tour of the crumbling neighborhoods where the other 98% of America lives. Then try and insist the Slate article is bogus. But when do the affluent ever vacation in East St. Louis, or rent a condo in Gary, Indiana?

    With precious few exceptions, the wealthy didn’t get so because they earned their discretionary income. The government became a republican farmer, who let the foxes into the hen house. Wealth redistribution, once a functional part of our mixed economy, was turned on its head and made a tool of the money-mad. The money is now funneled in the wrong direction. As in the time of Dickens, the poor are looked upon as lazy, responsible for their plight, best left to Malthusian ends.

    Odd, too, the rant about government employees. What incentive is there for college grads to work in the private sector? Is it the guarantee that their job is sure to be outsourced overseas for short-term profit? Is it the exceptional competence and maturity of their managers? Is it the genius of the R&D division? The open and fair airing of Union grievances? The ability to even join a Union? Anything remotely resembling respect, justice, equity, compassion? When was the last time a corporation invested in their labor force to make it more efficient? Long-term thinking and long-term investment have vanished from the corporate mindset. Pick any 100 American corporations, document their actions, internal memos, public statements, mission statements, government subsidies and state-proffered sweetheart deals to relocate, environmental record and dress-codes, then go and look in the DSM under schizophrenia. When an individual behaves the way a corporation is allowed to behave, he or she is institutionalized!

    “The standard of living must be higher because the biggest problems the poor face are obesity and diabetes.” Now why did you avoid mentioning that the quality of the food supply is declining, that fat, sugar and empty calories have replaced nutrition and real flavor on menus? Did the poor demand this? Were they ever given a choice? What passes for food has been chemically engineered to make it addictive, easily and cheaply mass produced, but devoid of substantial nutrition. There’s no profit in maintaining or increasing the nutritive value of our foodstuffs. This change wasn’t driven by the demands of the poor, it was driven by the demand for higher profits, which is not the parlance of the poor, it’s the parlance of the greedy. And these bastards have the gall to say they are merely responding to what the public demands.

    Post-WWII Americans paid their taxes gladly because it was the patriotic thing to do. They were the front line against communism. That was when the Berlin wall began to crumble. Real free-market forces, at work in an economy that had moderate government oversight, and just taxation rates, allowed the U.S. to pay off its huge war debt, retool for a peace-time economy, fund the Marshall Plan to rebuild a free and democratic Western Europe, aid Japan to rebuild and become an economic powerhouse and ally, and weather several moderate recessions, and yet operate at a level of efficiency that the Soviet government could never achieve in its command-based economy.

    Ordinary U.S. citizen-taxpayers were also a powerful voice who didn’t hesitate to shame the wealthy again and again for grumbling about the tax rates in place at the time. And Eisenhower, no Democrat, had the foresight to leave in place New-Deal era agencies and mechanisms that made the federal government a permanent player in the nation’s economy. He saw that the private sector would never act to end the boom-bust economic cycles that have plagued this country since its founding. He recognized the need for a strong, central government even as he warned us about a bloc as dangerous as the Soviet-bloc:the military-industrial-congressional complex. He could’ve added the word corporate to that cabal.

    Put two hundred randomly-selected Americans in a room together with a dozen Clinical Psychologists and have the latter identify the wealthy ones (Let’s define wealthy as earning more than $250,000.00 per year.). All these dozen professionals have to do is to ply their trade, and the wealthy individuals will stand out. To be sure, they’ll net a few others, too.

    Pro-Business publications laud the entrepreneurial ability of CEOs, CFOs and the Fortune 500 crowd, but they’re also careful to leave out passages describing failed marriages, neglected/abused children, alcohol and drug abuse, anti-depressant medications, manic and paranoid rants, delusions of grandeur, and the profound business blunders committed by these, uh, “innovators.” The Captains of Corporate Culture also squander small fortunes paying lawyers and spin doctors to cover up their moral, ethical, and social cancers. Wealth has a terrible price. But who ever admits that he or she is addicted to earning money? How many narcissists, sociopaths and alcohol or drug addicts ever voluntarily seek treatment?

    Of course, the pursuit of wealth is not the sole cause of these social and psychological maladies, but it is one of them. The effort required to “succeed” leaves other aspects of personal and social growth latent or degenerate, sometimes till death or shortly before. And yes, many professions also delay, even stymie, more positive social and psychological development until the latter decades of life. If Carnegie and other robber-barons of that era and ours were patriotic and mentally balanced, their actions while they amassed fortunes would not have necessitated that they create foundations and other charities, later on in their lives, to rehabilitate their shattered reputations.

    In this country, though, indulging in single-minded aspirations at the expense of others, or the environment, with no concern for long-term consequences, and in pursuit of wealth, is a pathology that too many citizens choose to overlook and minimize. Envy the wealthy? It’s stupid to think people would be that stupid.

    Class-envy, then, is a murky concept, like-trickle-down economics: a spicy sales pitch won’t make it palatable, let alone legitimate.

  3. says

    So far, there’s only been ONE response, I think, from a Aviation Retail Provider
    (flight school manager), who offers the view from the “other” side of the counter.
    Having also been in GA as a “business” from 1966-78, and again, more recently, with a degree of caution I might add, in aircraft sales, I’ll offer my conclusions and perspective. Frankly, as a business investment, it’s very HIGH risk. One has a very “vertical” market to begin with; only about 1.2 million folks out there have an interest in general aviation. To bring that down to simple math, the future customer/student is only about 1 in 1,400 of the population! Less than 1/10 th of 1% are are prospects – handly milk or eggs! If we we to increase demand by “4”, we would still have to “sell” 1 in 350! Lets get to that DIRTY word “EXPENSIVE”. Isn’t that really kind of subjective? Let me offer this; just after Chrismas 2008,a gent in his early 60’s came to me and inquired about “lessons” and getting his Private License. About 2-3 months later, he ask me to fly with him, at his expense (via airlines), to Dayton, OH to look at and purchase a Piper Archer for $57K. After the usual “pre-buy”, we took off for the return flight to New Jersey, about a 4 1/2 hr trip. When we got back, he apologized for not having a check to pay me, but he would come in over the weekend to pay me and settle up. Given this was a long day AND an “instructional” flight as well, the bill came to $600. When he came to pay, he wrote the check out without any hesitation or question! Now, this gets better. After getting his “ticket” in March of 2010, he asked me about various upgrade options that would make sense for him; he only had about 120 hrs and no high performance time to date. I mentioned a Beech A-36, however, insurance costs would be an issue. Fast forward 3 months and he settles on a 2003 Cirrus SR-20, or “baby Cirrus”. What’s the point here I’m trying to make? The gentlemen had an OBJECTIVE; get a license, buy a plane, to GO somewhere -mainly his condo at Myrtle Beach, SC – the UTILTY value! Most of all, he believed the cost equaled the benefit!
    His “motive” was just that; not the “fun” thing thats been the main hype by GA promoters and romantics. Now, IF you were an Aviation Retail Provider, isn’t this the “ideal” LONG term customer; purchase a Private License ($10K+) 2 airplanes ($200K+) not to mention an annual, fuel, storage, and food at the airport cafe!
    Now, to address the issue, excluding the the macro-economic/political babble, about “affordability”, of flying, one can: 1. Seek “owner options” that are within your disposable income range. 2. “Trade-off’ other less important hobbies and return to flying
    3. Like many, WAIT until your in a “comfortable” financial postion and do it. 4. Continue to read avation magazines and “wish” airplanes and lessons will be government funded.
    5. Or last and most importantly, resolve yourself that this really isn’t for you!
    I almost forgot; to add also to the flight schools managers commets; MOST, if not all, who enter GA as a “business” are of the misguided impression that their expertise,100,000 hrs and 39 Type Rating ALONE, will guarantee them success with little REAL business experience or education; “why hell, I can fly a plane (walk on water,etc) I’m sure I can make money in the flight school business”!
    It’s this very ego mentality that along without having a clue how to effectively manage and market a business that ultimately brings about their demise. I rest my case!

  4. John Lewis says

    No one mentioned a factor which has discouraged a few older, able-to-afford it people I know:
    Lack of adequate liability insurance for renters. $1 million may seem like a lot, but if you look at damage awards in auto injury cases, they can easily exceed that, and certainly exceed the $100,000 per injured person limit. Does the man or woman who has built up a retirement nest egg and bought a home want to risk losing it for a hobby?
    I can buy an ‘umbrella’ policy which sits on top of my homeowners and auto insurance and goes as high as a I want, and further it will cover me in a boating accident ( but not in an airplane … ).

  5. Robert J. McCormick says

    As a pilot for more than 50 years, I have seen the gradual erosion of general aviation in our country. Gone are the days when a young kid could come to the airport and revel in the sights, sounds and smells of grassroots general aviation. That has been replaced by chain-link fence with concertina wire atop creating “garrisons” or “bastions” to keep the flocks of turbaned terrorists at bay thusly preventing them from bombarding the citizens from the sky from light general aviation aircraft. If one reads the February issue of Flying magazine and seeks out the article about TFR intrusion you will see the attitude of our government toward general aviation. I, after more than 12,000 hours of flying am ready to “toss in the towel” and let the wolves have their way. The TSA is one of the biggest enemies of GA and these politicos who deem themselves above all over citizens are another. Gone are the good old days. We are on a downhill slide with no remedy in sight.

  6. Brucew56 says

    Righ on!. The AOPA wonders why student pilots drop out – it’s the money! And the ongoing cost after one aquires a pilot certificate. When people are scared about having enough money to provide necessities, they are not going to pay $100 and hour to fly.

    Unfortunately, the “big money” is in biz aviation and glass panels and to hell with the rest of us. That’s the capitalist system! Better get used to it. The fat pigs on Wall Street are not going to feel sorry for anyone.

  7. says

    For those who really want to fly and have limited financial means I suggest the following:
    Join a glider club. That’s REAL flying, and for not much money. There is group ownership of the equipment, and the flying is much more fun than motorized. Then, you can learn to fly around in the noisy stinkpots if you have the urge—motorized ultralights and LSA aircraft are very affordable in partnerships. Aside from his class warfare mentality, I think what the author of the article was bemoaning was that a middle class individual cannot afford to buy a new airplane and fly to his heart’s content. Newsflash: he never could. If you have the desire and passion, join a club, a partnership, or build a plane. There are ways to fly cheaply, and the are much more fun than flying around in an expensive new plane.

  8. Larry Horton says

    Yes, Interesting article and responses. I am one of those middle class guys that loves to fly and can no longer afford it. I’m a Software Engineer/Project Manager with a Masters in Comp Sci and an MBA from a pretty good school. I’ve got 300+ hours and am instrument-rated.
    There are so many issues in these responses that have fed into my go/no-go decision for continuing to fly:
    -Lack of Infrastructure at destinations
    -Cost/mile vs. time benefit.
    -FBOs aligned to “acting as the nursery of commercial pilots” vs. creating a favorable environment for the student pilots they train that just want some utility out of their ticket.
    -10 years of stagnant wages vs. huge increase in flying costs
    -Cost to Fly vs. Cost to retire.

    The last one is the scariest for me. As I watched a company I worked for for 20 years–Nortel– go belly up and give all of the non-executive employees remaining the shaft and congress ruminating on how they are going to reduce SS benefits, I have to choose between retirement and flying–I don’t see how I can do both. I truly wish this was not the case but it is. I love to fly more that most things I can think of–with my clothes on :-). But I just can’t subject my wife to the possibility of senior poverty because I wanted $200 hamburgers.

    The sad thing is that America will probably not wake up to this deteriorating situation until I’ve gotten older and age/medical conditions have caught up with me as well. This is my time, my era, and I’ve been forced out!!

    Every time we talk about the underlying issues, the rich cry “Class Warfare”. This is just a red herring to keep from addressing the real issues while they continue to invest in Asia. However, to deny that even when a man tries to do everything right, Go to school, work hard, buy a good house and still cannot participate in what was once affordable does not reflect the facts. I don’t have the answers but I do know that what we’re seeing in GA is indicative of what we’re seeing in other American industries–divestiture. Soon we’ll see Cessna investing more in Asia than in America as America’s middle class continues to diminish. The MBA taught me one thing, business follows demand and demand here is going to continue to diminish as more of the massive wealth the rich have accumulated moves overseas. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid on that one! I drank the Kool-Aid on real-estate and look where that got us…

  9. MIchael Saunders says

    I am president of a flight school in the Northeast. Our prices are higher than most (you get what you pay for: our instructors each have a minimum of 1,500 hours; our airplanes are superbly maintained), and we have many blue collar students. Plumbers, carpenters, tradesmen, etc. We offer financing options and money is not the main factor. The problem with the industry is that many flight schools have terrible customer service, their airplanes look like they’re falling apart, and their marketing is insignificant.

    You can read all the studies you want. When you sit on my side of the desk, you can more accurately see the trends.

  10. Hotprop says

    Straight face, I’m a pilot, right stuff, didn’t ask for it just born that way I guess. Be a pro pilot, sure, I’ll go 100k in debt to get a 20k/yr job. The irony is we hop on an airliner and trust the judgement of someone who’s made that kind of decision. I’m a pilot but I don’t go to the airports anymore. AOPA subscription will be allowed to lapse. You can’t park at the approach or departure ends anymore, either, (‘terrorists, they’re all around can’t you see’, no I see terrifiedists is all), and they put fences all around with locked gates. WELCOME,THIS IS GA of America? I come here to get excited about flying and you chase me away. Most of all I’ve found that GA airports have become a refuge and campaigh headquarters for Beck and Limbaugh regurgitators and if you don’t fit in, well.

    For the other 70% of the general population I’d say, this place ain’t got no BLING.

    Remember the 80’s? The government said that government was the problem and was going to step out of the way. They said our corps. were too fat and we needed to unlock the wealth, so they gave Wall Street the green light to buy out companies, after which they sold off the assets, threw millions out of a decent living, but Wall Street made billions. It was called trickle down economics, am I right? Forty years ago most jobs, not just public sector but private too, had health and pension benefits. I’m talking real benefits- Medical, Dental, Eyeglass, Prescription-no deductible, company funded pension plans, what happened? With a straight face you’re going to tell me some firefighters took that? Now we have to fund our own 401K, pay into substantially marginalized ‘health benefits’ where you have to co-pay for a visit. Now that’s the kind of income redistibution that makes sense!

    I guess ad absurdum, ignorance and stupidity is the new smart.

    You want to know where most of your money goes?

    Quote from the most recent (and LAST) good Republican:
    DD Eisenhower, 1953/

    “Every gun that is made, every warship launched,
    every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft
    from those who hunger and are not fed, those who
    are cold and are not clothed.
    This world in arms is not spending money alone.
    It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius
    of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
    The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a
    modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
    It is two electric power plants, each serving a
    town of 60,000 population.
    It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
    It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
    We pay for a single fighter with a half million
    bushels of wheat.
    We pay for a single destroyer with new homes
    that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
    This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found
    on the road the world has been taking.
    This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.
    Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity
    hanging from a cross of iron.”
    (16 April 1953)=

    I have a riddle for the regurgitators. Here are the clues:
    -War in Iraq,
    -Real Estate debacle,
    -Tax payer bail-out of hundreds of failed banks,
    -Economic recession.
    Which Bush presidency am I referring to, H W Bush or Dubya?

  11. says

    I am a private pilot with just over 400 hours and a fresh instrument rating. I am middle-aged, 3 kids (college, high school, middle school) and God be blessed, a good job in the medical industry. I took my first flying lesson only 2 years ago and loved it to the point where I flew nearly 300 hours this year. I spend more in taxes every year than you want to know.

    I bought a used 1969 Piper Cherokee Six a year ago. It is nicely equipped with modern avionics and two autopilots, required little to no upgrades. YES, I maintain it properly and use certified A&P’s when required, but as the FAR’s allow, I do my own routine maintenance, oil changes, spark plug rotation, service, tires, lube, electrical, etc. That saves me a LOT of cash and helps make my hobby more affordable.

    The plane is fully IFR certified and I pay extra to ensure that level of maintanance and database updates. I fly for work and am reimbursed for rental of my aircraft, that also helps pay the bills. However, maintaining a FAA certified aircraft is STILL expensive! How do I do it? Let me explain:

    Unlike many Americans, I live WELL below my means and have since before I was married 20 years ago. I save a lot of money and have been an active investor for a long time. I am NOT rich, but I do have some disposable income. I have chosen my hobbies wisely and I do not spend money without thoughtful analysis of benefit to cost analysis. When I see people driving cars that are newer than mine (mine having been paid for many years ago) and in homes larger than mine (with mortgages to match, I’m sure) and credit cards likely at their limits (I have one credit card with a that I pay in FULL every month, NEVER paying interest), it is easy for me to ignore their cries about my expensive hobby. DEBT is something to avoid, Americans have not got the message yet.

    I don’t look at myself as special or priveledged. I simply worked incredibly hard and earned everything I have. I chose this path after 15 years of not having ANY hobbies outside work; I made a decision to follow a passion that I’ve had since I was a kid. I could have done it cheaper – LSA route (Sport Pilot) and renting instead of buying, just a hobby. It can be affordable, just depends on how far you want to take it.

    May God bless those who have lost work and are able to and willing to achieve success – may they find a good job soon.

  12. Phil D. says

    There’s a lot of truth and wisdom in all the posts … testimony to the fact that aviators truly are — and have always been — America’s “cream of the crop”.

    A “perfect storm” of circumstances is causing our pilot lounges to indeed empty out: the “silver-heads” no longer show up to lend sage advice … the awe-filled kids no longer gaze through the airport fence … GA airports are being turned over to real estate speculators … and the 19 year-old CFI can’t wait to ‘fly real airplanes’.

    … I can’t envision a scenario whereby a “course reversal” will occur.

  13. John Green says

    People don’t fly today simply because they place higher value on other activites or items. Having a pilot’s license just doesn’t say “keeping up with the Jones’s” like a luxury car.

    I’m middle class and I don’t have my pilot’s license, but I could easily if I sold my 6 year old sports car and didn’t take it to the race track a few times a year. Everybody complains about $100/hr or more for a plane rental, but figuring all expenses, it costs me about $300/hr on a race track and that’s with a not-to-fast street car that doesn’t use much more than tires and brake pads.

    I could also have a pilot’s license if I didn’t buy my last two computers and my home entertainment system. The three week vacation to Europe a couple years ago would have also mostly covered that cost.

    Finally, there’s just less of a need for the middle class to fly today. Go back 50 years, and flying your own plane was a quick and relatively inexpensive way to go long distances. Since then, the interstate highway system has been built, making moderate distance travel a lot faster. Also, airline fairs a lot cheaper than in the past and a big jet is a much faster and relaxing way to get cross country.

  14. narby says

    It’s sad to see “hate the wealthy” partisan politics interjected into aviation. One of the biggest problems with aviation is that too many people already think GA is for the wealthy, so they don’t even attempt to enter the field. This article doesn’t help that perception.

    Yeah, there are a lot more rich people today. So what? Nobody killed off the middle class, or it’s ability to afford what it want’s to afford. The fact is everybody in the US is richer in real terms than when I got my ticket, despite Krugman’s partisan economic arguments.

    The problem with aviation is demographics and regulation. The number of GA pilots is declining, which discourages new businesses from competing with the old established and long ago certified manufacturers. It’s telling that the engine in my homebuilt was certified in 1938, and yet is considered “state of the art” today.

    We all think that avionics has been the one field that has advanced in the declining GA business. But not so. If we had a “clean sheet” mentality in our regulatory burden, we have the computer technology to entirely eliminate ATC, while making all-weather flying in more crowded skies simple and safe, even with lower training requirements. Even “Next Gen” is prehistoric compared to what could be done if we had open minds in our government regulatory overseers. And it would cost a fraction of the Next Gen government pork.

    Most people don’t want to bother with the long training required to enter our antique hobby. Blaming cost is just an excuse. If half the number of people who bought huge recreational vehicles at $150K bought airplanes instead, aviation would expand dramatically, bringing new competition and lower prices.

    By all rights, airplanes of the $400k Cirrus class should cost about what a nice SUV costs. The only reason they don’t is that the market is a tiny fraction of the size of automobiles, and the regulation and litigation costs are enormous.

    Let’s face it. Aviation was cool in the 50’s. Airline captains were gods and the young stewardesses were on their arm. Now, aviation is either a crowded bus trip in tiny seats with crying babies, or old geeks who build airplanes in their garage that they may never fly. Who want’s to get involved in that?

    It’s not the cost. The premise of this article is bogus and smells of partisan politics. Anyone in the middle class can fly their own airplane if they really wanted to, even with our expensive regulations and legal environment. I got my private ticket while in high school on money earned from pumping gas at minimum wage. Flying costs have gone up faster than inflation, but not so much that an average person can’t afford it if that’s what they wanted to do. Note the post from the Airman with a Cherokee above.

    We’re a dying breed. Flying just isn’t cool anymore.

  15. Tim says

    Hmmm…interesting article, and interesting responses by all. Though flying isn’t cheap, it is still attainable as a hobby by the blue collar folks….unfortunately there has been an awfully big decline in good blue collar jobs here in the states over the past few decades. That being said…I come from a blue collar family, make $60k a year (21 years after college graduation), and own a late 70’s Cessna 172. I look at the payment on it as if it is a car payment. I do make sacrifices in other areas so that I can continue to own it….for example, my car is a 1995 model that I paid $900 for 3 years ago. It runs, it’s reliable, and it has 245000 miles on it….not going to impress anyone with it, but it continues to allow me to own an airplane! I have always “brown bagged” all of my lunches, and eat out maybe once a month.

    I personally hope our government and our corporations see fit to increase the number of good jobs for good hard working folks, and take the responsibility of partnering with us citizens for the good of our communities seriously (we all have a part to play)…..and maybe we can get back to some flying fun.

  16. Josh Jones says

    Its not just the GA community that the middle class is dissappearing from. There IS a class warfare going on in America, and the the plutocrats have routed the middle class. I am a student pilot, and the son and nephew of ag pilots. I have been around airplanes and airports my whole life. I have seen the GA fleet of planes and pilots change in my lifetime, significantly. While the article is correct that the top 1% actually HOLD 24% of the wealth, they CONTROL over 85% of it, and they do so for their own benefit, and to increase their own wealth. See, they actually use the middle class’s money against them. Now if you are middle class, and you scrape up enough money to invest it in a publicly held company, you can rest assured that the plutocrats will take your money, along with theirs, and go to a politician, and say “We have X amount of dollars. We can spend it on your re-election campaign, or on your opponent’s campaign. How will vote to extend tax cuts that only benefit the top 2%”? The middle class investors, even if they organize, still only own 49% of the company, so they can’t reciprocate, and hold the plutocrats hostage with their own money.
    The game is rigged. Play and lose. Don’t play and don’t win. Who benefits? The status quo. America is not a meritocracy anyway you cut it. If you’re born poor, the odds are overwhelming that you’ll die poor. If you are born rich, the odds are overwhelming that you’ll die rich. Social mobility is a myth. This is the part where the fascist-apologists always wring their hands and say, “but what about ——-? ——– proves that social mobility is real.” Usually, they pick Bill Gates. Every fascist-apologist believes in his lapdog heart that his kid is gonna be the next Bill Gates. Anyway, they used to say “Oprah”, now they usually say “Bill Gates”. The retort is simple. There is one Bill Gates. There are 300,000,000 Americans. Your odds of being socially mobile like Bill Gates is almost identical to your odds of being socially mobile by winning the PowerBall Lottery. I am not suggesting that you should just play the lottery instead of working, I’m suggesting that you’re not going to be socially mobile. And neither is anyone else that you know. Besides, Bill Gates was hardly poor. He dropped out of an Ivy League College. How many poor kids would do that? Not many, because they don’t get to go to Ivy League Schools in the first damn place, the statistics are quite clear about that.

    Now I’m gonna sit back and watch the authors of all those letters about “MMGW is a fraud” to Flying and AOPA have coronaries. The funniest part is, some of you probably think that you’re benefiting yourselves, even while you take food out of your own kids mouths and give it to Ivanka Trump. All these types know how to do is accuse their detractors of wanting to “punish their success”. Personally, I don’t think that trust fund babies are success stories. Since there is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE that tax cuts for the top tiers produce increases in GDP/GNP, there is really only one benefit for them, and that is preservation of the status quo, and to a lot of us, say, the bottom 98%, that ain’t much of a benefit.

  17. H. Harrison says

    I too am a school teacher who no longer can afford to fly. In fact, I haven’t flown as PIC since 1987, and I miss it terribly. I can vividly remember my last flight. It was VFR from Cape Cod to northwestern New Jersey in Cessna 172. I started out at twilight and ended during night with a full moon. Long Island Sound was lit up brilliantly, and could see the commercial jets lining up for JFK as I skirted the Connecticut coast before heading over the Hudson River and home. I’ll never forget it. If I never get a chance to fly again, that made it for me.

    The article is a wake up call and until the middle class is able to get back into flying I’m afraid that GA will continue to suffer. The whole situation stinks.

  18. Alex S says

    IMO only blind regardless of partisan allegiances, (well, just having partisan allegiances is a definition of “blind”, imo :) ) would deny the Great Divergence and its devastating effect on a middle class, standards of living, democracy and freedom itself taken over by internationall, global corporate elite’s greed and its corruption of national governments. This is huge global issue – for us and for a world to cope with for decades to come – turn on the news if you have any doubts.

    The question nevertheless is how it is related to GA decline? Surely, the fact that my engineer’s salary was frozen for last 10+ years and almost every new job in at my corp is created abroad doesn’t help, cost of fuel, etc. too. Nevertheless at the age of 50+ I did earn a certificate of a Sport Pilot a month ago. Reaction of my loving wife on this – tears and anquish. :) Not that she fears I might end up killed in an accident. :) But because she’s afraid I may decide to sell our 38′ sailboat I owned for 15 years to afford an LSA. :) Because I’m not rich to afford both and do not have time to enjoy both hobbies. More flying for me – less sailing with her. These are very comparable expences (with LSA ownership nooticeably higher due to exhorbitant insurance and fuel costs) Do we dare to compare the experiences then?

    Owning a crusing sailboat is life-style forming experience for the family with every year filled with anticipation of a new adventures, friendly ports with colorful and bustling waterfronts, blue skies and water, wind, life at sea with a sailboat being your second home. And this is achievable with maximum cruising speed only 7 knots! :)

    Compare this with GA experience – constantly reducing number of strips in the middle of nowhere – often no attendance, no services, no ground transportation. You would think that VFR cruising in a light plane is similar to fair-weather summer sailing – you go wherever sun is shining and sky is blue only with 100+ knots – new places, new experiences! But very often there’s nothing much at your destination – the moment after you climb out of your plane and find whatever goes for a restroom – you just feel stranded in desolation, unless you choose you destination wisely and arranged with still alive FBO for a ground transportation and arranged full intinerary of your stay on a short notice. You cannot really make advance reservations on VFR flights :) The plane is not your home and camping under the wing is not everbody’s idea of a good time or of a common sense anymore. The logistics of such lesure travel, even if you can afford it, is brutal, tiring and unappealing… The only appeal remaining is just this love for flying itself – but how long the little flame will be burning, facing realities of life?

    To stop any doubts, FAA declared LSA “a toy/hobby for the rich” in a regulatory fashion – remember the LSA and sport flying “cannot be used in furthering a business”. Ok – does the GA/LSA plane make a good toy then?

    My point is that GA in general does not make a life-style case to a prospective recreational buyer into it. The lure of adventure of quick 100+nm hops around the state, the country, visiting easily dozens places you never been, seeing them from above and up close on the ground is there – but it’s largely undeveloped promise for those who can afford it. To survive the GA industry should invest in GA visitor/traveller infrastructure – the similar “red carpet” infrastructure biz-jet-oriented FBOs need to maintain. This is in a sense a “chicken and egg problem”. It needs a big infrastructure investment to bootstrap a growth – but I believe it’s in theory doable. Right now GA is on a “back of a power curve” – in a death spiral, no infrastructure investment and, therefore, dwindling customer base and no profits, therefore no invetsments, etc.

    GA I think is confused by its former role as a nursery for professional pilots. Forget it.

    Also, Alaska is a special place. They don’t have roads there. And GA is subsidized there. Not a model for the whole industry.

    Nobody in a future will be able to afford to pull himself into a low-paying pro pilot seat by paying out of the pocket for flight experience in GA. This will need be taken over by airlines – they have to pay for pilot education if they need pilots. That’s how it is in other, formerly less rich countries. Which means in a modern globalized world that future US airline pilots will be probably mostly chinese, trained in China, too :) That’s where your “young eagles” are nesting right now – not here, not in GA.

    GA’s “new pilot”, new “young eagle”, new potential growth is figuratively speaking me and my wife – millions of 40-50+ yr old top middle-class (10% bracket) of americans who could afford a private plane and travel in it – if only GA can make a life-style proposition case for it and promote it – similar to sailors, bikers in Harvey clubs etc. (If 20+ yr-old could afford 160K+ LSA that means he already flying in a biz-jet :) Somebody should make it worth the expense. I’m ready to buy my own LSA – as soon as I can make the case to my wife :) The sooner GA industry realizes that and can focus on pulling together travel industry, GA industry, local and federal government support to increase leasure travel by GA pilots – the sooner polpulation of GA pilots start growing again…

  19. KimbofromKS says

    20 years ago, the high cost of a plane was do to product liability laws. Then I came back to aviation and planes still are in the 200-300k bracket.

    So I ask you…what happened to the product liability fight we had going on 20 years ago? Did we lose?

  20. JC says

    UncleRufus, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been advocating for term limits since the early ’90s. Politicians on both sides are not interested in doing what’s right, but in doing what’s best for their pocketbooks and power.

    I’m a professional with two bachelors degrees. My wife has a Masters. We make over $150,000/yr. I don’t have a boat, motorcycle, or jetski. Both our vehicles cost less than $30K (my little truck cost about half that). We do live in a decent neighborhood, in a 2400 sq. ft. house. I have two daughters, one of which is in college and one that will be going in two years. We pay for their college expenses. I used to play four rounds of golf a month, but then I started flying and couldn’t afford the golf. However, I don’t fly powered aircraft–there’s no way I could afford that. I fly sailplanes.

    A tow to 2000 ft costs me $30 and hourly rental of the glider is $20/hr. For a four-hour flight, it costs me $110. But that’s not the real kicker. I often fly down to the gliderport with a friend in his C-172. At first, it was fun, but it quickly got boring. When I fly a sailplane, I’m never bored, I’m too busy reading the sky, figuring my glide range, deciding how high to ride the next thermal for the fastest time around a given task, circling in lift, and basically feeling what my aircraft is doing. Boring holes in the sky, it ain’t!

    If you have a soaring club near you, I highly recommend looking into it. It’s a lot cheaper and has more thrill than you can imagine.

    For those who have never been exposed to modern sailplanes, they can fly hundreds of miles in just a few hours. In contests, speeds around a 150 to 300 mile long task often average more than 90 kts. That includes the time required to find and circle in thermals.

  21. @williamAirways says

    Any of you who think money is not a factor is living in a dream world. Wake up. If AvGas was free, if airplane rental was free, and if airplanes were free to rent, you’d have plenty of GA flying going around. Fact is, money is the root issue. Just look at all these posts above. The recurring theme is MONEY!

    That said, people are not getting into aviation because it takes STEM. Study, Time, Effort, Money. If you are short even one of those items during your flight training, you’re out, or it’ll take you a good long time to get through.

    People have disposable income. And they have chosen to stretch their disposable dollar. I can spend $1500 on a nice DSLR camera, take photography classes for $250, and have a LONG LIFE of enjoyment in amateur photography in my free time. I can buy a set of golf clubs for $1000 and go play the cheap courses and have a LONG LIFE of enjoyment with my gear. I can spend $800 for that big screen TV that will last me at least 5 years or more that I can enjoy for a long time…time that I won’t necessarily need to spend hundreds just to turn on. One flight to pancakes, and I’m looking at $250. Three more trips and I can get myself a TV that will entertain me for years to go. Hrm…decisions…decisions. The list of activities that do not cost nearly as much as flying an airplane goes on and on and on and on…yeah…it’s about money. Stop kidding yourselves.

    People are going to do what people are going to do. Don’t tell me aviation is not in their heads. Airplanes are flying everywhere. The news talks nothing but flight cancellations and add-on fees. People simply have no interest in becoming pilots and flying themselves when you can hop on a budget airline to your destination for a fraction of what will cost to obtain and maintain your pilot certificate, not to mention, NO STUDYING REQUIRED!

    Look, we in the pilot community would love to spread the good word on flying. The bottom line is, this is an activity. It’s just ONE of MANY activities in this life. And this activity of flying is expensive. The amount of money I spend on ONE flight is enough to feed a family of four for two weeks. Are you kidding me? Please. Enough with this. The pilot community in the USA will be what it is. There will be people taking it on, and most won’t. Those with money will do it, and continue to do it. Those without, well, lucky for them there are plenty of activities that cost a hell of a lot less.

    And if any of these alphabet groups are serious about the pilot population, we’d see repeat commercials about how to become a pilot on this Sunday’s Superbowl. My bet is that you’ll see zero…simply because we really are not serious about the pilot population…but we sure love to complain about it.

  22. Glenn Hake says

    Two things l would emphasize and they have been eloquently stated previously:

    1. Due to government regulation, mandates, taxes, and defensive liability practices the cost of flying is twice what it was in the early 70?s in real dollars. This must be reversed for the sake of more than those of us who are passionate about aviation.

    2. In the United States wealth is not generated from a fixed pie and at the expense of others. Just the opposite, better cars, Bill Gates software, Micheal Dell’s computers, Warren Buffett’s business acumen have enabled us all to be more productive and live better. Those that feel they could better use others money inhibbit us all.

  23. A J Folger says

    OK, you guys have succeeded in depressing me more than I already was. But the truth is,
    my Warrior helped me maintain my sanity during my 30 year teaching career, so the
    therapeutic value alone is immeasurable. I’m not selling it until either it, or I, are no longer

  24. Glenn Hake says

    Two things l would emphasize and they have been eloquently stated previously:

    1. Due to government regulation, mandates, taxes, and defensive liability practices the cost of is twice what it was in the early 70’s in real dollars. This must be reversed for the sake of more than those of us who are passionate about aviation.

    2. In the United States wealth is not generated from a fixed pie and at the expense of others. Just the opposite, better cars, Bill Gates software, Micheal Dell’s computers, Warren Buffett’s business acumen have enabled us all to be more productive and live better. Those that feel they could better use others money inhibbit us all.

  25. Fred D. says

    I own a PA-28-180 w/two other pilots, that now worth less than $10K of its estimated worth just 5-6 yrs ago. With fuel now at $5-6/gal, thats approx $50/hr just for fuel and I expect it will go even higher. Even doing our own maintenance (have A&P), our hourly costs are now +$90/hr, basis approx. 100 hrs/yr. If I was unable to use it for business travel w/reimbursement, I doubt that the plane would get much more than 25 hrs/yr. All three of us have good middle class incomes, but the “preceived value/pleasure” is no longer there vs the current cost. Not like it was 10-20 yrs ago. And when I do fly, I am usually the only aircraft moving at my home A/P and enroute/destination A/Ps. What’s changed the most? Surely not the recent price of used aircraft going up! Its the cost of fuel and is made worse by the flat/declining annual income of the average/typical middle class pilot, that is still lucky enough to be employed! My prediction for the future is, it will go the way of GA in Europe. Only for the upper income earners. Very sad.

  26. David says

    “I hesitate to raise such incendiary issues, perchance generating partisan blame and revisionist history.”

    Got your wish there… but it’s a cop-out to use partisan retoric the explain the decline in aviation.

    I’ll be out of aviation by mid-year, and renewing my irrelevant AOPA membership is definitely not in the plan. As for many like me the entire problem comes down to cost.

    Just look at the cost of fuel for example. Avgas is a boutique fuel stream, whose production only requires infrequent use of a very expensive capital resource, upon which share-holders expect the refiner to make a reasonable rate of return. It has to be transported (by road or rail) in vehicles themselves fueled by gas/diesel that is refined from oil that costs 10 times what it cost per barrel a few decades ago. It is dispensed by FBO’s who are selling less and less of it, but are required to maintain the capability of providing avgas to their customers and flight schools, meaning that each gallon attracts a larger share of the business overhead. It is a vicious circle.

    Enter the pilot, who looks at the cost (say $50 – $75/hour for fuel) just to go on a trip. For any trip less than 250 miles the time (and effort of driving for example) saved by flying is meaningless when you take into account the “time overhead” of getting to the airport, flight planning, preflight etc. The extra cost cannot be justified. When the cost is so out of proportion to the gain, using “love of flying” as a justification quickly gets eroded. Boating and snowmobiling start to intrude as alternatives.

    Fuel cost is not by any means the whole story of the decline in aviation, but it sure takes the edge off of the enjoyment. Any residual enjoyment fades further when the cost of ownership, over-regulation, liability, etc are factored in.

    Here are two other factors related to one another: Pay levels and age: Instructors, who are largely young are indentured servants to the FBO’s “making” $20/hour, but only when they fly. Those that stick it out graduate to low-paying jobs in the regionals etc at a time when they are starting out in life, looking to have a family and home. Hardly an incentive to get one excited about a career.

    At the other end of the age scale, are old guys like me who have been flying for 50 years, either recreationally or professionally, but are retiring (less disposable income) or finding that their medical problems are catching up with them.

    Go to Sun ‘N Fun or Oshkosh, and the majority of the attendees are middle-aged or older, and getting older.

    Where are the new pilots to replace them going to come from? The answers to that are complex, and have a number of economic implications for the future. Certainly beyond the scope of this, and anyway I don’t have the answer.

  27. Buzz Payne says

    Tony Turner- I agree with your points and so many of the ones listed in previous posts make sense as well.
    I earned my certificate July 2008, at 46 years old, bought my well used Beech Super Musketeer III that September. I paid $35K for it. The former owner was a retired policeman from California who bragged to me that he was drawing his entire annual salary in retirement. He owned 2 homes, one in CA and one in AZ. I own one home.
    I own a small electrical business, the kids are married and moved away and I manage my money well. The credit card is paid off monthly, the house is almost paid for and I live within my means.
    Personal financial responsibilty goes a long way towards realizing the dream of flying. All of our situations are different but we all have at least one thing in common, the choice of how we will spend our money. I choose flying as my hobby and I am loving it.
    Support GA and be an EAA/AOPA member.

  28. says

    Insult to injury, there is no middle class in aviaition were most FBO’s are concerned. The bussiness model is to cater to the bis-jets and close down the rest of the airport to small planes. When the BIG boys are in town we little guys can’t even access the self serve gas pumps because we get in the way. Our FBO won’t even work on local planes, no money in it. …and it’s the same every place you fly into, nice lounges and private cars waiting and even (literally) the red carpet treament for the “fortune 500”. No money to make on ave-gas at $5.00 a gallen. I long for the old days when an annual set me back 400 dollars…yes that was in the 80″s and I was a middle class, blue coller worker, flying my own cessna 172M. CCR and APC

  29. Dan says

    Perhaps wealth is accumulating at the top, leaving the middle class poorer. Yet middle class houses got bigger, and people still buy vacation homes, motorhomes, boats, expensive cars, big screen TV’s, and exotic vacations… and it appears that there is still plenty of money to go around.

    GA’s demise is more about choices. People choose to be sendentary – watch movies, TV, and play computer games. They choose to do things that do not require the effort of learning to fly, like boating, travel, or cruises. They choose other things because flying has become ordinary and lost it’s magic. They rebel against pulling and pushing aircraft around by hand, getting dirty checking oil and taking fuel samples, being inconvenienced by weather or mechanical troubles, flying in airplanes that are older then they are, and paying astronomical prices for new aircraft with marginally improved utility. These are the real problems for GA. Until they are addressed, the industry will continue to flounder.

  30. John fro Carlsbad says

    one thing that is left out of this discussion is access. Just last week I took my grandson to Palomar airport for lunch. We stopped by the tower to hang with the controllers. Not only did they not answer the phone but the building now has a chain link fence with barbed wire. We need make the dream of flying accessible.

  31. says

    In 1945, just after the close of WW II, my father puchased a 104 acre farm with a five year old ranch home and a 15 year old farm house on it for a mere $25K; an acre on the same property today is valued at $50K! My first new car, a trusty 1965 VW “Bettle” only cost $1,850!
    In 1967, I purchased an early 1960 Beech Debonair for $12,500! A cup of coffee, not Starbucks, in the same year was only 15 cents; and you could still buy “penny” candy! I gave “dual” instruction at Teterboro (NJ) in 1972 for $8/hr and our Grumman Trainers rented for only $16/hr “wet”!

    Gentlemen; there are a lot of things we all would like to have in this life and I too have very little use for government incompetence, unjustified regulations and meaningless laws that do nothing but restrain the private business sector. Keep this is mind; we all have CHOICES and
    this STILL is the United States of American!

  32. richard okrosy says

    I haven’t flown since 2003, and for the very reasons cited in the article. My only direct connection with general aviation is my membership in AOPA.

  33. says

    There seems to be some truth in what all of you have to say but let me give it to you from a new pilot perspective.

    After wanting to fly since I was a kid, I finally had the opportunity to obtain my certificate in December of 2010 at the age of 50. The main reason I waited so long was money. And No I don’t own a boat or a jet ski or any other luxuries. I’m just a hard working guy that has spent his life trying to make a living and keep my family fed. There is no disposable income when you’re a normal guy trying to by shoes and braces and clothes and dippers and school fees and daycare fees and …….. the list could go on forever.

    Why is aviation so expensive???? That’s an easy one.

    1. Liability. Every penny you pay for an airplane, be it rental or owning or maintenance or parts or anything is priced by liability. It’s an airplane so if it fails everyone and their brother will be sued until they have to close up shop and eat bread and water provided by the government. So we the flying public have to pay for the liability that the FBO, Shop, Aircraft manufacture, or parts manufactures have to carry and stock pile so they can cover their rear. Funny part is, most accidents are THE PILOTS FAULT!!!!! He took off in bad weather. He didn’t have enough fuel. He failed to do a preflight. He landed at the wrong airport and there was only 3000 feet of runway and not 6000. Then they want to sue somebody for “them” being stupid.

    2. Government. Rules rules rules rules rules! It cost several billion dollars a year to comply with all the federal rules and regulations. And now they want to add more….. we have collectively lost our minds. Air bags in airplanes, WHAT????? I can take my finger and punch a hole in the side of an airplane and they want to require me to have a big balloon in front of me. And OMG! I have to have a new ELT because no one is listening to the one I have. Now they’re talking user fees. How much more burden can we bear? At some point somebody has to say ENOUGH, you’re just piling on now.

    3. Fuel…….. I’m not even going to start on that.

    This is just my opinion but I make a good living and I can’t afford to fly. Something’s wrong!

  34. UncleRufus says

    Much of what has been said is “true” depending on whose statistics we look at or how they are interpreted. Unfortunately the same thing still pops up in this discussion that is responsible for most of the problems we face: partisan politics.
    Let’s face it…this all came about when we started doing everything based on ideology rather than what’s best for the country. Almost everyone seems to pick a side and then builds a wall against anything that does not fit their chosen ideology.

    It’s simply a fact that we’re back in the same distribution curve as during the ‘robber baron’ era…it’s our fault for keeping people in office for too long…they should all be thrown out after only one term…otherwise the end up belonging to someone…so they can get enough money together to be re-elected. That’s why everything is skewed…we live in a morally corrupt nation…everyone is for sale. Just watch the middle east…if they overthrow Mubarik and replace him…they’ll be right back where they started in 5 years…unless they limit terms.

    The politicians talk about training and job group through education…but what good does it do to become an engineer, architect, manufacturer, etc…if those jobs still end up overseas. I know too many former professionals that work for less than 15 and hour now.
    I really believe we need to get rid of both political parties and create a system where everyone runs independently.

    BTW…I was one of those firemen( never met one of those with SO MUCH)…never bought the big boats, trucks etc(and don’t know a single firefighter, cop, sheriff or paramedic that fits the ones described above)…managed my affairs fairly well then in the 80’s when we went for 3 years without a pay raise(and barely got cost of living adjustments after that)…just after I started building my own house on land I financed under a veterans program…we stopped with a cabin…and have maintained it since. Sure I’ve tried to find a sustainable career with a pension(which we paid for in contributions and reduced pay and benefits)…SERVICE…that’s what previous generations in my family did…and some current ones do now. We put our lives on the line for people we never knew…and now everyone want’s to demonize us for our service…make us look like pigs at the trough…sheesh.

    Being a firefighter and raising a family left me without disposable income and left me out of flying until I discovered the LSA license quite by accident last year…I’m doing it by saving $200 a month…when I can. I’m in the job market again…and what’s out there is pitiful. GA won’t turn around until we get a robust(with a future) middle class back…PERIOD.

  35. Tom Bliss says

    Drew’s commentary is correct, flying is expensive and unavailable to many. But the lack of new pilots and airplane owners also reflects the changing demographic of those who have traditionally been intrested in flying. Pilots who were WWII veterans, Korean War vets, or Vietnam-era pilots are in the twilight of their flying careers–and there is no rush to the airport for those who can’t justify the cost of an expensive hobby–or a new career.

    Flying jobs are no longer glamorous, heroic or coveted by teens and twentysomethings. These folks would rather live comfortably in Mom’s basement, smoke dope and play video games–rather than take personal risks, or work to pay for college–let alone flight training.

    Baby Boomers like Drew and myself grew up with Sky King, imagined ourselves as jet pilots and astronauts–and watched the imaginative “Men Into Space” TV series in 1960. These shows and a host of war movies portrayed flying as a tremendous adventure for the gutsy. Learning to fly was, at one time, a noble career goal, and one of the most preeminent daydreams of boys and men. Now, not so much.
    I have offered to take kids flying for the past 28 years in my own airplanes, but have had very few takers. My my own 20-something daughters (who flew with me all over the U.S. as infants thru their teen years and never experienced a car trip) and son in law– have no interest in flying whatsoever.

  36. Raven says

    I did a comparison of light aircraft cost to inflation , 1955 to 2005- I do not recall exactly the results, but the aircraft (C150) outpaced inflation by nearly double.

    Re- That top 1% of the wealthy– gonna be mostly filled by FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) people. Very few manufacturers among therm. These people siphon off the top-not much production there.

    The post about public sector workers is spot on- the private sector is bleeding taxes to provide benefits and retirement plans for the public workers ,that they cannot afford for themselves. “social justice” at work.-, AKA redistribution scam.

    I got my pilots license in 1985. I was a lot poorer then, stopped flying after a few years. Have a dream about getting back in, but the financial reality is daunting- lets see- do I want to spend $500 a month burning holes in the sky, or put that money away so there is something left in my old age?

  37. ex-owner says

    I agree with some of the points of previous posters. It’s all about priorities and where one wants to spend their “disposable” income. I chose to spend mine on flying and owning an aircraft for the last 18 years. It was expensive but that was what I most desired to do. Most of my blue collar and professional boomer friends chose alternatives once they researched the ins and outs of getting a license and maintaining an aircraft. FARs, maintenance issues, nonsensical regulations and what they perceived as impediments to free movement turned them off permanently. Instead, they bought boats, motorhomes, motorcycles, vacation homes, golf memberships and engaged in other leisure activities that didn’t entail having to commit to memory a book with more information than the Bible. As pilots we get used to just another new regulation piled on top of the list. To the potential new entrant, it’s like learning a new profession and for what? To call FSS and basically get permission to go to breakfast a half hour away? I recently sold my aircraft and quit flying. It’s just not worth the hassle anymore of having to call FSS to see if I can fly 20 miles to get a coffee on a Saturday morning. It’s not money at the root of GA’s problems. It’s over regulation and the almost daily roadblocks set up by the FAA, NTSB, Homeland Security amongst others and until those daily TFR, VIP movement, ADs, service bulletins, ad nauseum decrease, GA will shrink. For icing on the cake, how about the John & Martha King incident? I bet that did wonders for recruiting potential pilots.

  38. NobodyImportant says

    Kent Misegades wrote: “Reality is, given the meteoric rise in the pay for government workers, it is firemen, teachers, professors and government paper-pushers that are the ones best capable of flying today.”

    I don’t know where you live, but in my neck of the woods, teacher pay has shown very little growth over the last 10 years, lagging well behind inflation (especially when the economy was still booming prior to 2008). This is not a short-term trend; well-qualified teachers with advanced degrees in subject matter and 20 years experience make far less than similarly-educated counterparts in the private sector. (And such a teacher would likely NOT have adequate disposable income to spend on recreational aviation, regardless of how other expenses were prioritized!)

    I know nothing about police and firefighters, but I know about teachers. Your comment does not at all match my experience.

  39. N1654XX says

    Article is about the obvious – not sure it reveals much than isn’t already known – basic expenses (housing, energy, education….) are crowding out disposable income activities. My parent’s first house (1967) cost the same as their annual teacher’s salary. My first house was four times my entry level post undergraduate salary.

    Regulations and taxes are a bit crazy. In St.Louis, KSUS; there are, I believe, three levels of taxes on the fuel. If I go 30 minutes by air to Cuba FBO, it is a dollar cheaper per gallon.

    The Annual is becoming another reason to remove a dozen inspection panels just to change oil that I just changed. So there is a Regulation taking a healthy chunk out of my disposable income that could be used for fuel or upgraded avionics.

  40. Steven says

    “A Private Pilot” – Needs to deal with facts, and it would help if Mr. Steketee would also. The move away from general aviation hasn’t been forced by income or disposable income levels in the middle class. Conservatively, I am sure we have more people, both numbers and percent of population, living far above any previous generation.
    As Mark C. said earlier, we have never had so many large homes, expensive vehicles and personal toys for recreation as we presently do. There are more than enough people, literally 10’s of millions, making family incomes of over $100,000 who could fly in sport or general aviation if they chose to. One of the biggest obstacles is regulated oversight and maintenance, as well as unique storage requirements for aircraft.
    The one item we can’t forget is that liquid fuel of whatever type we speak of is a finite natural resource, and in limited supply as well as world demand (I know of what I speak, as I have been a resource geologist for 40 years). All fuel costs will continue to increase until and unless some new means of creating a new and transportable fuel, it is simply a product of competition.
    The biggest mistake that “A Private Pilot” makes is the absolute lunacy of income redistribution making more people viable to fly. Give me an example! Where income has been redistributed, name me one place where much private flying has taken place — China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela — It simply doesn’t work. Income redistribution, aka socialism shares, stifles growth and brings the great majority of the people down to a lower, or subsistence level of living dependant on government.
    Lastly, if he doubts Mark above, or buys into the wholesale lies of Krugman, he ought to take a look at “Transparent Nevada” a website revealing government salaries in Nevada — lots of firemen and school teachers, policemen and college professors being paid over $200,000 to$500,000/year on the taxpayers dole, plus those phenomenal benefits.

    Enough said.

  41. GM says

    I have agree with a few others on the comments made. It’s about choices and priorities. Yes, there are quite a few people that must have all the newest, most expensive toys and because of that most people will not invest in GA. Look at me as an example, however. I am an enlisted man in the USAF…just about as middle class as you can get. I have a modest home and a truck with 80K miles on it (paid for of course). I also even own a boat…well, it’s a ’91 model and I acquired it for less than 3K. Anyway, my hobby of choice is indeed GA. I own and fly a ’73 Piper Cherokee. It’s not the cheapest hobby out there, but because I choose flying to be my “priority” in spending my discretionary income then I can certainly afford it.

  42. Bob Spofford says

    It’s not just about money. There’s also a cultural aspect behind the decline of GA that hasn’t been mentioned: Even if you have all the money in the world, learning to be a pilot – – and remaining a safe one – – requires a lot of time and mental engagement. It doesn’t provide the instant gratification that all those other Adult Toys do.

    People who get into flying enjoy the intellectual stimulation. Getting your private or, even more, an instrument rating is a lot like a challenging graduate-level course. Some people find it very rewarding, but lots start in, thinking it will be “fun”, and drop out when they discover it takes real effort.

    On top of that, flying once had a sort of romantic appeal. Back in the 50s, being a fighter pilot or even an airline jock was right up at the top of many kid’s dreams. Today, for all but an oddball few, that thrill is gone.

  43. Mel says

    You’d be hard pressed to find a brand new airplane which is within the price range of the middle class, but used ones are definitely affordable. I am an entry-level employee and bought a plane for less than the cost of the average new car. There are plenty of blue collar workers who fly. I think it’s just that most of the focus is on the shiny new planes and fancy avionics that the average person can’t afford.

  44. Robert says

    Your are right on target, Drew. For those of you who doubt the data, call your local University and ask the head of the Economics Dept. what has happened to middle class wages over the last 30 years. You’ll get the same answer Drew gives. Don’t trust institutions of higher learning? Then go ahead and make up your own story to suit your ideology – never mind the facts.

    That said, declining wages of the middle class are not the only GA problem. Competing leisure time interests and the some of the other factors mentioned above have had an impact too.

  45. Kyle says

    Just one more point that seems to be missing from this discussion is that GA is alive and growing, Just not in this county anymore. Look at what’s happening over in India and China. Sorry folks we gave it away all of us the rich the middle class and the greedy arrogant politicians, and lets not forget where Cessna decided to build its new LSA, China.

  46. bob says

    Dear Drew Steketee,

    Good article.

    Costs aside, one of the largest problems is that general aviation flight schools do very little if any marketing or advertising to the general public. All the ads in flying publications are preaching to the choir. There are many people in my area that don’t even know we have an airport!

    The perception among most non-flyers that I know is that flying is a rich person’s hobby and what use does it have… it’s too difficult, too expensive…

    From my viewpoint, many middle-class people can’t afford to fly unless they give up other lifestyle choices AND they have the support of their spouse.

  47. A private pilot says

    Mr. Steketee is to be commended for his honest, frank, and relatively accurate look at the macro-economic forces at work against General Aviation (and much of society as a whole.)

    I would argue that a long-term solution to the never-ending swoons of our industry would require more than the usual “tweaking” most advocates pine for. For example, product liability. Remember how reform was going to “save” GA? The salvation was temporary at best. No, a fix requires a much more macro approach. Until we as a society (and government) realize that the amazing inequality of wealth distribution in this nation is unhealthy, unwise and in the long run a bad economic situation to be in (even for the 1%), and we do something about it, GA will not be saved by tweaking flight instruction, doing away with the 3rd class medical or by cheaper LSAs from overseas.

    Unfortunately, the radical economic policy changes needed are often seen as “un-American” and “socialistic” by those opposed. I would argue the results of doing nothing are equally so.

    Meanwhile, this member of the middle class flys when he can and tries to save up for the elusive low-time Cessna 150 for under $20k.

  48. The Doc says

    Dear Drew Steketee:

    You’ve brought out the fact that aviation is not “for all” as it used to be. I fondly remember those years, before the “ugly hand of government” decided to control everything they could “reach out and touch”. Its now for the rich, of that there is no doubt, as interference by government has “changed the playing field”. You surmised in the end of your article; “perchance generating partisan blame and revisionist history”.

    My advice to you is: If you ignore history and the facts, you will never “get to the bottom of the issue” and therefore will never be able to solve the problem! The Democrat party has worked very hard to destroy the aviation industry in this country since 1977 and they have finally succeeded through several “political maneuvers” by destroying it’s ability to survive. Lastly, if you truly desire to “get to the bottom of the problem” and reverse it, take off the “rose colored glasses” and examine the facts and then and only then will you be able to “effect a plan of positive change” to the “circumstances” that have brought this plague to those who love to fly or wish to learn!

    As Commercial Pilot, educator, aviation specialist/investigator/manager and historian, I have not only watched this all take place, I paid attention to it and I documented it in detail as well. I know who did what, when and why. Mostly it had to do with “corrupt politics” and the 15 million people who made their living in the aviation industry and had their jobs, careers and livelihoods “stripped from them”, know it all to well. Greed, avarice and corruption was “at the root” of the demise of aviation in this country. With the cost of avgas above $7 a gallon in some areas and Jet A at over $4.50 a gallon, “the handwriting is on the wall”. Those who can’t see it need more than just glasses! Under these circumstances, unless things can be considerably reversed, the aviation industry will only continue it’s decline…and more rapidly than previously! Don’t let the “lip service” of a few Democrats lead you to believe it will be any different, because they will only continue to lie to you and I (as they have all along) just to placate us momentarily!

  49. Mike Sundstrom says

    I have been fighting the $$$money$$$ issue ever since I was licensed in 1983. I have less than 200 hours because I just can’t find that disposable income I had back when I made less than Half of what I make today. The wage increases has not kept up with the cost of living increases.

  50. says

    Interesting point, and the data really supports the trend for sure. Still, I believe the income levels and prosperity for let say the top 2/3 of wage earners, is impressive. General Aviation should have experienced a growth during the ’90s, but it seems everyone got lazy and the culture within the aviation community changed.

    The aviation community didn’t promote the product, so we let the buyers with the money go and purchase boats, Harley’s etc. Ever looked at the price of a nice boat and the up-keep? Get around a Harley owners group and see the money spent on this form of recreation, aviation isn’t all that far off from the money spent on this hobby.

    I can say with experience, there are a lot of people in the aviation business of flying, that are sitting at airports, expecting the client to walk in the door and signing up for flying lessons. These flight schools and charter companies have the perception that they don’t need to go after the business, it comes to them. There isn’t a business out there that survives with this mentality, yet we expect it to work in aviation…because it is so exciting and a dynamic environment, why wouldn’t everyone want to fly?

    We need to change this mentality to survive, the client is out there, we just don’t do anything to bring them in.

  51. Mark C says

    The shrinking of the upper middle class, economic uncertainty and pressure certainly have something to do with the decline in true “General” aviation. However, it’s not so much that the middle class has lost, as that they made economic decisions which don’t leave room for flying. Back from the 50’s to 70’s those farmers, electricians, school teachers, etc., lived in modest houses, drove modest vehicles for 5 years AFTER they were paid off (or bought only when and what they could pay cash for), and chose one or two major expensive types of recreation. Now, you see a lot of 3,000 sq. ft. or larger farmhouses with two residents, $60K pickup trucks, $40K camper trailers, $30K boats, a pair of snowmobiles with a trailer ($20K+), a pair of ATV’s and a trailer (another $20K+), all sitting in ONE yard while the owners are off on a Caribbean cruise or a junket to Vegas. Airplanes and flying? There’s really no money or time left after all the other toys, people are working long hours to pay for all that other stuff, and all the other cool toys are much easier and more convenient, no special license, no overbearing federal bureaucracy to deal with, don’t have to go to a special place and rent a special building to keep them in, and to boot, you’re a little less likely to kill yourself if your skills get rusty because you don’t have time to participate very often. Aviation takes a commitment of time, money, and effort which only those who really want badly to fly will make. And for most recreational pilots, there’s never any practical benefit, as the middle class can’t really afford to own and use “going places” aircraft, we just putter around for fun and a $100 hamburger.

  52. George Nye says

    I was one of those school teachers. I still fly & still own a C-172G. I work a 4 day a week job now that I’m retired just so I can afford the cost of flying. ( My wife is very supportive, thank heavens) If I had a mortgage on my airplane I could not fly it. Really tough to get into GA today with all the downers you’ve mentioned in you article.

  53. says

    With all respect, this is simply a repeat of the same, tired, class-envy diatribe that Krugman and others of his elite liberal ilk have been spewing for several generations. Reality is, given the meteoric rise in the pay for government workers, it is firemen, teachers, professors and government paper-pushers that are the ones best capable of flying today. I am president of one of the largest EAA chapters in the nation, and I know whose discretionary spending has increased the most in recent years, and it isn’t people working in the private sector. The claim that a larger portion of America’s wealth is in the hands of fewer people (and how is wealth defined?) is also hard to believe, as America’s taxation has grown so widespread and onerous that it is impossible these days to accumulate anywhere near the wealth possible a century ago, well unless your name is Paul Krugman, Harry Reid or Hilary Clinton of course. And if more wealth is in the hands of a few super-rich (whatever that means) it does not imply that others have less. Wealth creation, like energy, is not limited by a finite supply of resources. The general quality of life in America has increased many fold in the past century, even among our so-called poor, whose greatest health problem these days are obesity and diabetes, not hunger. Your comments imply that the decline in GA is caused by a few people with all the beans, which is total nonsense. In the 70s and early 80s, many of those pilots were hurrying to use their GI Bill money, I know, our FBO at Bowman Field in Louisville trained dozens of them. Americans have plenty of money to spend on GA, it all comes down to priorities. As long as large houses full of furniture and the latest electronic gadgets, 4 cars in the driveway for parents and teenagers, expensive but worthless college educations and all the other claptrap that are not really essential in life are more important than flying, GA will not grow. Blaming it all on the successful people who choose not to deal with the airlines and TSA will not change this situation one bit. Remember too that the Golden Era of aviation occurred in the other Depression of the past Century.

  54. Steve says

    First a side note. You should never, EVER, believe a word Paul Krugman says. He has been proven wrong time, and time, again even in his core ‘competency’.

    But to your main point, GA is pretty much a rich-man’s hobby because of the price of admission. When a license costs you $6k or more just for the privilege, and to buy a brand new vehicle costs you a minimum of $200k (although nowadays light sport is much cheaper, but still very steep at $100k++), and then you factor in the price of fuel and the endless rules and regulations streaming out of Washington, DC, is it any wonder most people feel that flying is more trouble than it is worth?

    I suspect the first step should be for congress to drastically reduce regulations associated with flying. This could drastically reduce the costs of everything from insurance to training to equipment.

    To paraphrase someone from the past, “let my people fly”

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