Dave Sclair was General Aviation News’ publisher from 1970-2000.
I was reading Charlie Spence’s Capital Comments column recently and I became intrigued by the numbers he was quoting from the FAA’s annual forecast. This annual study, which predicts aviation activities over the next 20 years, is used by the FAA to plan for the effects of expected growth.
The forecast predicted a rate of growth for general aviation over the forecast period of less than 1%, with fixed wing pistons having the smallest growth — barely 2/10ths of 1% a year!
According to the information Spence gleaned from the forecast, the GA fleet will increase over the next 20 years to 270,920 aircraft, a gain of nearly 50,000. The hours those planes are flown is also predicted to climb to 37.8 million hours by 2031, an increase of about 13 million. Annually that averages out to about 2,500 more planes a year and 650,000 additional hours flown each year.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s budget for Fiscal Year 2010 is $16 billion, up from $14 billion in FY2008. Its staff is at about 45,000 people in all areas of administration, with the number of controllers expected to climb to 15,596, a hike from 14,879 from 2007 to 2009.
That means there are 45,000 FAA employees for the nation’s 613,748 pilots, of which about 222,000 are private pilots … that works out to about six private pilots for every FAA employee or 13 for every pilot out there. That takes into consideration all persons with a certificate, no matter how active or inactive.
Which begs the question: Is the cost of the FAA one of the aspects of flying that has made the costs go up?
We all know the price of gas has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, with the recent spike driven by turmoil in the Mid-East. But everything that goes on an airplane or in one seems to have soared, too. Airplane costs, whether the aircraft are jets or Light Sport Aircraft, haven’t been immune to higher ticket prices, even though inflation over the last five years has been stagnant.
Government costs — all governments, including local, county, state and, especially, federal — have seen regular increases. Right now there are battles in several states seeking to reduce the cost of labor union benefits. The issues are numerous and the arguments are many but it seems to me our costs must be pared to help the general aviation community grow.
There’s a continuing interest in flight, but we’ve got to find a way to get more people into the industry. Obviously lowering the cost of entry is as important as encouraging those who can afford to fly as a hobby to get involved in general aviation.
The perception that anything smaller than a Boeing 747 is unsafe also needs to be changed. At the same time, we’ve got to find a way to encourage people to get into the cockpit. I watched 50 sailboats racing past my home the other day and I am willing to bet many of these boats cost as much to own, house and maintain as many airplanes at the Tacoma Narrows Airport. But, people don’t deny their neighbors the enjoyment of such luxuries. The reason? Virtually anyone can visualize himself or herself in a boat of some size (count me out on those beautiful, but hazardous, sailboats). At the same time they can’t visualize themselves flying an airplane of any size or complexity, from the simplest to the most exotic.
Can we do with fewer FAA personnel? I suspect we could. Would that reduce the cost? To a degree, but it will take lots of pressure to get things turned around. Most countries around the world are increasing rules and regulations and it seems to me we are following that model. That’s the wrong direction.
The solution? I don’t have one. But I know finances make a big difference for a lot of people — not all, but many. Reducing the costs will help and one way to do that is to make flying less complicated for the new pilot. When it requires 13 people to oversee every individual with a pilot certificate, there’s something wrong with the system.