Over-the-top FAA oversight

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.




  1. says

    Your math is a little off in your last statement, it takes 1 FAA employee for every 13 pilots. Also you didn’t take into account the Mecanics side of it, a lot of the FAA FSDO staff are dealing with A&P mechanics and IA’s as well as inspection of aircraft (a friend is having his airplane inspected to get an airworthness problem taken care of this next week with only about 2 weeks notice to the Renton FSDO people, I think that is pretty good). Also you didn’t account for the contract tower controllers at a lot of locations who would not show up as FAA employees or for that matter the Locheed/Martin system they dumped on us in place of FSS. One FAA for 13 pilots still seems like a lot, but I still miss the good old days when the FSS got weather/Notams and knew the area and could advice you about work arounds to get to where you wanted to go. Av gas was 80/87 and it only cost 55 cents a gallon, I should have done a lot more flying then.

  2. Phil DeRosier says

    Whaddaya mean you don’t have a solution? It’s right in front of all our faces!


    Let’s start with the fact that technology is a force multiplier, and cost reducer. It’s inexcusable that FSDOs, for example, are stuck with technologies and procedures some 50 years old. Hey 800 Independence! How about implementing virtual inspections and digital record keeping as a start, and stop dispatching Inspectors on expensive junkets to every location?

    And try this one on for size: Let’s consolidate some of those FSDOs anyway, and save some dough with real estate leases.

    But wait! There’s more!

    Technology has already made it possible — even safer — for pilots to self-brief the weather. The fact that our Government is sustaining parallel weather distribution services — internet and human briefers — has past the point of ridiculousness. Shucks, the Government would probable save a ton of money by incentivizing pilots with the purchase of iPads equipped with ForeFlight, and shuttering the WW2-era FSS system.

    … time to move on, people …

  3. says

    Hear, hear! Thanks for saying this, Dave. Of course, a large number of those 45,000 FAAers are probably working with other parts of aviation, like transportation. Most FAA personnel have a very low awareness of GA or light aviation.

    Certainly, as government at all levels looks to reduce activities to pare costs, many aviators believe we could use less oversight and that could save taxpayer’s money.

    After all, what’s the real purpose of oversight (or certification or quality control)? Safety. GA and light aviation’s safety record is really quite good. Therefore, do have we a genuine need for such intensive oversight that it takes one regulator for every 13 pilots?

  4. Peter Bullock says

    Dave transposed the numbers in the closing of his post. It should read 1 FAA person to supervise 13 pilots.

  5. Pete Schoeninger says

    Dave: Please re read your very last sentence. Did you mean to say it takes one FAA person to watch every 13 pilots, not 13 FAA people to watch one pilot?

    Great article!

    Pete Schoeninger

  6. says

    Thank you for an excellent analysis. You’ve turned dry numbers in a government report into something practical.
    The challenge with government agencies is that manpower is commonly portrayed as a minimum fixed value. If businesses followed the same model, it would lead to their eventual demise. Controlling overhead costs which get pushed onto consumers is as important to success as providing a product or service.
    I recommend the Department of Transportation undergo a regular mission and manpower review, like the quadrennial reviews accomplished by the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security–the results of which would tend to keep the tooth-to-tail ratio of the department and its agencies at an appropriate size.
    Cheers from the Alamo,
    Dave Hook

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