Studying trends in general aviation

A researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has focused her thesis project on general aviation trends and is asking for help from general aviation pilots.

The goal of the study is to gain a better understanding of the factors that drive general aviation activity in the United States, which includes identifying any challenges facing the growth of general aviation and its role in the greater aviation community as well was identifying what may promote activity in the future, says Kamala Shetty, a graduate student working as a research assistant in the university’s International Center for Air Transportation.

She is collecting the experiences and opinions of pilots who are active or have been active in general aviation through an online survey that takes around 15 minutes to complete.

Tackling GA as a thesis project is particularly interesting these days, says Shetty, who notes that in 2011, general aviation and air taxi operations represented 63% of all towered operations in the United States, while commercial aviation was responsible for 34%.

“It is clear that GA is a considerable component of the national airspace and airport system, even when only accounting for towered operations,” she said. “Because of this significant presence, research into GA is relevant to the goals of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, whose research aims to address issues in air traffic management, air transportation infrastructure, and aviation safety, among others.”

Research into GA is also “naturally” of interest to the FAA, she says, noting that the agency has tasked Prof. R. John Hansman with leading a study of the current trends in general aviation as part of a larger study on the impact of air transportation on U.S. productivity.

“We also recognize GA’s significance to society as a whole,” she said.

In 2009, general aviation generated 496,000 jobs and its total economic contribution to the U.S. economy was valued at $76.5 billion, according to statistics from the FAA.

“What makes this such an interesting thesis project to do now is the state of GA today,” she said. “A comparison of general aviation’s impact on jobs and on the economy between 2008 and 2009 shows a 20% decrease in jobs and a 21% decrease in total economic impact in the course of a year. We can also see a significant decreasing trend in the active pilot population, along with steady decreases in GA flight hours and towered operations.”

The goal of the research project is to learn more about those changes and why they are occurring, she said. “What has driven GA activity in the past and in what direction is it headed towards today? What are the specific issues facing pilots today and what can happen in the future to support their goals? Are the experiences or opinions of GA pilots the same across the board or do they differ significantly? If they differ, do they change with factors such as a person’s age or where they live or fly?”

She notes that data alone cannot fully answer these questions, which is why information from GA pilots is critical to the project.

Also, because of the many aspects of general aviation, it’s critical to that a variety of pilots respond to the survey. “Every survey counts in making sure we can get as accurate a snapshot of the country as we can,” she said. “Everyone’s experience is different, depending on how they are involved, or even when they started flying or where they fly. One of the biggest concerns is achieving a large diversity of respondents.”

The researchers will share their results with the general aviation community, she added.

The survey, at, will be online through the middle of May.

Preaching to the choir

The professor overseeing Shetty’s research holds a number of ratings, including commercial pilot, helicopter and glider, as well as CFI. He flies a C-170B and ASW-27 Sailplane.

“I grew up watching my grandfather fly ultralights and other homebuilts and from a young age was interested in airplanes and aviation,” says Shetty, who worked as an intern at Teterboro Airport while in high school.

Studying aerospace engineering in college “only increased my desire to fly,” she said, noting she’s completed a ground school course, “but as a student I just have not had the extra income needed to pursue a private pilot rating. I am hopeful, though, that in the future I will be able to.”




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