Recession, fuel costs ground pilots

WASHINGTON, D.C. — General aviation is going to have an uphill struggle to get back into the growth mode, according to a 92-page report released late last month.

The report is based on the thesis of two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which delves into the current and historic trends in GA in the United States. It was prepared with support from the FAA and various general aviation publications.

A positive side of the report shows the importance of general aviation to the national economy and the job market. In 2009, general aviation generated 496,000 jobs and its total economic contribution to the U.S. economy was valued at $76.5 billion.

On the down side is the drop in numbers of pilots and activity. GA’s impact on the economy and jobs between 2008 and 2009 shows a 20% decrease in jobs and a 21% decrease in total economic impact.

There has also been a significant decreasing trend in the number of active pilots. The peak occurred in the 1980s. It decreased by 28% from that peak of 827,071 in 1980 to 594,285 in 2009.

The number of hours flown has also decreased from its top figure in the late 1970s. Activity grew and production of new aircraft grew until this was set back by increasing liability issues and increasing fuel costs. After action was taken in Congress to help the manufacturing industry, activities slowly recovered until in the 1990s war, natural disasters, and an economic downturn again slowed growth. Things began to pick up again slowly for a few years until the 9/11 terrorists attacks, increasing fuel prices, and a world-wide recession again put on the brakes.

The thesis also reports on a survey of 1,200 general aviation pilots, which confirmed what the trends were showing: Economic recessions and fuel costs are the major reasons that hindered growth. Another major factor cited for less flying was the availability of free time.

When pilots were asked what would cause them to increase flying activity, they cited less cumbersome regulations, better access to aircraft through rentals and flying clubs, and decreases in costs. Some 13.4% of those questioned said they did not fly at all in 2011.

Surveyed pilots said the biggest problems facing general aviation today are increasing regulations, increasing costs, and a lack of public understanding of the role of GA.

The thesis on which the report was based was prepared by Kamala I. Shetty and R. John Hansman to partially fulfill requirements for an MIT degree of Master of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Only U.S. airports with control towers were studied. Even here, however, general aviation accounted for 63% of the operations, indicating the significant role general aviation has.

The report confirms what general aviation organizations recognize as a formidable task to assure continuation of conditions to safely fly today and create conditions for future growth. Groups are working together today on issues more than they have in years past. As an example, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) worked together closely at the two recent political conventions. AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) also are in close contact on issues.


Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.


  1. David Patterson says

    This is “by design”.. The “greens” and elites really don’t want the bourgeois flying anywhere and certainly not in their own aircraft. Fuel costs, hangar, annuals, regulations and on and on, forced me to sell my Bonanza 5 years ago. I have not flown since and probably never will again. The energy policies being implemented now (and in the past) will insure the death of general aviation and dare I also say private boating.

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