It’s all about we

The conundrum of the GA industry is daunting. Solutions abound, but many of the players are not paying attention to their peers. In fact, many of the players are openly — and counter-productively — competing with their peers under the theory: If I can harm your business, my business will benefit.

Not so. Not nearly so.

There are fewer pilots today than there were 10 years ago. There were fewer pilots 10 years ago than there were 20 years ago. The trend is not encouraging.

Yet all is not lost. A change in attitude and a redirection of our efforts could bring benefits to our industry. First, each of us has to accept in our hearts and minds that it is not all about me anymore. It is all about we.

Consider for a moment John Nash. Immortalized in the Ron Howard film, “A Beautiful Mind,” the spectacle of Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia often distracts the viewer from recognizing the larger contribution Nash made. He shares, with John Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten, the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in economics. For Nash’s part, he has given us insight into the distinction between cooperative and non-cooperative gaming.

In a cooperative game, each participant can make decisions based on agreements forged with other cooperative players. In a non-cooperative game, it is not possible to make enforceable agreements between players, because the players are not sharing information with each other. They are not playing as a united team, they are playing as individuals. You might think of the players in the non-cooperative game as sharks, each out to get what they can for themselves, with no thought of the bigger picture or the long-term viability of their fellow players, or even the game itself.

Welcome to general aviation in a nutshell. I’ll bet Nash, his partners, and the Nobel Committee weren’t thinking of us when they got all game-theory crazy and applied their findings to the field of economics. Their rationale parallels us quite closely, though. By continuing to conduct business with a win-at-all-cost philosophy, we are succeeding in accomplishing one goal: Killing off general aviation in the United States.

Uh, oh.

Now consider an alternative method of doing business that is largely foreign to the GA market, but just might breathe new life into an industry that is both indispensable to modern society and loathed by the very people who depend on it. What if we refocused our attentions on making GA truly accessible and affordable? What if we dedicated ourselves to providing a level of service our customers had never even considered possible? Would GA grow? Yes. Yes it would.

Argument number 1: Flying is too expensive.

Solution number 1: No, it’s not. The cost of learning to fly could easily be cut in half. It is possible today to go from zero time to a private pilot certificate for less than $5,000. Yet it requires learning as a member of a club, not via the typical FBO rental method.

Given that example, would it better serve FBOs to continue to maintain the old business model that is failing, or would it be better for FBOs to sponsor non-profit flying clubs that would bring customers in the door, put CFIs and mechanics to work, rent tie-downs and hangars to club aircraft, and foster a growing stream of sales for books, headsets, charts, fuel, and everything else a student pilot or a recreationally motivated private pilot might need?

You know the answer to that question. Heck, everybody knows the answer to that question.

The challenge is putting this new business model into action. And that requires imagination, resolve, and a willingness to part with the sharks in order to commit yourself to building an industry, not just one business.

Let me challenge you with this thought. Don’t immediately flip the page. Don’t move directly to the next column or story. Think about the idea of a new paradigm in GA and how you might be a part of bringing it to life. Imagine how you might be a driving force in building a new aviation-centric society where even a kid with a part-time job at the local burger place could afford to become a pilot, and continue to fly afterward without incurring large debts.

Yeah, we can do that. The math works out. It’s only a question of whether we are willing to part with the old ways that no longer work in this market while we embrace a new, different, and eminently viable alternative that is just a wee bit outside our comfort zone.

I know where I’m headed.

We’ll talk more about this later, after you’ve had time to think it over a bit first.



  1. Doug Drummond says

    I joined a not-for-profit flying club in 1975 as I was finishing my PPL. I’m still a member of that club, even though I can’t afford to fly right now. Besides the well-known economic advantages of a club, the secret is that the instructors WANT TO BE THERE. Instead of building up their time for an airline job, they may already have the airline job and want to fly little planes for a change, or they enjoy instructing — it is their hobby too.

    Or they have another trade or engineering job which they are happy with. They may work for Bell Laboratories or Hewlett-Packard, or they have a skilled trade. My final instructor when getting my Private in 1976 was a carpenter as a day job. I have never been “ripped off” when getting a flight review from a club instructor, even those who are full time CFIs.

  2. Doyle Frost says

    Two good friends of mine, one a CFII, his brother, and A&P/IA, owned three planes, kept them in good shape, and we had good times, until the local politicians closed the local airport, and moved it over to the former SAC base that had been closed by the feds. A lot of local pilots also sold their personal planes, and left aviation completely.

    The county politicians had absolutely no Idea the impact they were having on GA, as they didn’t even know the term. (A favorite expression was “take away the batteries, and lock up all the GA planes.”) All they knew was they wanted nothing but big commercial airlines and multimillion dollar businesses, things the local flying clubs, aviation companies, and different aircraft mechanics couldn’t give them immediately. Shoot! it was two years after they moved over before they even put in T hangars for the few GA planes left.

    They brought in an FBO, not even charts available there, to sell the fuel, (which wasn’t even sold there for over a year,) primarily for the charter airlines they managed to attract. That FBO managed to get a maintenance hangar built, but I’m not sure about mechanics, as none of the local mechanics I know, were hired there. Now, three years later, they’ve got a different FBO. That one has still not officially taken over the duties of their predecessor.

    People I know are now travelling to a different state to take flying lesson, when they can afford them. I wanted to get another endorsement, and just finding one was a major chore, but the price was reasonable, until the CFI got recalled to active flying. There went my lessons, as he was the only one within a reasonable travel distance. So now, I’m thinking of giving up a lifelong dream, (I was 56 when I finally realized the first step of attaining that dream, by getting my PPL.)

    Cost is a major part of the problem, and getting the general public interested in aviation generally, and the benefits of that, to them, seems like a good way to get everybody on the same page, and get the blasted politicians to either get on board, or get out of the way. Remember the days of the barnstormers? Every small town had an impromptu air show when one came by, and landed in the nearest farm field. Everyone in the town came out to enjoy the spectacle. We don’t see anything like that anymore.

    Part of the reason is lack of public interest in aviation. Another part is the cost of the aircraft. Add fuel. Add maintenance and upkeep. Add insurance, (and that’s a huge cost, in itself.) Then, just to top it, add the general cost of living today, with wages not keeping realistic pace with government rules and regulations, and just the cost of general consumables, and aviation is the loser. Sorry to be such a downer, but unless we, as the general aviation community, can get everybody involved, (and hope the economy turns for the better,) I don’t see much hope for us.

  3. says

    If you want to sell steak, you sell the sizzle. Flying becomes a lot more fun if someone else is paying for it.

    There needs to be more focus on using GA for business flying, that is the sizzle I am talking about. I few thousands of hours on my clients dime. It is not only possible but easy to sell.

    I love flying but I used it for a competitive advantage in my business. This is not a topic that gets discussed all that much. Let your customers pay for your flying. Then the costs are a pass through. We need to do a better job of marketing to small business, entrepreneurs and business professionals.

  4. says

    Two items come to mind when addressing the cost of aviation. First it is universally recognized that the true earning power of the middle class has diminished significantly in the US over the past few years. Second, what are you going to do with the capabilities once you have them. Very few pilots continue to fly at trainer speeds for a lifetime. If one can’t afford to move up to “go some-place” type aircraft then you are stuck in a mighty expensive hobby. If the cost as a business activity is not justifiable it will not take place. You will note that sales of high end aircraft are doing better.

  5. says

    While the need for keeping flight training cost low is important, there are other forces at play as well, but I am not convinced that the cost of flying is on the top.

    Here is an example for you. I started to train for my PPL in 1969. The cost of Cherokee 140 was $20 per hour. Instructor was another $5. I was making good wages, $2.98 per hour. You do the math. It took me just over three years to get my license. I just had to do it, because it was my dream.

    Another example could be the current training situation at our airport CZBB, Boundary Bay, British Columbia. We have several flight schools here and one club. The club flies the least desirable planes, in terms of age and look, yet the cost of rental is very close to the rest. The cost of maintenance, and simply keeping the fleet in the air, is not much different to them from what the commercial operators are paying. I venture to guess that the club would be out of business, if they did not have a sweet deal with one of the aviation-oriented vocational schools, which is training pilots for the air transportation industry.

    Here is another observation. I do not see many companies out there showing of flying as pure fun in their advertisements to the public, the way other recreational sports are being promoted. Of course, it would be hard to sell a $500,000 machine to the public as a recreational item. The movie industry is not much help either, with their portrayal of terror in the sky flicks.

    In addition, here is where we really doing it to ourselves. Almost all of us, and at any opportunity we may have, talk about how expensive flying is. Sure, not everybody will be able to afford it. Not because they could not, but because flying is not displayed front and center as a fun and challenging thing to do.

    I leave you with this thought on the high cost of flying. Let us do some very simplistic math. In the seventies, the cost of a Cessna 150 was around $15,000. This would take 100% of my 5000 working hours of gross wages to pay for it. Now take today’s relatively low $25 per hourly wage, apply the same reasoning, and you could get a nice $125,000 LSA. Oh yeah, I had to work 10 hours for my one hour lesson. Today, at the $25 hourly rate, you can get almost two hours of training for your one hour of work.

    Certainly, cost may play a role here, but general perceptions and priorities favoring other glamorized categories of fun, are the real issue – well, at least in my humble opinion.

    In the interest of a full disclosure, I am a private citizen, and I am not affiliated with any flight training activities.

  6. says

    I agree to a point with you. I see a local flight school that has pushed their prices way up to almost double of what some of the others are. The sad thing is for some reason its working, It’s one of the busiest flight schools in the area. Why because they come across as professional and they engage their students. Flight schools should consider other alternatives to the rental model. Heck if a flight school put three students together and have them buy a 172M it would be less than 15k each. The school could even refurbish it which would allow them to keep their own mechanics and then it would be $20k per student. The going rate for a PPL where I live is 9-15k. Please tell me how to get ones pilots license for $5000. Even if you own the plane and don’t take into account the fixed costs 9 gph * 50 hrs * $6/gal = 2700 + 30 hrs of flight instruction at $45/hr = 1350 This comes out to 4050 Then another 1000 or so for the medical, study material, written test, and the flight test. So even if you own your own plane you are looking at $5000 in non fixed cost to get your license. (ok you could fly a 150 or a DA20 but I don’t fit in either at 6’2″)

    Honestly the cost of flying comes down to 1960’s fuel efficiency with 2013 fuel prices. Just imagine if we could safely and easily (sold at airports) run 90 octane road gas without ethanol that is currently $3.40/gal here (I think I drive a diesel jetta) that is a savings of $1100 over 50 hours of flight time. Combine a reasonable fuel cost with modernizing the engines so you are getting 3-4 less gal/hr and you bring the cost of operation down to an affordable level. I’m hoping the changes in the certification process will help in this aspect.

    Don’t get me wrong any attempt at adding people to the fold will increase the economy scale and effect prices also.

    • says

      Imagine an aviation world where there is no more dependency on renting, but instead everyone owns their own plane [think “shared ownership” in very small shares according to what you need]. Imagine a world where there is no more emphasis on selling “flight training” when we should be selling aircraft instead, and train to operate their own plane. Imagine a world where the aviation greed and ego to maintain the “old way” gives way to a friendlier world of “access”. Then imagine a world where that Part 91 ownership activity goes on in a very friendly place that acts as an aviation ambassador instead of a cliche club. Concerned about fuel prices? Mogas is becoming increasingly available at the airport, WHILE we are getting the diesel technology improved to reach down and meet us little guys so less expensive Jet A can be used.

      Sounds a bit too utopian? Maybe, but the utopia is something we ALL yearn for…and it is even possible to achieve. In fact, it is being organized right now in many locations. It is a positive future.

  7. says

    Yep. It’s time for that new paradigm, Jamie. It will have to be so unabashedly redesigned so as to not cling to the previous elements that kept it sucked in close to the “slow death spiral” business vortex, but something that wipes out even the suggestion of such a vortex. YET it must still present itself to airports and the vast public from which that new business must come in such a way as to embellish those social, camaraderie, and support elements we all yearn for.

  8. Scott says

    If you include all players, would this not include the Government regulators and legal groups also. And it is the last group which will not step out of the “Shark pool” ever.

  9. says

    Great thoughts Jamie!
    The general aviation landscape is ready for an overhaul and you’re right on point. It seems as if the GA community has been treading water and hasn’t been able to hit its stride as technology shift sand consumer priorities change. The community (especially online) is strong, ready, and willing to redefine the industry. It’ll take the ‘we’ mentality though!
    Looking forward to reading more from you.

  10. says

    Well said, Jamie! If you agree, and want to partner with others of like mind, give us a shout. Aviation Access Project is all about growing the industry by lowering costs with a cooperative model. Cooperate, build community, share resources and expenses, and stop playing by old rules that don’t work anymore. Aviation is all about passion, let’s put that energy to work!

  11. says

    Mr. Beckett; WHO are the “sharks” – profit motivated FBO’s, flight schools and maintenance shops? Other “capital” oriented readers might find our article of Sep 30th, 2012, “FBO Wanted – Show Me the Money”! at OR, the REALITY on most GA business enterprises. I do, however, AGREE with your “we” premise regardless of the cause!

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