By JON BOYD
Having spent many decades in the general aviation business, it seems to me that I should be smarter about this industry, but some things continue to confound me. One of those is the reason for what I call the lost generation of aviation.
First, let’s define a generation. Most consider it somewhere between 20 and 30 years. If that is the case, then we are looking at either a lost generation or a lost generation and a half.
At fly-ins, safety seminars, shows like SUN ’n FUN, Oshkosh and the like, talk amongst the old timers (gosh, I’m one of those now!) gravitates to the golden days of flying when airplanes were cheap and plentiful and flying for business or pleasure was taken up by the thousands.
The statistics seem to confirm these facts. Between 1976 and the end of 1979, 67,217 general aviation aircraft were manufactured and sold. Thirty years later, from 2006 to the end of 2009, there were only 11,090 aircraft manufactured and sold, a staggering 83.5% drop. During those years in the ‘70s, student starts averaged approximately 202,000 a year compared to approximately 80,000 a year between 2006 and 2009, a 60% downturn.
If you argue that there are fewer airports because of all the residential and commercial building and development, you would be wrong. In 1980, there were 4,814 public use airports in the U.S. compared to 5,175 in 2010 (it should be noted that the highest number of documented public airports was in 1993 when we reached 5,538. We have since declined from that pinnacle in the last 17 years.) Compare this with a 40% population increase, 220 million in 1977 compared to 308 million in 2010, and the aviation downturn is even more enigmatic and shocking.
So what happened? Where did our people go? Is aviation becoming obsolete, going the way of the blacksmith, ice delivery man or typewriter repairman? Will learning to fly for the sheer fun of it languish on the sidelines like an old 8-track tape that collects dust on your shelf, having no use other than being a conversation piece?
Lots of questions and not a lot of answers, but here are some things that may point in a direction of what our industry has been through and where it may end up.
The advent of deregulation in the late 1970s changed the way people traveled and changed the perception of the airlines as a business.
Prior to deregulation, flying commercially was still somewhat of an unknown commodity. Tickets were expensive, routes were limited and airline pilots were compared in prestige to doctors and lawyers. Deregulation changed all that. In 1981, airlines like People Express debuted, offering low-cost, no-frills flying and attracted the masses.
We could argue that making flight available to more people should have made it more inviting for individuals to want to learn to fly, but clearly it didn’t. Perhaps some of the thrill of flying was eliminated by making it so available. The numbers clearly indicate that many, many more people were exposed to air travel in the current generation then in the past — 310 million passengers flew in 1980 compared to 713 million in 2010.
How about the prestigious vocation of an airline pilot? Deregulation took away the prestige — and the income. Airline pilots, along with doctors and lawyers, were in the highest percentiles of income earners in the 1970s.
Today, CFIs in their 20s take pay cuts to go to work for the regionals in hopes that they are experiencing a temporary financial inconvenience for a permanent improvement. In many cases, that is not the rule. The airlines, in today’s iteration, have no loyalty or business staying power and giants like Pan Am, Eastern and TWA, are long-gone memories. For the thousands and thousands of workers who toiled year after year for these grand old flying companies, their benefits, stock options and retirement plans disappeared and became worthless.
At the airshows, the old timers often mention cost as the reason that aviation doesn’t attract as many new customers. Comments are often heard like, “Why in 19 and 76 my first brand new Skyhawk straight from the factory only cost $28,000.” Today, a new Skyhawk is $307,000. They say flight instruction was only $30 to $40 an hour, including the flight instructor; today it can be $225 to $275 an hour depending on location and age of the airplane.
Obviously, aviation is not the only industry affected by inflation. In 1976 a Chevrolet Malibu cost about $3,600. Today, a Malibu is around $21,000. So, when comparing apples to apples based on airplane acquisition inflation versus new automobile inflation, aviation outpaced auto inflation by a factor of about five. A car today costs six times as much as it did in 1976 and an airplane about 11 times as much. Flight training is around eight times as much.
While we can argue that this higher rate of inflation in aviation is a factor in the lost generation, I am hard pressed to believe that is the sole reason. With a 40% increase in population and the availability of pre-owned airplanes that come at a lower cost, I doubt this is the only factor.
Statistics also show that the number of new aircraft registrations, which indicate transfer of ownership of pre-owned aircraft, is also extraordinarily low. This means that individuals are not only not buying new airplanes, but passing on used ones as well.
What other factors are we facing that is eroding our base and draining the life blood from our veins?
Perhaps there has been a paradigm shift in the way we think and act as Americans and in the way our young people progress in society. I am a baby boomer, someone who was in high school on Nov. 22, 1963, when JFK was assassinated. In addition to taking college preparatory classes in high school, I was required to take gym and shop, including car mechanics and even home economics (which meant learning to cook). At 15 and still a year away from my learner’s permit, I drooled over my first car, a 1952 Plymouth with a blown engine handed down to me from my older sister. I took that engine apart, bolt by bolt and put it back together and, while never getting it to the point of running well, did get it running. We played sports in the streets and in playgrounds, worked with our hands and were transfixed by live reports on TV and radio when in July 1969 man first set foot on the moon. I am old enough now to have seen two generations and clearly during my first generation, young people were more mechanically inclined.
Our leaders often bemoan the fact that we no longer produce anything in this country. That means we no longer use our hands to make things and maybe that also means we have lost interest in how things work. If our mothers and fathers don’t come home from the factory describing how they helped build this or that, then we may never have the values instilled in us about thinking about how things work.
If I suggest that kids today are less mechanically inclined, should it follow that they have less interest in flying? I would hypothesize that, yes, that is the case. You sometimes need to get your hands dirty when you are a pilot. You have to perform a preflight, understand what makes the airplane tick and be aware of your place in the overall system of a successful flight.
From what I can tell, young people are no longer required to take shop in high school. Gym is an elective and home economics went the way of Beaver Cleaver’s mother. We are in a virtual world where teenagers stay tuned to their smartphones and iPads and don’t have the time or the interest to look up to the sky. You do not have to preflight your Microsoft Flight Simulator and while these virtual worlds should bring more young people to the reality side of the equation it, in fact, seems to do the opposite. Since our young people can fly to any airport in the world in their virtual airplane, why bother with the real thing?
This is a very scary thought for me. I love aviation. I want to see it flourish. How do we bring back a vibrant industry? How do we maintain a mystique about flying? In the 1950s and ‘60s there was still the talk of fighter pilots and aces from World War II and Korea. Flying brought images to mind of adventure and glory and there was no media frenzy every time an airplane slipped off a runway. Airports were open spaces without fences and we didn’t worry about terrorists or shoe bombers.
The answer is with our young people and with those of us who do this for a living or who do it because they find life less fulfilling without it. We must get young people engaged in the world of flying and each of us should take a personal responsibility to mentor a young person — or two or three or more — with that goal in mind. We hear stories about children with no free time because of their structured lives chock full of activities that are pressed upon them, with parents stressed due to multiple driving responsibilities taking their son to baseball practice and the daughter to dance class. A trip to the general aviation side of our local airports must somehow become a stop in their busy world. We must get them from the virtual to the real and engage them with the miracle of flight.
For my part, I am asking local middle schools to consider a day trip to our FBO to see what this side of aviation is all about. It should be noted that when I discussed this idea with the NBAA, FAA and the Westchester Aviation Association (WAA), and mentioned I wanted to gear this to 7th graders and up, I was told I had the wrong age group. It surprised me a little but impressions on young people need to be made when they are in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. I’m sure bringing in older kids is not a problem, but the psychologists tell us younger is better.
The event we are planning will include a brief discussion of what makes airplanes fly, together with career opportunities in the industry. There’ll be a walk through an active maintenance hangar, a trip to the FAA Tower, taking a seat in the front or back of a corporate jet or smaller private aircraft or whatever is available.
This will not be a one time “do my duty” and then forget about it deal. I will offer these tours on an ongoing basis, including during the school year and throughout the summer. At most, it will take two or three hours of my day two or three times a month — a small price to pay to give back to an industry that has made me rich in ways that only those who fly can understand.
Jon Boyd, director of sales and marketing for Panorama Flight Service, a FBO located at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., has more than 14,000 hours of flight time. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org