By LEN ASSANTE
The Dec. 20, 2013, issue of General Aviation News showcased general aviation’s “up and comers,” a group of innovators who are passionate about changing this industry for the better.
I have had the honor of meeting some of these people and agree they offer some amazing ideas and unmitigated passion for GA. Such passion is desperately needed if GA is to survive in any fashion recognizable to today’s General Aviation News readers.
It is no secret our best days seem to be behind us. According to the FAA, there were approximately 617,000 active certificated pilots in the US as of the end of 2011. This is down from a high of over 827,000 in 1980. This number has been steadily declining and may even be a high estimate as the FAA definition of “active” is quite generous.
Similarly, the numbers of registered GA aircraft and new GA aircraft built have fallen precipitously. Less than 700 new piston aircraft were delivered in 2013, compared to more than 2,700 in 2006.
A decline in the number of pilots, registrations, and airplanes has likely influenced a downward trend in the number of public use airports. In 1990, there were 5,590 in the United States, down to around 5,170 currently.
Finally, these declines have led to several increases. For example, 100LL aviation gasoline is a “boutique” fuel accounting for less than 1% of all gasoline produced. Avgas production continues to decline and it seems only a matter of time until it will no longer be a viable product for any manufacturer at any price. Fuel prices average over $6 a gallon today and will continue to rise as production drops. Virtually every other product category in aviation has seen similar increases. Many once-common parts are now unavailable or shockingly expensive.
If this continues, it is only a matter of time before GA vanishes, so what can we do?
First “we” means all of us. Most of the innovators mentioned above are very willing to collaborate for the benefit of the whole industry. This must continue if we are to do the following:
- Grow more pilots. The most significant thing we can do is to increase the number of active pilots. More pilots means more customers, which means more airplanes and more avionics and more gas and more parts. It also means lowered cost through economies of scale. Bigger markets equal smaller prices.
- Embrace the innovators. GA is a conservative industry, entrenched in old, out-of-date practices and burdened by overwhelming regulation. We still see FBOs that think the best way to train a new pilot is in an airplane twice the age of their average student. In a culture where toddlers are often using iPads and video games have more computing power than the flight management systems on jets, it is going to be very hard to entice potential pilots with 1940’s technology.
- Be willing to change. The current pilot population and industry infrastructure must be willing to adopt to the times. This means changing attitudes and behaviors. We must embrace our communities, support our airports, open our hangar doors and fence gates. We must share expenses, share ownership, share responsibility, and continue to create a culture of safety first.
Here’s an example. I am affiliated with a company called Aviation Access Project, a startup designed to increase the pilot population by reducing costs of ownership and access. AAP sells managed shares in aircraft, with the average share amounting to 1/8 of an aircraft. Included in the price is a certain number of flying hours per year, usually around 75.
The number one complaint potential owners have about our model is that they have to share their airplane. Most of them don’t currently own anything, and so fly very little, with the average recreational pilot flying somewhere between 50 and 75 hours per year.
There are 4,380 daylight hours in a year. If we have eight pilots flying an airplane 50 hours a year, that equals 400 hours — or less than 10% of the total daylight hours. How does sole ownership make any sense at that level of utilization? We need to be willing to embrace change in order to fulfill our dreams.
Highlighting industry innovators is a valuable service, as it shows us there are new ways to do things, ways that are fun, interactive, high-technology and often not very expensive at all. The more our industry embraces innovation and the more we collaborate as we do so, the better the chances we will stop our march to oblivion.Len Assante, a pilot since 1982, is vice president of communications at Aviation Access Project. He is the proud owner of his favorite Cessna 150 and can be reached at Leonard.Assante@aviationaccessproject.com