The long-term outlook for general aviation is favorable, according to the FAA’s recently released Aerospace Forecast.
The near-term looks especially good for piston aircraft activity, according to the forecast through 2035, because of declining fuel prices.
“After growing rapidly for most of the past decade, and then slowing over the past few years, the most recent shipment activity indicates the modest growth continues in the overall general aviation aircraft market,” the report states. “While the recovery in the business jet market has been slow, 2014 recorded the first increase in shipments by U.S. manufacturers since 2008. The forecast calls for robust growth in the long term outlook, driven by higher corporate profits and the growth of worldwide GDP (Gross Domestic Product), though at rates slightly lower than those predicted last year.”
Based on figures released by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), U.S. manufacturers delivered 1,631 aircraft in 2014, 1% more than in 2013. This was the fourth year of increase in shipments. Overall piston deliveries increased by 4.5%, with single-engine deliveries up 6.2%, but the much smaller multi-engine category down 10%. Turbojet deliveries were up by 12.3%. Turboprop deliveries went down by 11.2% in 2014. U.S. billings totaled $11.7 billion, up 5.6% from 2013.
The report adds that “continued concerns about safety, security, and flight delays keep business aviation attractive relative to commercial air travel. As the industry experts and prior year’s survey results report a significant portion of piston aircraft hours are also used for business purposes, we predict business usage of general aviation aircraft will expand at a faster pace than that for personal and recreational use. Increased demand for turboprop aircraft also contributes to increased turbine fleet and hours.”
The active general aviation fleet — an active aircraft is one that flies at least one hour a year, according to the FAA — is projected to increase at an average annual rate of 0.4% over the 21-year forecast period, growing from an estimated 198,860 aircraft in 2014 to 214,260 aircraft by 2035.
The more expensive and sophisticated turbine-powered fleet (including rotorcraft) is projected to grow to a total of 45,905 aircraft at an average rate of 2.4% a year over the forecast period, with the turbine jet portion increasing at 2.8% a year, reaching a total of 20,815 by 2035.
However, the number of active piston-powered aircraft (including rotorcraft) is projected to decrease at an average annual rate of 0.5% from the 2014 total of 139,890 to 125,935 by 2035, with declines in both single and multi-engine fixed wing aircraft. Single-engine fixed-wing piston aircraft are projected to decline at a rate of 0.6%, while multi-engine fixed wing piston aircraft are projected to decline by 0.4% a year.
The one anomaly to this is piston-powered rotorcraft, which is expected to grow at 2.1% a year, according to the forecast.
The forecast also takes a look at projected growth in GA’s newest category: Light-sport aircraft (LSA). At the end of 2013, 2,056 active special LSA were estimated to be flying. The forecast assumes about 4.3% annual growth of the fleet by 2035, to a total of 5,360 aircraft.
The forecast estimates that general aviation flight hours in 2014 were 23.1 million, a slight increase of 0.8% over 2013. FAA officials predict GA flight hours will increase 1.4% yearly through 2035.
The FAA projects faster growth in hours will occur after 2023 “with increases in the fixed wing turbine aircraft fleet, as well as increasing utilization of both single and multi-engine piston aircraft as the aging of this fleet starts to slow down,” the report states. “In the medium term, much of the increase in hours flown reflects strong growth in the rotorcraft and turbine jet fleets. It is also expected that declining fuel prices will slow down the decrease in piston flight hours over the short to medium term.”
Hours flown by turbine aircraft, including rotorcraft, are predicted to increase 2.9% yearly through 2035, compared with a decline of 0.3% for piston-powered aircraft, according to the forecast. Most of the increase will be attributed to jet aircraft, with flight hours in jets expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.6% through 2035.
“The large increases in jet hours result mainly from the increasing size of the business jet fleet, along with continued recovery in utilization rates from recession-induced record lows,” the report states.
LSA flight hours are expected to grow 5.1% a year, primarily driven by growth in the fleet, according to the report.
The FAA projects the number of student pilots will fall at an average rate of 0.3% a year, dropping from 120,546 in 2014 to 112,200 in 2035. That same drop will be seen in the number of private pilots, declining from 174,883 in 2014 to 163,600 in 2035.
The FAA also is projecting that by the end of 2035 there will be 14,950 sport pilots, up from 5,157 at the end of 2014. This reflects “a steady increase in this new ‘entry level’ pilot certificate that was only created in 2005,” the forecast notes.
According to the FAA’s forecast, the average age of a U.S. pilot in 2014 was 44.8 years old.
You can read the full report online.