The long-term outlook for general aviation is stable to optimistic, according to the FAA Aerospace Forecast for fiscal years 2018 to 2038.
The forecast predicts the active general general aviation fleet will remain relatively stable between 2018 and 2038. An active aircraft is described in the forecast as one that flies at least one hour a year.
While steady growth in both GDP and corporate profits will result in continued growth of the turbine and rotorcraft fleets, the largest segment of the fleet – fixed-wing piston aircraft — will continue to shrink through 2038, according to the forecast.
While the fleet remains stable, the number of general aviation hours flown is projected to increase an average of 0.8% each year through 2038, as growth in the hours flown by turbine, rotorcraft, and experimental aircraft more than offset a decline in fixed-wing piston hours.
In putting together the forecast, FAA officials use estimates of fleet size, hours flown, and utilization rates from the General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey (GA Survey).
This information is combined with data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) on new aircraft deliveries, as well as assumptions of aircraft retirement rates, to produce the anticipated growth rates of the fleet, FAA officials explain in the forecast.
The optimistic forecast is a change from about a decade ago, when the GA fleet declined between 2007 and 2013. This drop was seen especially between 2011 and 2013, primarily due to the impact of the 2010 Rule for Re-Registration and Renewal of Aircraft Registration, which removed cancelled, expired or revoked records from the registry, FAA officials explain.
In 2014, the GA fleet recorded its first increase since 2008, and the 2016 survey results showed continuing increase for one more year.
The active GA fleet was estimated as 211,793 aircraft in 2016 (up 0.8% from 2015), with 24.8 million hours flown (up 2.9% from 2015).
In 2017, the previous slow decline in deliveries of the general aviation industry reversed course with increases in the piston segment. Single engine piston deliveries by U.S. manufacturers were up 8.8%, while the smaller category of multi-engine piston deliveries went up by 24.2%. Business jet deliveries were about the same as the previous year, marginally down by 0.2%. Turboprop deliveries were also slightly down by 0.5%.
Based on figures released by GAMA, U.S. manufacturers of general aviation aircraft delivered 1,596 aircraft in 2017, 4.2% more than 2016. Overall piston deliveries were up 9.5% while turbine shipments were down by 0.4%.
The active general aviation fleet is projected to remain around its current level, with the declines in the fixed-wing piston fleet being offset by increases in the turbine, experimental, and light sport fleets.
The total active general aviation fleet changes from an estimated 213,050 in 2017 to 214,090 aircraft by 2038.
The more expensive and sophisticated turbine-powered fleet (including rotorcraft) is projected to grow by 15,255 aircraft — an average rate of 2% a year, with the turbojet fleet increasing 2.2% a year. The growth in U.S. GDP and corporate profits are catalysts for the growth in the turbine fleet, the forecast explains.
The largest segment of the fleet, fixed wing piston aircraft, is predicted to shrink over the forecast period by 22,350 aircraft (an average annual rate of -0.8%).
Unfavorable pilot demographics, overall increasing cost of aircraft ownership, coupled with new aircraft deliveries not keeping pace with retirements of the aging fleet, are the drivers of the decline.
On the other hand, the smallest category, light-sport aircraft, is forecast to grow by 3.6% annually, adding about 2,850 new aircraft by 2038, more than doubling the 2016 LSA fleet size.
While the GA fleet is projected to remain stable, the forecast predicts the number of GA hours flown will increase an average of 0.8% each year through 2038 from 24.8 million in 2016 to 30.2 million, as the newer aircraft fly more hours each year.
Fixed-wing piston hours are forecast to decrease by 1%, slightly faster than the fleet decline of 0.9%.
Countering this trend, hours flown by turbine aircraft (including rotorcraft) are forecast to increase 2.4% yearly over the forecast period. Jet aircraft are expected to account for most of the increase, with hours flown increasing at an average annual rate of 2.7%. The large increases in jet hours result mainly from the increasing size of the business jet fleet, along with estimated increases in utilization rates.
The light-sport aircraft category is forecasted to see an increase of 4.4% a year in hours flown, primarily driven by growth in the fleet.
The FAA also conducts a forecast of pilots by certification categories, using the data compiled by the agency’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center.
There were 609,306 active pilots certificated by FAA at the end of 2017. All pilot categories, with the exception of rotorcraft only certificates, continued to increase.
The number of student pilot certificates has been affected by two recent regulatory changes: First, the 2010 rule that increased the duration for student pilot certificates for pilots under the age of 40 from 36 months to 60 months. The second one, which went into effect in April 2016, removed the expiration date on new student pilot certificates. The number of student pilots increased from 72,280 in 2009 to 119,119 in 2010. By 2016 they totaled 128,501 and with no expiration of certificates jumped to 149,121 by the end of 2017.
Commercial and air transport pilot (ATP) certificates have been impacted by a legislative change as well. The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 mandated that all part 121 flight crew members hold an ATP certificate by August 2013. Airline pilots holding a commercial pilot certificate and mostly serving at second in command positions at the regional airlines could no longer operate with only a commercial pilot certificate after that date, and the FAA data showed a faster decline in commercial pilot numbers, accompanied by a higher rate of increase in ATP certificates.
The number of active general aviation pilots (excluding students and ATPs) is projected to decrease about 22,600 (down 0.4% yearly) over the forecast period. The ATP category is forecast to increase by 22,600 (up 0.7% annually).
The much smaller category of sport pilots are predicted to increase by 3.3% annually.
On the other hand, both private and commercial pilot certificates are projected to decrease at an average annual rate of 0.8% and 0.5% until 2038.
You can see the full report on the FAA’s website.