In addition to the hundreds of comments, we received some thoughtful letters to the editor about our recent Special Report. We’ve published a few of them below:
New owners to blame?
I think this decline started in the early to late 70’s when both Piper and Cessna, and most of their distributors/dealers, essentially quit promoting “Learn to Fly” and left it up to organizations like AOPA and GAMA, and the university flight schools.
As I have pondered this over the years, and the dramatic drop in industry-wide units shipments since the early 80’s, I have come to a couple of conclusions and observations. The rapid drop in industry shipments after 1979-80 from about 17,000 units/year to 3000/year or less for several years thereafter, has usually been blamed on a “perfect storm” phenomenon including: runaway inflation, the first oil crisis, the rapid rise in product liability insurance costs, and the national recession. Thankfully, I was already at Beech/Raytheon at the time, as I knew many of our employees in PA and Vero Beach on a first-name basis and don’t think I could have handled it emotionally; but, at Piper, they went from 3 plants in PA, 2 in FL, and 1 in CA (recently acquired Aerostar) with approximately 6000 employees total, to less than 400 employees in VRB alone in less than 2-3 years. Declines at Beech and Cessna were dramatic as well, but somewhat mitigated in part due to military contracts and more high-end products than Piper had.
I have since concluded that there was another factor in all of this – the change in ownership of all of the then Big Three in GA – Cessna, Beech and Piper in the 1970’s. One of the first things the new owners at Piper did (in the late 70’s I think) was to eliminate all of our distributors and go to a factory-based/salaried employee sales management system with factory-direct dealers, in order to eliminate the 8% discount to distributors. Distributors had been getting a 28% discount and dealers 20%. (I think the new owners of Cessna and Beech made similar changes around that time as well.)
As a summer employee at Piper in the mid-60’s, I headed up a small group of other college students who did a study of Piper’s, Cessna’s & Beech’s national and international distribution systems. The thing that stood out the most to me was that Piper had about 50 domestic distributors and 500 dealers while Cessna had about 1000 domestic dealers (I forget how many distributors) and Beech had maybe 300 or so dealers. Interestingly, Cessna had about 50% of the market, and Piper and Beech about 40% combined. Typically, Cessna sold about twice as many units as Piper. I have since often wondered if it was as simple as that – Cessna had twice as many dealers as we did and consistently sold about twice as many units/year as Piper.
But, with regard to student starts and the numbers of new pilots, with the change of ownership at Piper, Cessna and Beech, came a much greater focus on the sales of high-ticket models – especially turboprops and jets. The piston singles were almost looked on as more trouble than they were worth, and their value from a “building the base” point of view was essentially ignored by corporate management. At Piper in the 60’s, we did several studies with regard to brand loyalty and trade-up sales related to student starts. The loyalty factor was consistently in the 80-90% range as long as you provided that option for owners looking for more speed, room, range, etc. In other words, if pilots learned to fly in a Piper or Cessna, they very strongly tended to buy the same brand as they went from small 4-place singles to complex and bigger singles, to twins, turboprops, etc. Obviously, Cessna with 1000 dealers (most with flight training) and Piper with 500, benefited the most from this phenomenon.
When the new owners at Piper decided to eliminate the distributors, they essentially gutted the force behind their entire sales network. Also, these and the subsequent owners of Piper were much more interested in marketing to the high-end buyers than they were in promoting learn-to-fly and low-end sales. I suspect this same philosophy change occurred at Cessna as well with their change of ownership. I’m not sure when Piper and Cessna and their dealers stopped widely promoting the $5 introductory flying lesson, but I would guess it was somewhere in the the late 70’s or early 80’s.
Bottom line to me, when the leaders in the industry are no longer focused on, or interested in, building the base by building and promoting the sales of entry-level aircraft and spending a significant portion of their national advertising dollars on learn-to-fly and the simple joys of flying, the results should be no surprise. They also, to my knowledge at least, no longer provide incentives to their dealers for promoting learn-to-fly on a local basis. Instead, they have essentially left that up to organizations like GAMA and AOPA. Those organizations don’t have those kinds of budgets no matter how interested they may be in promoting student starts and learn-to-fly, nor do their livelihoods depend directly upon it, as was the case for our distributors before they were fired.
Maybe it’s as simple as that.
10 reasons general aviation is weak
General aviation as we all knew and loved it in the past is, in southern California anyway, mostly a beloved memory. At one time, my airport (across the street from my office) had as many as five flight schools. Now flight schools are banned by the city. In the old days, you might be number 5 to take off and number 6 to land. Now, you’re all alone in the pattern.
- Thanks to DHS, airports are like forts, surrounded by fencing and anyone approaching is considered a potential terrorist.
- Cost. Why pay $6,000-$8,000 to learn to fly when you can buy a Microsoft Flight Simulator for $300? Kids today are more into watching screens than participating. Look at their test scores.
- No aviation heroes. Every record has been set. There are no aviation heroes left to idolize and aviation is not touted in schools as anything other than a nuisance.
- Fewer airports, fewer FBOs, fewer flight schools, increasing regulations, more TFRs (thanks to the current administration).
- Weak attempts by the FAA to encourage private flying by creating false pilots, that is, “recreational” pilots, “light sport pilots,” etc. who still must buy or rent underpowered, plastic airplanes that are slow, highly restricted and discouraged at tower-controlled airports. And they’re tremendously expensive for what you get.
- Military pilots usually don’t participate in general aviation either while in the service, or once they get out.
- The media has no idea what it takes to become a private pilot; they tend to center on “how dangerous” flying is, especially with “all those crashes” yet auto wrecks never get mentioned and there’s 100 times more of them. EAA chapters and AOPA could make an effort to reach the general public; not just 10 year olds with “Young Eagles” who mostly go for the one-time thrill.
- Flying is considered a privilege of the rich and not for the average person. Businesses don’t understand the value of owning/renting a private aircraft and no one bothers to explain it to them.
- Airshows are packed with non-pilots but no one makes any effort to convince them that they can learn to fly as well.
- It’s too bloody expensive! My hangar is $700 a month, my last two annuals were $10,000 and $1800, plus insurance and regular maintenance. And I just have a small single engine aircraft (1968 Piper 180D). It burns 10 gallons per hour at $6 per gallon! “Burning holes in the sky” is no longer an option. I have to have a mission to justify starting her up.
There are other reasons, as well, but these are the first 10 that occurred to me and I’ve been in the aviation business 35 years.
Pacific Flyer Newspapers, Inc.
Some tough numbers
To: Dick Collins
We only have about 200,000 active planes and about the same number of pilots. The average mean age of a pilot is 55+ and in the next ten years 1/3 will not have a medical, that’s about 60,000 pilots. This could mean in the next ten years 60,000 planes would be looking for a pilot and a home. Planes will get so cheap the value would be the time left on the engines. We would need to create about 500,000 new pilots in the next ten years for GA to survive. I do not think this is possible and with user fees gas prices and supply issues that GA will last much longer than ten years in it’s present form. I would like to know your opinion.
I have been in aviation for 50 years and own 250 hangars in California. My father built the local airport and my father in law owned 36 news papers in California. I own a 1980 421C and a Colemill President two Baron.
We need to tell the story
There is excitement in the air regarding pilots being allowed to fly with their driver’s license. Well folks, count me out The problem in aviation is very complex. Bu the biggest problem is that we don’t sell aviation to the general public. When was the last time you saw a commercial during major events like the super bowl promoting aviation. Right now you are asking yourself the question, ads are very expensive during these events, who is going to pay for these ads? Can’t we get hundred of thousands of aviation related businesses and industries to donate money for this endeavor? We have friends in the entertainment industry. Why can’t we have a TV show about an FBO and have a well known celebrity land once a week for fuel. Treat Williams, a long time pilot and great actor would be a great pick to star on a show like this.When was the last time you saw an ad on a local bulletin board promoting a local flight school ? I have never seen one. Pick up any adult education catalog and you will never see a course about aviation. I saw one about 20 years ago in my hometown.
I have a commercial-instrument license. I have about 1200 hours. I have flown out of several flight schools and not once did I get a call or received a letter asking why I left. Flight instructors and managers of flight school must realize that they are in the business of selling a product. Sad to say, many in the industry fail to see this.
As pilots, what can be do? How about dropping our aviation magazines at doctors, dentist offices. I most admit this would be hard for me as a read my 4 monthly magazines over and over. Encourage flight schools to have an open house once a month. My dream is to see a small playground and a brick barbeque at every small field in America. Encourage the local people to come and visit us. Flight schools should have pamphlets selling their product by the playground. How about setting up in a local mall and let shoppers try flying any of the simulators in today’s market that cost less than $100.00. I have loved aviation since I was a kid. When I was in high school, we use to play East Boston High near Logan airport. Our coach Mr. Kelly knew better than to let me play. I was always looking up at the sky, not paying any attention to the game.
Fly me to the moon was my favorite song. Since Neil Armstrong died, I just can’t enjoy it like I use to. Sad to say, in aviation career, I shot for the moon but had to settle for West Newton, Ma. I am in my 44th year of flying and hope to make it to 50. I never worked as commercial pilot but always flew 150’s and 172’s like there were many people on board and would hope that I gave people a ride of their lives.
Live long and prosper,
At these prices, it’s not fun
I am just a private pilot, 62 years old, and fly only for pleasure. It’s really hard to get as much pleasure from flying when the fuel cost so much. Most of us older pilots are on a fixed income and our income is not going up accordingly. Private flying has really priced itself for the worst. Look at the price of aircraft now compared to earlier years. My first Cherokee 180 in 1967 was $17,500 and fuel was .50 cents a gallon. Now look at it.