Last week, we launched a special report called Mayday! The declining pilot population. Five authors shared their thoughts on how things got so bad and how to turn them around, each with a unique perspective and interesting suggestions. As always at Air Facts, our readers really drive the conversation, and over 300 comments were written during the course of the week. Many of these comments were thoughtful, constructive and based on personal experience. To share these opinions with a wider audience, we’ve collected some of the best comments and organized them below. We hope to continue this important conversation about the future of general aviation.
The overwhelming comment from readers during our special series had to do with the high cost of flying. Many readers shared how affordable learning to fly had been for them 30 or 40 years ago, and newer pilots complained that now those costs have risen 10-20X. General aviation is simply out of reach for most Americans right now. Beyond that, the ones who can afford to fly aren’t interested; the ones who are interested can’t afford it. Here are some of your comments:
Jim Guida says current economic conditions are especially bad for learning to fly: “Until the unemployment goes down, disposable income will not be available for people to fly. Food and shelter come first.”
Dave says travel by GA is much more expensive: “Aviation HAS always been expensive, but the percentage of disposable income it takes today to pay for a simple 300 mile flight on a long holiday weekend is dramatically higher than it was in the early ’80s.”
Colin says we can’t ignore raw cost: “As much as I agree with all that’s been said here, I really think the raw cost IS an important factor. Getting more value from flying is important. However, if we want those people to say ‘I’ve always wanted to do that’ to go do it, we have to make raw cost more in line with disposable income.”
Mike Prevost says Richard Collins didn’t give high costs enough credit: “My first reaction, as a student pilot at age 51, that you are not giving the economic factors enough weighting, not by a long shot.”
Steve Brandt says the costs add up quickly: “I too am a seasoned citizen just entering GA. 57 yo and over 60 hours and $11,000.00 still no PPC in-hand. Close but no cigar yet. Amazed at the costs. All costs.”
Grant Barnum says it’s not just avgas: “The factors preventing me from flying more are mostly cost. Nearly $6 a gallon for avgas. Annuals averaging well over $5000 a year for a single engine retractable Cessna. Avionics that used to be upgradable to standards in new aircraft for an affordable price now approaching or exceeding six figures. New aircraft that cost double the average price of a new home. I daresay that even when adjusted for constant dollars, aviation is more expensive than ever.”
Keith Bumsted says compare airplanes to other products for a real shock: “If you want to see how totally whacked out airplane prices are, compare the cost of a shiny new Cessna 162 with an Airstream Interstate RV, or a new Cessna 172 with a Bentley. If lined up side by side, the Cessna products elicit a ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ response.”
Keith Bogut says it’s not just the cost of getting a license: “Not only the cost of getting your ticket, but figuring out how to take advantage of it once you do.”
This is where the next generation starts, and most readers (and authors) seem to agree that they are in bad shape. At heart, many of these schools simply aren’t well-run businesses, with poor communication, shabby facilities, non-existent marketing and unfriendly employees.
Edward Todd says the initial contact is critical for prospective pilots: “first impressions of FBOs and the CFIs happen. Not all folks walk into an actual flight school with full time instructors who look and act the part. I would dare say that MOST folks walk into an FBO and meet up with a part time CFI that looks like he just jumped off his farm tractor.”
David Dickens says people are busier than ever, and need new training styles: “Making the training experience much more attractive and flexible to accommodate people’s packed schedules will go a long way to attract a younger generation.”
Kurt Nelson says the state of rental aircraft is pretty sorry in most cases: “I’ve grown tired of renting tired, filthy, low powered, systems-challenged, boring aircraft. I take off and the radio fails or the oil pressure begins to fluctuate, causing an abort. One FBO was so bad we called it ‘Malfunction Junction.’ Where’s the value for my dollar? My now grown kids used to love to fly with me and ask when we’ll fly again. I can’t answer that because I won’t pay $200 an hour to fly a 50 year old piece of junk.”
Billy Payne says a little friendliness could go a long way: “Now for instructors and flight schools. If these two entities do not come across as friendly then the aviation community is in very big trouble. At this time flying is an expensive privilege. If some one does nor feel welcome then they will most likely not continue to stay in the aviation community. In my experience being friendly and inviting is just the spark that will ignite the fuel of that will attract and keep people to the aviation community .”
Anna Moseley Osborn says flight schools need to tell new students what to expect: “They need to communicate better. They need to follow a syllabus and be on time. Students must realize it is not easy to meet FAA guidelines, that the written is a convoluted reading test, a necessary evil. Prospective students need to be told the truth: it is difficult at times, it is expensive and finally, it IS worth it.”
Todd says there aren’t enough flight schools to accept bad ones: “I have talked to too many people who have experienced the same lack of interest from flight school employees when they inquired about flight training or aircraft rentals. In some cities that is okay because for the student or renter they can find someone else. But, too often there is not another provider who does want to earn their business and instead this person often walks away and tables their dreams for another time.”
This topic didn’t come up as often as cost and flight schools, but there was a steady stream of comments about how new regulations have made flying more complicated and expensive. In particular, concerns about the FAA medical, new airplane certification costs and complex airspace came up time and again.
David Albright says he’s worried he’ll unintentionally break a rule: “With all the regs. I felt there is no way I can’t keep from braking a reg. sooner or later. I have a clean record and want to keep it that way.”
Glenn Darr says other industries aren’t as burdened by regulation as we are in aviation: “the ungodly amount of regulation a student pilot has to learn is quite discouraging. It is easier to go learn to drive a boat!!”
S Booth has personal experience with the cost of regulation: “A 4′ line of small copper tubing with a compression fitting on either end. $30.00 part, right? $489.00 later I got the part. Over regulation has put the price of these normal type products in the same catagory as the $900 pentagon hammer. No wonder people are scared away.”
John Green says the medical is another form of regulation: “I stopped training two years ago, trying to get my prior medical issues resolved to the satisfaction of the FAA. Just re-applied for my medical three weeks ago.”
Rich says airplanes shouldn’t be so expensive: “The FAA has also contributed to costs through their aircraft and equipment certification procedures…I think the way they do things in Alaska has some validity – my grandpappy taught my daddy, my daddy taught me, and I don’t need no stinkin’ government agent telling me what to do.”
Dale Olsen says the punishment is a problem too: “It isn’t just the complexity of airspace and regulations, it is also the draconian consequences of violations of the same. Sharing the airspace with others is serious business, and demands a ‘professional’ diligence.”
What can be done?
With all of these headwinds, can anything be done? Many readers did offer solutions in addition to complaints. Many said aviation simply needs to improve the value it delivers for pilots, whether it’s lowering costs or increasing the utility we get out of flying. Neil said it well: “The market place drives the American consumer. When the cost outweighs the benefits they stop purchasing a service or product and move on to something they find value.”
Here is a selection of other ideas you offered:
Jeff Lowe says if more licensed pilots were out there mentoring new pilots, we might get more student pilots to complete: “So my answer now is to recommend becoming a mentor pilot.”
Thomas P. Turner says we need a lot to make GA competitive for successful people looking for an airline alternative: “ All indications are that the industry needs a professional, career instructor force, well-run, inviting FBOs, appealing, no-deferred-squawks airplanes, a pilot support social network, and a training system that meets the schedule and needs of well-healed but busy potential pilots, and the fly-for-transportation market will thrive.”
For David Dickins, his experience in a flying club offers an answer: “It is possible to rent through a flying club (I am lucky to have one of the best in the county – Plus One Flyers here in San Diego) once a week and stay within a monthly budget of around $600. This isn’t small change but still definitely not limited to the famous 1% crowd.”
Rich says partnerships work better than flying clubs: “I see the best situation being some form of partnership. The max of 3 pilots seems to keep the insurance companies at bay.”
Hunter Heath says regional training centers could help, too: “What if one could go to a pilot training center in a nice place, and in 2-3 weeks go home with a Sport Pilot certificate? And after enjoying the privileges of flying an LSA-eligible plane, return when ready to complete training for a PPL? What if the school offering this training kept in touch with you by email, with reunions of graduates, suggestions for trips, discounts on pilot tsotchkes, and a system for linking those interested in a partnership? Ah, such a dream…”
Timothey McDonough says he has an idea to fix regulation: “I believe that one of the greatest impediments to reviving general aviation in the USA is the Byzantine interpretation of 14 CFR 61.113(b) by the FAA General Counsel known as the ‘Mangiamele Opinion.’ If private pilots were allowed to receive reimbursement for the use of their private property for private benefit in connection to their business or employment in the same manner as they can for their privately owned automobiles, I think we would see an immediate and dramatic increase in GA activity nationwide.”
C Umphlette says sailplanes may be the answer for recreational flying, “If you really want to fly you find a way, I flew a recreational flight Sunday for 4 hours and a direct cost of $18.00 dollars. Gas for a towplane to launch a 78 Schweizer sailplane.”
What’s your reaction? Add your comments below.