Brighter days ahead? Depends on how bright you want it…

Those first rays of sunshine after a storm passes are a welcome sight indeed. There is hope and the promise of better things ahead. Is there any chance that general aviation could be about to fly into clearer weather?

It depends on what you wish for. The heyday will not likely return. When you consider piston airplanes that are used for transportation (140 knot or better cruise), the general aviation industry produced 7,889 of these airplanes in 1979. They are currently being built at a rate of 652 per year. You might say that we would almost be starting from scratch in trying to get back to that heyday.

In discussions on this, cost is often singled out as the number one deterrent to future growth. There is no question that flying is expensive but then it has always been expensive and will likely remain so. Cost has to be put into context and compared with what is out there today, not with what it was decades ago.

house for sale

Airplanes are more expensive today, but so are houses and a lot of other things.

It is often noted that the cost of airplanes and flying have gone up way faster than inflation. I like to look at personal experience as a way of judging things like this so that’s what I am going to do here.

In 1979 we lived in New Jersey, in a house that was worth $74,000 at that time. According to Zillow that house is worth $565,437 today.

In 1979 I did what a lot of pilots did way back then, I got an airplane that was worth twice as much as my house. The list price on my 1979 Cessna P210 was about $150,000.

You know what is coming next but I am going to do it anyway. If you apply the math of the house values to the airplane, my trusty P210 would cost $1,146,150 today. A new Piper Mirage lists for $1,078,875 and it is a somewhat fancier and more sophisticated airplane.

I can hear the “yes buts” echoing through the Air Facts ether and I will acknowledge that this is just one example and that numbers can be developed to show that when compared with some other things, flying has gone up relatively more.

That is beside the point, though. What counts is that twelve times as many pilots figured out how to afford a piston airplane for travel in 1979 as will in 2013 and the population base was substantially smaller then. And, relative to houses in populous areas, airplanes don’t cost any more now than they did then.

This doesn’t have anything to do with wealth, either. The Dow average is twenty times higher than it was for most of 1979 when pilots were buying all those fancy airplanes. There is plenty of money out there to use in buying airplanes but it is quite obviously being used for the purchase of other things.

This puts perceived value high on the list of culprits. People must have put a lot more stock in “being there” in 1979 than they do now. An airplane was seen as keeping you in close personal touch, whether for pleasure or business. The “magic carpet” image of the personal airplane must have vanished.

Some of the other things that have affected general aviation simply can’t be fixed. Most relate to demographics.

In 1979 there was a legion of pilots who learned to fly during WWII and on the GI-Bill after the war. They bought a lot of those airplanes and virtually all those pilots are finished with flying now. They can’t be replaced.

I have watched and participated in a whole bunch of learn to fly promotions. One of my favorites was “Discover Flying” where they painted airplanes in Howard Johnson’s colors, presumably to make flying look friendly. (HoJo was a lot of things but to young people it was ice cream. They advertised a whole bunch of flavors and they were all good, believe me.)

Graph of private pilots

Despite numerous industry efforts, the number of active private pilots is in a steady decline.

The programs met with limited success. Some other promotional programs were also tried. For one, I taught Hugh Downs, host of the “Today” show to fly. We ran nine segments on the show, one for each hour before solo and one as a wrap. Cessna sponsored that and also gave Johnny Carson of the “Tonight” show lessons. Hugh kept up with his flying and there were many favorable mentions on his show. I have no idea whether or not any of that translated into new pilots or airplane sales but I would imagine most folks saw the flying segments as entertainment and were not motivated by them.

Many of the promotions were done well before general aviation started over a cliff in 1980 which just goes to show that at least some people foresaw future trouble unless we could get a new breed into flying.

The point is that over the years we tried hard to interest affluent people in flying yet the numbers dropped precipitously and nothing we did slowed that down. I won’t say it was all my fault but my generation was simply unable to maintain the health of the general aviation industry.

Many years ago the naysayers pointed out that with advances in communications technology we might be able to do face-to-face meetings electronically. That came true and could be a factor. So did lower-cost airline travel and much more competition for disposable income.

Finally, on demographics, we used to talk about people being “air-minded.” That meant they were interested in and supportive of some or all forms of aviation whether or not they were participants. There is no way to know for sure but I would bet that the percentage of the public that is “air-minded” today is minuscule compared to what it was in the 1950s to 1970s.

Many who complain about the cost of flying seem to feel that the cost of flying should be made to fit into their budget. It sure doesn’t work that way with flying or anything else. When we see something we want the first thing is to find out how much it costs. The second thing is to make ourselves able to afford it or to do without. That’s just the way it works and the only way we can grow flying is to convince people who have the money that it is worth the money. That is a tall order.

So where do we look for brighter days?

Walter Beech

In the good old days, airplane manufacturers were family businesses, owned by the likes of Walter Beech.

Back in the good old days general aviation airplane manufacturing was a cottage industry. The names on the buildings were also the names on the office doors. What we used to call the Big 3, Beech, Piper and Cessna were actually family businesses. (Don’t ask me why we named those companies in that order. I have no idea, but we did).

Those families had the most at stake in the development of the company. I remember looking at the prototype Cessna 310 when it was being built. Word was that Dwane Wallace, president of Cessna and nephew of the founder, was betting the company on that airplane. They said the same thing about the Citation when it was in development. The same thing happened at Beech and Piper as the companies set out to build an airplane for every purpose.

The capital requirements to start a new airplane company today would be beyond most families or investor groups and any study of the history of the financial performance of the activity would suggest psychiatric treatment instead of investment. Still, on a very basic level, it could start over just like it began. Van’s is offering its highly successful line of kits and is moving into completed airplanes. Many of these airplanes are imminently suitable for personal transportation. Lancair is also marketing kits with spectacular traveling performance. There is even a turboprop single in their mix.

For fun flying, the two Cub knock-off manufacturers started small but they seem to be doing some business. The light sport airplanes are also out there but they don’t seem to have attracted a great following. Still, all these things, and some others, could be the acorns from which a new generation of mighty oaks could grow. Certainly the only part of general aviation that will grow with just large corporations building airplanes will be the upper end turboprops and the jets, the truly expensive stuff.

Wherever we go from here, the going will be slow.

In the meanwhile, we have to keep trying although much of what is being done has been tried before without success.

Lancair Evolution

Could high performance experimental airplanes like the Lancair Evolution be part of the future?

There’s little or no potential for reducing the cost of airplanes simply because there is not much volume and they are handmade. Actually the airframe itself usually only represents 25-percent of the price of an airplane so any reduction in airframe cost would do little for total cost.

One thing that might help some on cost would be a modification of the “FAA-approved” charade. I have always thought that calling airplanes “experimental” or “homebuilt” was misleading and that most all the kit airplanes should be available for purchase in a completed form with only basic requirements. That might help a little. So might the simplification of approvals for avionics, engines and parts. So much of what is “FAA-approved” today is of poor quality so there’s not much downside here.

Those things would likely just nibble at cost and might not make a big difference but they could also help.

The biggest challenge remains to sell folks on either the value of purposeful personal transportation or of the great enjoyment that is available in recreational flying.

I have offered this thought before but will serve it up again. Most people who fly do thoroughly enjoy the challenges found in whatever kind of flying is being done and feel the money is well-spent. To me the best sales pitch is to offer flying as something that offers a challenge and then ask the question: “Do you have what it takes to be a good pilot and are you successful enough to afford flying?” The cost and nature of flying makes it an elitist activity so why not sell it as such?

66 Comments

  1. MikePrevost says:

    Dick, respectfully, I’m afraid that you approach to comparing the cost of aircraft between 1979 and today is flawed to the point of disproving your argument rather than supporting it.

    The value of real estate is not really a valid measuring stick because it’s too narrow. What’s really being compared is the **purchasing power** of money between 1979 to today.

    The purchasing power of $150K in 2012 dollars is about $495K (43% of your real estate derived comparison).

    The closest current airplane to your P210 is probably the high-end Piper Mirage (six place, piston, pressurized, retractable)… listing at about $1,200,000 with an option or two… or 240% more than your P210 in today’s dollars. 240% more !!! This is a much more accurate assessment of the cost differential.

    That much of a price increase *completely* changes the market dynamics. Would Toyota sell nearly as many Camrys if they cost… $70K – $75K ? Of course not.

    That being said, I don’t discount the other cost increases, fuel being the next biggest offender.

    • Dick Collins says:

      I don’t agree, Mike. Real estate value touches everyone and housing is a basic necessity. Thus, “then and now” price comparisons on it are as good as anything. I know, it is different than the CPI but that is often influenced by political considerations and excludes important factors.

      • MikePrevost says:

        I understand your point and real estate isn’t the worst measuring stick by any means. But any single point of comparison has a massive number of influences that aren’t applicable across all of a consumer’s spending.

        Real estate experienced TWO massive bubbles in the last 20 years, one that burst, and was the target of political social engineering through the Fed. The average mortgage cost today is a much higher percentage of income for middle class than in the 70′s. But other things are much cheaper, food and clothing for example.

        The political consideration of CPI are much smaller than the larger economic picture. This has been documented in a huge number of studies showing how badly middle class buy power has eroded over the last 40 years. The average American had to go very deep in debt to sustain the spending that was done by middle class families in the 60s and 70s.

        Saying that the cost of aviation now is similar to the 60s and 70s just isn’t correct, respectfully. It is far, far more expensive for the equivalent new aircraft purchase, and for fuel of course. These costs are a much larger market influence than Americans having competition in the ways to spend their time and money.

        My best to you sir, you always write engaging and thought provking pieces.

      • Tom Joy says:

        Another fundamental difference between real estate and almost everything else is that home prices can be expected to retain their value or most likely go up (even leaving out bubbles). It also replaces the cost of renting a dwelling. So even though homes might be becoming less affordable over the years, it makes economic sense for most people to buy one. Not so for airplanes – it would be a very discretionary (though enjoyable) purchase – not an investment.

    • JT McDuffie says:

      I would simply add that real estate prices are very regional. A 3 bedroom, 2 bath home in Sunnyvale, CA doesn’t sell for anything close to what you’d purchase that same house for in, say, Boise, ID or Louisville, KY. While housing costs touch everyone, its no longer the “investment” it was once thought to be (see article by current Nobel Laureate Economist Robert Shiller: http://www.businessinsider.com/nobel-prize-robert-shiller-housing-not-great-investment-2013-10). And for the same reason, purchasing an aircraft is NOT an investment. But for the 10+ years I flew mine, it was worth every penny I spent on it. And I’ll do it again.

      It’s not about the $$$ – it IS about the perceived value: What I got out of flying (business and personal) was worth the expense, even when I could have achieved the same ends (transportation) for less $$. I think that is what Dick is saying, and I agree with that.

  2. John Zimmerman says:

    Whenever cost comes up (which is to say, always), I always think about the explosive growth of business jets since the 1970s. While piston airplanes sales have plummeted, business jet sales are up nicely. Gulfstreams and Falcons are selling fast right now.

    Obviously, that means there are a lot of people out there with a lot of money. Think a Malibu is expensive? Look at a Citation CJ4! Why have the people with enough money not chosen personal aviation? Is it all Net Jets?

    Seems like (in 2013, at least) the people with enough money aren’t interested in aviation; the people who are interested in aviation don’t have enough money.

    • MikePrevost says:

      John, I think terms should be refined a bit in your analysis. There are more people with a HUGE amount of money, and fewer people with the earning power of the 60s and 70s due to the concentration of wealth. Regardless of one’s political leanings, those a bald economic facts that are not in dispute.

      With that level of wealth concentration you would expect to see the market react *exactly* as it is… more buyers of vastly more expensive goods, while there would be *many* fewer buyers of middle-level goods.

      A 1965 C172 went for about $13K, roughly $94K in today’s dollars. Cessna’s list today, around $350. So the middle class consumer has less buying power because of wealth concentration and *triple* the product cost in constant dollars due to other market forces.

      This level of direct and indirect cost increase can’t help but completely change the market demand for the product.

      • Tom Yarsley says:

        I must dispute your “bald economic facts.” The term “concentration of wealth” is misleading at best. It presupposes that wealth is a constant; that in order for me to get more, you necessarily must get less. That’s nonsense. Wealth is created when the efforts of industrious people add value that others are willing to trade for. Want more pie? Figure out how to bake a bigger pie, rather than making a case for deserving a bigger portion of the common pie.

        Bill Gates’ billions don’t make me one cent poorer.

        As for the “vanishing middle class…” poppycock. Look at what families spend big bucks on today. High-speed Internet. 300-channel HD cable TV. $200 per-month cell phone plans. Multi-car families. Up to 1/2 of all food consumed is take-out. $200 sneakers; $400 jackets. And don’t even get me started on the nutty cost of a college education of increasingly dubious value. Makes it hard to argue that the middle class is wasting away.

        Dick was right: people are spending money – lots of it. They just aren’t spending it on brand-new little airplanes.

        Another factor is the cost and difficulty of obtaining, then maintaining, a pilot certificate. Until autonomous airplanes become commonplace, somebody’s gotta fly the damned things. Most of the people I know who actually could afford a brand-new Cirrus, think that the rewards simply aren’t worth the hassles. Somewhere in there, there’s a lesson for this industry.

        • Brandon Freeman says:

          Tom, good thoughts!

          • Mike says:

            While wealth concentration may be a dirty word and I certainly believe wealth is what you make it there is the undisputeable fact that the upper 1% is where the growth has been over the past years. Middle income families who made good wages and may have been able to afford flying at some level watched and had no control over their jobs leaving for foreign shores. The corporation leaders made out like bandits while most all the well paying manufacturing jobs were lost and the jobs people were able to get after paid considerably less. Now these corporations are trying to come back and finding the work force has been decimated. America is free enterprise and I support that fully but look at Beech for example, trampled all over the workforce while making sure all the leadership at the top continued to be able to belly up to the trough.

        • Tyler says:

          Tom,
          I have to completely call you (and Richard- The Dow as a measure of the average person’s purchasing power? crazy.) out here. Mike was 100% correct. There are fewer people with more money today then 1979, period.
          While you are correct on the small scale (Bill gates getting an extra dollar doesn’t take a dollar out of my pocket, per se), on the large scale that’s exactly what happens. With the same adjustment for inflation, the average american income has been declining for some time. Some examples: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph

          CEOs used to make 20 times what their average employee made. Now they make over 200 times.

          Not only are incomes for the average american declining, but the base costs (real estate, health insurance for example) are soaring. Unless you make a solid six figure income (which is NOT the middle class), you can’t afford to fly, period.

          The fact is, flying is now the hobby of the rich, no ‘outreach’ or training program is going to fix it.

          • Tom Yarsley says:

            “Unless you make a solid six figure income (which is NOT the middle class), you can’t afford to fly, period.”

            Really? My little flying club has a nice, hangared, full-IFR Tomahawk with a wet rate of $50 per hour. Since 1987, our club membership never has been dominated by the six-figure-income crowd. In 2013, a newbie really can get a private pilot certificate for less than $5,000. Hoooda thunk?

            “CEOs used to make 20 times what their average employee made. Now they make over 200 times.”

            So, by extension, does that 10x gain mean that the average employee now makes 1/10th of what s/he used to? No, it does not.

            Americans’ standard of living arguably never has been higher. A typical teenager has more computing power in his/her cellphone than all of NASA had when we put a man on the moon in 1969. What do they do with it? Play Angry Birds and Tweet the other teenager who’s sitting right next to them. Ancient financial advice: “It’s not how much you make; it’s how much you spend.” Much like our cancerous government, Americans (and others) spend far too much on all kinds of unnecessary stuff – and I will defend their right to do so, with my life. (Not the government – just the people.)

            We all make choices, and it’s clear that Americans are choosing to spend their dollars on things other than brand-new little airplanes. I politely suggest that if you’re addicted to a middle-class lifestyle that includes a “must-have” $200 per month cell-phone bill, and a $300 per month cable/Internet bill, you probably don’t have an “extra” $500 per month to spend on flying. And Bill Gates’ billions have nothing to do with it.

            The very idea that “only ‘the rich’ can afford to fly” is both untrue (see my flying club example above) and likely the biggest contributor to GA’s current low-participation problem.

        • phil says:

          The reason why people think $400 for a jacket is good value is because those companies are a lot better than your average aviation company at marketing. Its not like that jacket is any better than a $50 one.

          • J. Freakenomics says:

            Tom,
            I’m concerned with your understanding of economics. The average employee may not make 1/10th of what he or she used to, in order for the CEOs salary to increase exponentially, but their wages have stagnated and even eroded over the past 40 years when adjusted for inflation. Wealth and salary demographics in this country have changed over the 40 year time period I mentioned. The top quartile of this nation has seen their relative inflation adjusted incomes rise greatly (with the top 5% seeing the most gains), the relative income of the middle 2nd and 3rd quartile has decreased, and the lowest quartile has seen their relative income decrease further than the 2nd and 3rd. All of this information is readily available through several private and government sources. I understand your logic about cell phone bills and designer shoes, but it is merely anecdotal evidence about consumer buying habits. The CPI and inflation adjusted incomes tell a far more accurate story. The middle class is smaller and their stagnate incomes are being eroded by inflation regardless of what they choose to spend their (often debt laden) money on. When you combine this with FAA regulation, cheaper alternatives (commercial travel), and the cost of GA that is far outpacing overall inflation, you have a big problem. If any of the variables I mentioned change, then the state of GA may change. If not, be prepared for the bad to get worse.

  3. MikeT says:

    I enjoyed your article as I have this entire series. Anytime 1979 peak GA production is referenced I am always reminded that airline deregulation was 1978. I believe deregulation had a lasting impact on GA’s value propostion to the personal and business traveler.

    A $100 discount airfare will get you halfway across the country today but will only buy you about an hours worth of AVGAS.

  4. Don R says:

    I think the cost of flying, coupled with the lower earning power of the middle class is a factor in reduced flying activity. It does not explain why the activity is at less than 10 percent of where is was. No doubt Cessna exiting the piston business due to product liability costs was also a contributor. Price wars and consolidation in the airlines made it harder to justify the cost of flying privately. It also seems the level of risk aversion is increasing among average folks. I see real hope from the experimental sector in keeping alive the flying for fun group, but too few of the experimentals are serious IFR traveling machines. I think Mr. Collins point about the WWIIs impact may be the largest contributor. I became interested in airplanes because my Dad and his best buddy loved airplanes. Although not licenced pilots, they were both former Army Air Corp, and got me hooked with RC planes. It seems an awefull lot of factors have all aligned against us, and I have to agree while there is upside, I don’t see it ever coming back to the glory days we were fortunate enough to enjoy.

  5. Brandon Freeman says:

    Richard,
    I appreciate your viewpoints on this matter. Being 31, I have no direct experience to the so-called “halcyon days”, but it is not uncommon to hear from my older pilot friends about the 1960s and 70s and how wonderful it was. I honestly have no doubt that at the time, it was truly great.

    That being said, I really think the cost/benefit ratio is far more important than just simply costs. Were I just a potential pilot, how does this avocation benefit me? If I want to fly for recreation, the very act of taking off and flying over my home is more than worth the hourly rate. If I have business in my state or in the next state over, then perhaps keeping a company plane to use at a moment’s notice is worth more to my business than taking that cheaper 40 minute airline flight. We obviously can’t deny that it takes money (lots of it) to fly. Trying to state otherwise is foolish.

    However, it also does us no good to stick our heads in the sand and hope/pray/wish for cheaper airplanes and gas. We have what we have, and we’ll have to work with that. Better articulating the cost *value* is something we could all stand to get better at. Personally speaking, I’ve been well aware all my life that it was going to be expensive to get into aviation and stay there. In fact, after I got my private ticket, I promised myself that I would never look over my old checkbooks to see what I put into training!

    As other writers to this site have pointed out, there are probably lots of people who have always wanted to learn how to fly, and simply don’t know how to take that first step. How good are we, individually as well as an industry, at helping them with that. Does any of us know that person and have actually sat down to help them, or did we just go “that’s cool, let me know how you do”?

    Those who want to fly will figure out how to. Our job is to nudge them in that direction.

  6. Danie says:

    Of course, money matters.
    But what we really need to keep flying are reliable occasions.
    After 20 years of VFR fly, I was about to stop.
    I had not enough reasons to keep flying. Except that I love it…
    Almost everything that could have been made had been.
    The instrument rating changed my life.
    I have now new “reliable” occasions to fly : business, family trips… I know that 90% of the time, I can go and go back. That was not the case in VFR.
    I bought one third of a PA28RT, and enjoy the so many new occasions of flying offered to me.

    Give pilots long term occasions to fly, they will fly in the long term. And they will buy planes.

  7. Charlie Masters says:

    Dick,

    The only question I have about your article is “Why would anybody pay $565,437 to live in New Jersey?”

    • MikePrevost says:

      Jersey gets no respect.

      • Canyonrunner77 says:

        Ok. Slow down. It is a great state that has a huge GA population. Look at KTEB & KCDW.

      • Canyonrunner77 says:

        I have just begun my flight training out of KCDW. It is something in my 36 years I have looked forwards to and I am more and more hooked after every hour (10). But, looking at the finances it is going to be tough to go once a week like I was. In reality it was working out to $300 per lesson and adding on a extra $1200 per month is not feasible. I make good money and between rent, car payments, and food it is a tough expense to justify. The reality is that the price of planes has gone up, fuel has gone up and insurance has gone up. I have a great flight instructor and I want to finish and fly my dream flight to Montauk, Block Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard but it is slipping away. After learning to fly and building the needed hours to join a flying club it is a long ways off and money that I need to save to buy a house in NJ or NY. Just like I love tuna fishing I now go once a year and that is with friends owning the boats. What used to be a $500 day with fuel is now $2000.

    • Dick Collins says:

      Charlie: We lived near Princeton and it was a truly wonderful place to be. Have you been watching reruns of The Sopranos?

      • Canyonrunner77 says:

        Great area. I used to work in Hopewell. Now I am in NYC and live in Downtown Jersey City. My flight training has been taking place at Caldwell.

  8. Adrian Ryan says:

    I would like to add my two-cents worth. In my opinion, the greatest barrier to personal flying is COST. The next is COST as well. It’s all very well to try and compare the current value of real estate or anything else for that matter with the same thing from the seventies, but the fact of the matter is, the middle income group, both here in Europe as well as in America, is being squeezed so hard that the disposable income for aviation is essentially non-existent.

    I fully expect that in the next 15 to 20 years private flying will be all but extinct. There are many factors that are contributing to this, but cost is by far the greatest, as well as society in general becoming highly risk-averse, add into that the general discouragement given to general aviation at the official levels, at least here in Europe. I can certainly quote from personal experience here. Whilst I was taking my PPL course here in Cyprus, my flight centre ‘suffered’ a surprise audit from the department of Civil Aviation. I overheard one of the auditors, a retired airline captain, mutter that “If I had my way, there’d be no private pilots, they are a damn nuisance!” With attitudes like that at senior levels of the licensing and regulatory agencies, it’s not hard to see why GA is virtually on life support.

    As for the increased sales of high-end aircraft, that is to be expected of the very rich. They, however, are unlikely to become pilots, preferring instead to hire the expertise they require, just as they have always done. Thus, in future, the only pilots will be those either fortunate (?) enough to be employed as a flying chauffeur, or those who fly for the airlines. Even then, the costs of entering this profession are going to be even more astronomical than they are today.

    My flight centre runs an hour-building course for prospective CPL trainees. In the UK the cost of gaining your PPL and then your initial CPL is about 45,000 pounds. That is a hell of a lot of money to have to come up with for any young person, and of the students at my flight centre, the vast majority seem to have well-heeled parents. Of the few that are doing this themselves, they have saddled themselves with an enormous debt that they are unlikely to be able to repay any time soon, such is the paucity of employment prospects.

    Then there are the security implications both by your DHS as well as by our European counterparts. Let’s face it, airports are not very welcoming places. Last week I took my daughter for a flight. The security procedures were, to say the least intimidating, and, turn that around, how would a person who would like to fly even manage to get through the first hurdle? I took my PPL when I retired as during my employment I did not have the time to spend on this. It was only when I retired that I was determined to get my PPL. I called the flight centre and asked about an introductory flight. Despite their best efforts, it took several WEEKS before I was able to gain access to the flight centre for my first flying experience. With that as a dissuader, can you wonder that so few people actually want to take up flying? And, even though I am an accredited pilot attached to the flight centre, the continuing security checks, as well as annual re-validations, serve to further dissuade one from this activity.

    Now, with 90 hours on my logbook, much as I would love to have my own plane, the costs are simply too high. Moreover, even if I had a suitable aircraft, with only a VFR capability the idea of actually travelling anywhere is simply foolish. If I wished to go and see my daughter back in the UK, the time and costs involved in flying from Cyprus to the UK is simply unreasonable. Even allowing for the terrible service of the budget airlines, they are still way more competitive than doing it yourself. No, at least for me, the only reason for continuing is the sheer pleasure of flying itself, not the possibility of using it to travel from A to B. I am considering purchasing a micro-light kit, as that’s about the only way I can continue to fly.

    So, guys, the halcyon days are long gone, GA is essentially on life support, with the increased regulation demanded by both the FAA and the European agencies, and the demand that all aircraft are equipped with expensive additional equipment, I suggest you enjoy what’s left, because it will all end very soon.

    • MikePrevost says:

      … and now for the BAD news…

    • Doyle Frost says:

      Adrian, thank you for your insight, or is it foresight, of what is now here, in the U.S.A.
      I was an airport ground operations supervisor for a closed USAF base. Returning from Florida on 9/11, I found out our field was closed. My flight training was put on hold for another year while the feds tried to determine if a Cessna 150 could carry a large enough bomb to destroy the capital city of this nation, and whether they were ever going to let GA fly again. Finally got my license, and then the county airport was closed, courtesy of local politicians, (it was very GA friendly,) and moved over to the bigger base, (very unfriendly to GA.)
      Now it’s almost impossible to even get near that flightline I’ve known for over fifty years, unless I’m a passenger on some tourist charter flight to Florida or Las Vegas.
      When cost is combined with a very unfriendly political system, I see very little hope for the return of any real GA flying.

  9. Todd Price says:

    As usual Dick Collins has some great thoughts. However, John Zimmerman touched on something I would like to take a bit further: People with wealth don’t fly airplanes themselves anymore, they use things like NetJets.

    Society has drastically changed since General Aviation started and the change constantly accelerates. Media, entertainment, cars, telephones, etc have all morphed into something different. People also live differently: From poor to rich, most everyone exists in a safe, comfortable bubble where they are constantly connected to the other bubbles. When modern people engage in personal travel they expect it to be reliable, smooth, comfortable, safe, air conditioned and easy to use.

    The wealthy guy that might have bought something like a pressurized twin in 1979 is not going to do that today. He will buy into a fractional jet plan so his family can be safe and comfotable and he will get where he is going quickly and very easily. Most succesful people view piston airplanes as the equivalent of antique autos – novelty items for dedicated enthusiasts, not as a practical forms of personal transport.

    In the fast paced 21st century, people even get impatient with modern turbofan aircraft. Anything small, with props, is viewed as a torture chamber. Like it or not, the future of GA will involve wealth, turbines and eventually (as Tom Yarsley reminds us) autonomous control.

  10. Ken says:

    I have introduced numerous people of means and what I have found is people nowdays want things that are quick and easy, Not long, challenging and difficult. A pilot cert gives ample opportunity to quit it’s just plan hard in the beginning.
    In 1979 I think the expectation was nothing is easy and anything worth it’s while takes some effort. Now, I find attitudes are simply different. It used to be the “magic carpet” that was worth the time and expense to partake in… Now it’s just too darn time consuming and difficult. It’s a shame and representive of our populace as a whole. It’s no video game it takes sacrifice and time but to me it was well worth it!

    • phil says:

      How do you explain the 8000 odd vans aircraft RVs finished and the 5000 Rans kits or the 3000 kitfox kits? they are a huge commitment up to 3000 hours and most of the guys that built them have done so in the last 15 years.

  11. phil says:

    If cost really is the factor, can anyone explain to me why so few schools have LSA planes and offer SP certs?

    When arguing cost, consider the case for a scooter as a means of personal transport, cheap form of motorised transport with the same dangers as flying yet not popular! A visit to many Asian cities and see how many people ride them.

    • Tyler says:

      The reason? LSAs are slightly cheaper, they’re not ‘cheap.’ The average person still can’t afford LSAs either.

      Flying really requires $5-$10k a year in disposable income to train/rent/buy, depending on your location. The number of people that can afford that is pretty small.

      Can we lower costs with things like LSA or changing part 23? sure. That’s all Aviation can do as an industry. The part that’s out of our control is the income side- more people need to make more money to be able to afford to fly.

      • phil says:

        This is the sad reality of capitalism, it works for a while then it doesn’t.

      • John Zimmerman says:

        “Flying really requires $5-$10k a year in disposable income to train/rent/buy, depending on your location. The number of people that can afford that is pretty small.”

        I’m not so sure. I see lots of people buying $40,000 cars every few years, lots of kitchen remodels, vacations, etc. The economy is bad, but I still think there’s a lot of people who could pay $5K/year – IF they wanted to. But they don’t.

        Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against less expensive airplanes. $45,000 new 172s would be great for everyone. But I think we hide from the bigger issues by just saying it’s too expensive. It’s a bad value for many people, and that goes deeper than just cost. .

        • Tyler says:

          “I see lots of people buying $40,000 cars every few years, lots of kitchen remodels, vacations, etc. ”

          You’re seeing the small slice of the country that is in the upper income brackets with you. 4/5ths of US households make less than 6 figures. 3/5s make less than $60k. And that’s entire households, not people.

          I doubt many people making a total of $60k between two people with or without kids are buying $40,000 cars.

          Is everyone who can afford to fly, flying? Of course not. You’re never going to get that. Increasing those numbers is doable, but does not deliver that much of a return- you’re looking to grow a slice of a small and shrinking pie.

          There a tons of people that would love to fly that can’t afford it. The only way to fix this is make flying cheaper (which we can, marginally. new single engine piston planes should cost 80-200k. Splitting Part 23 might get us there) or have people make more money. It’s a simple as that.

          We’re currently entering a second gilded age. The income inequality in this country hasn’t been this high since the 30s. All consumer goods industries do way better when there is more people with money to buy. Fewer people with more money don’t make up the consumption- bill gates doesn’t have 150,000 cars or 20,000 boats.

          • John Zimmerman says:

            Tyler, I’ll steer clear of the pure economics debate – there are strong arguments on both sides. The point is, your 4/5ths number is still huge. By my rough math, that means 23 million households earn over $100,000. About 1% of those people are pilots (just guessing). I’m not naive enough to think we can get 50%, but 3% doesn’t seem unreasonable.

            Again, even with rising income inquality, there are literally millions of people who could afford to fly, but they do not. The hard question to ask is: why not?

          • Bob Fry says:

            This. Perfect summation.

  12. Vinton says:

    I learned to fly in 1970 as part of the “Discover Flying” gang that would cut $5 coupons out of Flying magazine for their “1st Lesson in a Cessna”.. I used the coupon numerous times, financed by my paper route earnings, until the FBO reminded me that the coupons were for my “first lesson”, not 20 hours of dual!

    Although I never had enough money to carry on with my instruction then, the sense of wonder was kindled, and I completed my private, instrument, and commercial over the next four decades. I rented for years, partnered in a Cirrus for a few more, and finally purchased my own Cherokee Challenger earlier this year. I couldn’t be happier!

    If I were to suggest anything that might save this business, it would be a marketing effort that would make the cost of that first flight in a GA airplane irresistable to a large segment of our population.

    Further, I would make the first 10 hours of dual no more than $999 in an effort to get more folks to choose aviation, rather than the newest computer or flat screen TV.

    Finally, I would be realistic about what a private airplane can do for a large majority of family guys with a mortgage like me. It is a great way to take your kids, and your friends, for a flight to see the Fall leaves or across town for lunch.

    I think we’re trying to oversell general aviation, at times, to a large majority of average Americans who don’t have the time or the money to use it as a realistic traveling machine.

    Just my thoughts

  13. phil says:

    I’ll give an insight from an Australia perspective, the aviation industry down here is going along ok, we never had the big tax write off in the 1970s that created that big boom in aviation the US had, but we benefit from the cheap planes we can import out of the US now.

    Our aviation market looks a lot like europe, lots of LSA and ultralights planes and RPT uses a lot of turboprops. 80% of the market for flight training is in LSAs. Avgas in europe is $12 a gallon and its $8 in australia. Fortunately most LSAs use rotax which run fine on pump gas. GA lessons are around $250 per hour, so its still cheaper to fly to the US for lessons than learn here.

  14. Gentlemen, we are in a hole and the hole is getting deeper. All this is not new but the concept is worth repeating. From 1980 to 2012 the household median income, adjusted for inflation, increased about 6% ($47,000 to 54,0000) while flight training prices, during the same period, increased approximately 81% ($5,500 to $10,000+). The market is smaller as the price is out of reach for many. This is the conflict causing the decline. The financial disproportion converts into less demand and even higher prices. Since 1980 we have lost over 200,000 pilots, 2,000 flight schools, piston engines and aircraft deliveries have plummeted from 18,000 per year to about 3,000 engines and about 2,000 aircraft. The Big 3, Cirrus and Mooney and others are now smaller and manufacturing control is being allowed to go offshore.

    The pilot decline continues at about 1% per year while businesses keep folding. Our strongest organizations and mayor players in the industry are repelling each other with grandiose projects but no interest in really working together for the revitalization of the industry. There is no agreement or unity in solving the problem – just disconnected talk, we are too damn fragmented. We need new pilots and to encourage those who are not flying to join the ranks again. We need a national youth summer aviation education camp enacted at the majority of GA airports in the land while the “No trespassing” signs are being taken down and improvement a la AOPA are being made.

    Reviving private aviation is energizing commercial aviation, marketing only to the “elitist” is limiting the commercial aviation interests and resources as we need a greater national traffic count and we need an extraordinary effort to do this and now. Hiding our head in the sand and ignoring the decline and its contributing factors has gone far enough.

    Good night Dick, good night John.

  15. Steve Phoenix says:

    The accuracy of a crystal ball is, I believe, directly proportional to the experience of the crystal ball reader. The two Richards (Collins and VanGrunsven) have a lot of experience, so I’m listening.

    If I interpret the musings correctly it is possible that we could see a rebirth but in a much different form. This would not be unprecedented. Aeronca and Piper were formed to sell really inexpensive airplanes, in the midst of a depression, at a time when the established manufacturers were still trying to sell expensive biplanes. I think we may be at the beginning of a similar period in which the established manufacturers can no longer meet the market needs and thus new manufacturers have a chance to come up from below. I would not expect Cessna to be able to meet the current market requirements any more than Boeing could build a small airplane; they are no longer structured for that market. The new airplanes will not resemble Bonanzas or even Cessna 172s; they might be electric powered or something like a Rotax powered (I suspect the Rotax is too expensive). Old legacy airplanes will get really cheap and then get left to rot or be parted out and the survivors will become treasured antiques just like a Staggerwing Beech today. But make no mistake, it will be the new manufacturers out there pushing product in new ways, to new people, that cause the rebirth. No amount of hand wringing and dialogue will do it. As my former boss had engraved above his desk, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something”.

    The largest hinderance to a rebirth is quite clearly the government. The fellow from Cyprus depicts a chilling set of conditions that we must not let happen. The EAA and AOPA should forget Young Eagle flights and flying clubs and just concentrate on what we originally hired them for; keeping the government from adding more restrictions and constantly pushing to improve the existing rules. I sense that the new AOPA president gets it; the EAA is still a bit rudderless.

  16. BDoyle says:

    You need to look at the mean income in the last ten to twenty years vs. cost of aircraft. As example, when I got my ticket in 2000, the cost of a new 172 was around $160,000. Today it is almost double that, but the average mean income is almost constant in the same time period.
    Just about everything cost more now than twenty or thirty years ago, but if the mean income does not increase in the same proportion, or at least close, only those with really large incomes can afford the new aircraft.

  17. Bob Gould says:

    Well Dick, it appears everyone is in agreement concerning the cost of private flying. To add my two cents (it was also 2 cents back in the 1960s, but worth more then);
    Private flying comes down to “love of flying” and disposable income. Disposable income for numerous reasons has been decreasing for the middle class. The real estate comparison in values is true, but over a long duration, home values have increased, but aircraft most usually decrease in value then perhaps level off (excluding the yearly costs). Remember, you cannot live in an airplane! Housing is a necessity. The wealthy 1% are buying the Gulfstreams, Challengers, etc – and they employ professionals to fly them. Its status and business for them, not the love of flying.
    The “love of flying” is now competing with many other personal activities, including generational preferences, and time from the family. Regulations, TSA, costs of instructional, avionics, maintenance, etc all add up. Its not any one reason for the slow demise of small general aviation, but the culmination of many factors all bearing down on our small market niche at one time.
    I have been flying since 1960s, hold an A&P, an MBA, and am now retired and hoping to get back into flying again. I will fly with my limited disposable income when I can, and economically will most likely only rent – not buy!

  18. Bob Fry says:

    I agree with Mr. Collins that cost is not really the factor in GA decline. It may be an excuse, nothing more. One can buy a perfectly usable two-seat older plane now for $20,000. It won’t have the travel utility of the P210 but I’m guessing its relative expense is a lot less than in 1979.

    The definition of middle-class that a friend told me long ago still holds: “You can do anything you want, but not everything.” The middle-class now is choosing to do something else with their excess, but still limited, dollars.

  19. Gary Lanthrum says:

    I’m afraid I have to weigh in against Collins’ argument as well. Yes house prices have gone up outrageously. The sad thing is that incomes haven’t kept pace. Housing costs now consume more of my paycheck than they did in the 70′s and that means I have less money for things like flying. Collins lives in the rare air of the top 1%. All of the economic analyses show that segment of the population has seen gains in personal assets and wealth that have kept up with the cost of living. The middle class that used to be the key supporters of aviation have lost discretionary income over the past 2 decades and that is the real reason flying is too expensive. Given the erosion of wages for middle class workers, flying will have to get cheaper than it was 20-30 years ago to gather an appreciable following in the key demographic that used to support it. The other option is to increase wages for a broader segment of the population, but given the weakness of the economy that isn’t likely.

    The really rich have another challenge and that is time. Flying has always been time consuming – both to get your licenses initially and to remain current once you are licensed. Time is in short supply for everyone these days, so even the folks that can financially afford to become pilots don’t often have the time to spend their money on personal aviation. It is far more economical from a time perspective to fly commercially, or to hire a charter pilot to take you where you want to go when you want to be there.

    The combination of the eroded middle class and the loss of free time do not paint a pretty picture for aviation. For any product to succeed in the marketplace a sufficient consumer base is needed and that doesn’t currently exist for personal aviation.

    Two small things counter this bleak situation. One is the return of flying clubs and expanded opportunities for partnerships and limited liability corporations for personal use of aircraft. Even in the days of more discretionary income, few people fully utilized a personal plane. With only a couple of weeks of vacation per year (back when employees had benefits, most planes spent more time on the ramp than in the air. Downtime can really be hard on engines, so shared ownership can be better for both the owners and the airplane. A 5 way partnership in a 182 was the only thing that has allowed me to stay in the game for many years. Splitting the insurance, hangar, maintenance and other fixed costs actually brought the cost of aircraft ownership back into the realm of the possible. Still, I am a professional with a very good income and benefits(albeit, nowhere near the 1% ranks) and I still had to think long and hard before committing to a share purchase.

    • Tyler says:

      So we talked enough about why it won’t/can’t get better- to John’s point, what about increasing the percentage of pilots among the people who actually can afford it?

      I think two things need to happen- a big increase in the flying club model- Clubs can seriously reduce the money requirements while increasing the community component.

      The second thing- the general aviation industry need a serious upgrade in its operations. Think about the average FBO/Flight School/Instructor/Club a potential pilot interacts with. While there are exceptions, many of them don’t put forward a clean, professional, modern, safe image. While we all know a 1976 172 is pretty much just as safe as a 2010 172, and that most CFIs are professional pilots, they don’t give that image to the potential customer.

      Picture this- you’re a guy in your 30s and you’re finally making some good money. Married, no kids. You’ve always thought about flying and decided you want to look into it. You go on google and search for local flight schools. a couple names come up, and only one has a website, but it looks like it’s from 1997. So you decide to drive to the local airport and you follow the worn-out ‘learn to fly here’ signs which lead you to an FBO which looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 80s. You inquire about lessons and they write down a CFI’s contact info on a piece of paper. You play phone tag with the instructor until you figure out a time to do a discovery flight.
      The CFI takes you around the pattern in a rickety (but airworthy) 172 and then you get back to the airport and you ask him what’s next. He said to go buy a ground school program from King or Sportys and come back after you take your test to begin flying lessons.

      No website, no online scheduling, no coordination between ground school and flight lessons, no interaction with other students.

      While I’m exaggerating a bit here, think about how our hypothetical student interacts with any other company trying to earn his business and get him to make a significant investment of time and money.

      I think FBOs and CFIs need to do a better job of both making a first impression with potential clients as well as taking advantage of much more modern training and scheduling systems.

  20. Todd Price says:

    The “Discover Flying” promotion of the 1970′s was mentioned. I remember “Dandy Don” Meredith doing TV commercials for Cessna with the motto, “whatever you do, you can do it better if you fly.”

    Think about the vast market that this reached during football games and such. There is no type of outreach today (yes, I know it would cost a fortune, and who would pay for it?)

    As some others have stated, I think that we need to focus our energy on the folks that we can recruit: driven people with financial means.

    Another thing that needs to change is the way we present expectations and goals to potential pilots. Aviation media has always made it seem like you need to fly hundreds of hours a year, IFR, in very sophisticated airplanes to be a “real pilot”. Flying, AOPA Pilot and other publications are largely wish books. Aviation dreams and fantasies are important for motivation but after a while the typical private pilot is left feeling like a second class citizen. A short weekend, VFR getaway in a 182 requires lots of skill and training, and the kind of people that are doing it should feel extremely proud. But instead, aviation media constantly celebrates people flying turboprops around the world and internet moguls getting type ratings in light jets.

    Simple, fun flying needs more attention.

    • Adrian Ryan says:

      I have to agree with you, Todd. There have been numerous comments related to all sorts of factors regarding the decline in GA and the number of pilots, but the summation is stark. Today’s financial environment is that the vast majority of the middle-class, from whom we might expect new pilots to emerge, is so fiscally squeezed to meet even the fixed livings costs, that the discretionary income is simply not there to support a high-cost hobby/pursuit such as aviation. It is simply irrelevant to compare costs, incomes, real-estate prices etc, the stark fact of the matter is that in both Europe and America the disposable income fraction has decreased enormously over the last 20 odd years. Faced with increased taxation demands, the austerity caused by the banks fiscal irresponsibility, along with the increased costs of virtually everything, it is no wonder that very few new pilots are emerging.

      Then there is the fact that, and I’m sure to hear a barrage of outrage at this, personal aircraft are simply not a cost-effective means of transportation. If your objective is to get from point A to point B in a reasonable time and comfort, then either the personal automobile or a ticket on a regional or budget airline is the best solution. Therefore, the reason for private flying must surely be simply the fun aspect, and the demonstration that you have indeed achieved a very significant level of skill and competence to even contemplate doing this. I agree with another correspondent, whilst dreams are wonderful motivational exercises, Pilot, AOPA, and the other magazines hardly cater to us the ‘ordinary’ PPL holder, and we quickly see our dreams dashed when we realise that we will never fly a turbo-prop or even a twin. No, I take that back, we are not ordinary individuals, we have shown very high levels of dedication, and motivation just to get a PPL, and somehow that should be recognised, not as I explained in an earlier post where a retired airline captain considered us as damn nuisances!

      As an example of the motivation required, may I take some space to relate my recent experiences? It took three months for me to obtain the necessary pass to even gain access to the flight centre to start my PPL course – how’s that for a dissuader! The aircraft I trained in was a 40 year old Cessna 150. Whilst mechanically reasonably sound, its interior was, shall we say scruffy? The trim was falling off the door, my door could not be opened from the inside, the latch mechanism was faulty. The PTT switch on the yoke was highly intermittent, and many times ATC could not understand my transmissions. It took more than a month of lessons twice a week before the flight centre would listen to my complaints. I am a retired communication systems engineer, quite apart from being a licenced radio amateur, I know when the radio is not working! Finally their avionics tech took a reluctant look and found that the microphone screen connection on my side was broken, and the headphone socket had an open connection as well – and all the time I was told it was my headset – a brand-new Sennheiser noise cancelling headset! The PTT switch was the wrong type. The radio used logic-level switching, and the currents involved were only a few milliamperes. I went and purchased the correct type for this application, but it still took them more than 6 months of constant badgering and pestering before they changed the switch, after which everything worked properly. At least I did receive an apology, and my comments were taken more seriously. On my cross-country solo, the artificial horizon tumbled and failed. It had also done this on my first solo and I’d been badgering them about it for weeks that it needed replacing. I was told, “Well, you don’t actually need it, you know.” The trim around the windscreen was falling apart, and they eventually replaced it. Only now they had damaged the flap indicator pointer such that I could no longer see the actual flap extension. I was told to simply count the number of seconds I held the flap switch down or else try and visually estimate the amount of flap extension by looking out of the cabin window. When it came to my flight test, they had still not fixed the flap indicator, and I had to explain to the examiner that I could not see the flap extension from my seat. He did agree that was not really satisfactory, but said that he would tell me how much the flaps were extended as he could see from the right-hand seat the remnants of the pointer behind the trim. I think I demonstrated determination and motivation above and beyond that normally required to grit my teeth and continue, and I eventually passed all my exams and my flight test and was complimented on my greased landings. But considering how much this all cost, how many others would simply have walked away. The security aspects are now such that a prospective pilot cannot actually walk in off the street, so to speak, and even enquire about the means of getting a licence. So, with flight centres such as one here where the paint is peeling off the door, and the windows are dirty, the curtains faded and moth-eaten, with no walk-in facilities, is it any wonder that the numbers are decreasing?

      And finally I agree wholeheartedly with Todd, we neeed to revive the fun aspect, and to find a way to bring affordable fun, recreational aircraft to the market, and to vastly improve the image and facilities if we are ever going to attract customers, either that or we simply accept that flying will be the province of the extremely wealthy, and the best us lesser mortals can home for is Microsoft’s Flight Simulator!

    • Todd Price says:

      Note to Richard Collins: I was not referring to you when I mentioned aviation media. I stand by my statement – I think many private pilots want more information that relates to basic flying. However, I personally enjoy reading anything written by Richard Collins. Your old Flying Magazine pilot reports on business aircraft were great; so informative yet so readable. And of course, your expertise of WX and IFR operations always left the reader better informed.

      Thanks for all that – keep it coming!!

  21. RobertL says:

    I was surprised at the 140 knot cut off and Dick Collins using the P210 as a comparison. In the 1970s Dick Collins also used a 172 for practical IFR, and a comparison with the current 172 (safer, better engine) would have made more sense. If Cessna was selling 2,000 172s today (probably a modest replacement ratio for the FG four seat fleet), and this resulted in a price closer to $300k we might be in a more realistic comparison with the 1970s. Practical, reasonable economics GA with reasonable safety (the 172 used to boast an accident rate one third of the SE fleet) should be the industry objective. If we want pseudo/wannabe turbine equipment (eg the P210) go South West or Ryanair for one hundredth of the cost.

    • Dick Collins says:

      Surprised, Robert? Let’s see, I flew the P210 for 28 years and the Skyhawk for just two (1974-1976).

  22. RobertL says:

    Dick thanks for the reply. The persistent accident rate for more complex GA operated outside a business/charter flight department, makes for bad economics. This is in spite of the great progress in avionics, weather data, traffic awareness, ground proximity warning, improved crashworthiness and engine management technology.

    That’s why I mentioned your two years in a 172 (although I thought it was longer). This type of aircraft (and I would include other typical benign FG simple SEP aircraft), albeit on a limited mission (light IFR and VFR with distances of around 300 nm), appears to have both a substantial safety edge and still stand up to economic scrutiny with the 1970′s. Generally the training industry also appears to do a good job of producing pilots to perform safely in this type of aircraft.

    I believe you may have written a comparison of accident rates between the P210 and say a 172 back in the 1970′s, and commented that the former was a multiple of the latter. Unless long term GA accident rates are more in line with 172 type aircraft the economics will remain challenging, and a return to volume production unlikely.

  23. Dick, I agree with RobertL. Also the Private Pilot Chart you featured stopped at 2009. Since then there has been an additional 11.1% reduction as listed in the FAA statistics. The numbers are now down to less than 188,000 private pilots. Ain’t no sunshine…

  24. Matt E says:

    There are some interesting insights in this article and the comment thread that follows and I can understand where most everyone is coming from, but I think the cost issue is more of a convenient scapegoat. Sure aircraft and flying can be very expensive, but I don’t think $5000 dollar 172s and $1 a gallon avgas would bring back the halcyon days for which we’ve been collectively pining.

    There are lots of factors at play (unfriendly regulatory environment, too few customers, etc.), but I think the one that has the potential to make a big change with little cost/effort is the way flying is marketed. For example, can anyone explain to me why my November 2013 AOPA Pilot cover features a jet that costs $50,000,000+, which the average pilot is unlikely to see let alone fly? Sure it’s sexy and who wouldn’t like such a plane, but it really doesn’t resonate with someone who’s just struggling to eke out a short hop in a 30 year old 172.

    When I read these “wish books,” as one commenter so aptly put it, I’m struck by the realization that my sincerest hope is to live in the fantasy land into which these writers are offering a peek. This is not to say they shouldn’t promote these aircraft or take money from willing advertisers, but someone needs to also show the kind of every-man aviation that is just as exciting and magical. The kind of aviation that is filled with “normal” people who are currently derogatorily lumped in with CEOs jetting around in private jets as “1%-ers” when the average non-aviator talks about pilots. The fact of the matter is, even among aircraft owners I bet there are more people of low to middling income than truly “rich” guys.

    The compounding factor here is the disparity between the shiny, new world of magazines and the inexcusably dirty real world. The glossies hook you with their profiles of sexy new planes and Cessna has you sold on the “convenience” of a new TTX, but the reality sinks in when you learn the $500 you can spare this month will get you 3 hours flying a 152 in embarrassing shape with an aloof instructor. It’s that point when you lose sight of the value of the thing and just drop out.

    Elimination of that compounding factor is where I think the biggest gains can be made. If we work as a collective to eradicate the poor face of entry-level aviation (poorly-kept rental planes, bad flight schools, bad instructors, unfriendly airports, etc.) and heap a little good press on the “little people,” then at the very least we might cut down on the high levels of drop-outs.

  25. Matt E: We were doing alright until the “aloof instructor” and other unwarranted comments about flight schools. The flight instruction core is undervalued – there is no need to berate it as the erosion caused by the on-going state of GA is bad enough. AOPA and others individuals in the media continue harping on this, it is unfounded criticism; it is an insult not a fact in the GA decline. I similarly believe that intolerance is quite unnecessary and harmful. In solving problems focusing on solutions tends to be much faster and more productive. Have a good day.

    • Matt E says:

      I agree that flight instruction is undervalued, but I don’t find my comments unwarranted in the least nor do I feel I “berated” it as the cause of the current state of GA. The fact is, because I hear it regularly from other pilots NOT AOPA/media, there are flight schools/instructors that need to be taken to task for their aviation-unfriendly practices (poorly-maintained trainers, difficult instructors, etc).

      This most certainly is a factor in, but not THE factor causing GA’s decline(there is no such thing); fixing this (which admittedly is likely a smaller issue than some let on) may only cause a small uptick in people sticking around, but it is something that pilots, flight schools, and instructors can easily fix with very little effort and investment. In this particular case intolerance is the solution–those in the flight training industry must simply be intolerant of bad planes, bad instructors, and bad schools. Otherwise, we will continue to see a growing number of people with stories like Tyler or Adrian Ryan–the kind where it’s a miracle they stuck around.

      How that intolerance manifests itself needn’t be something negative. It’s easy for pilots and instructors to ensure that aircraft are clean and well-maintained. It’s similarly easy for flight schools to work together with FBOs to host events to foster a sense of community (among pilots, potential pilots, and anyone) and get people out to the airport. Honestly, when it comes down to it, though you’ve written off my comment as an attack on flight training, what I’m saying is fix it by not undervaluing it. Take pride in the 40 year-old 172, Take pride in being an instructor. Most of all take pride in being the lowly private pilot, sport pilot, or student pilot.

  26. David says:

    I don’t think we should talk about “flying” as a monolithic entity and therefore I don’t agree that “flying” should be marketed to elites only.

    As with most any market there is the low, middle, and high end. Compare to say golf, or boating – there is a world of difference between going to the driving range vs being a member of a posh country club. The only thing common to different segments of the flying market is the cost of getting the licence itself. Ironically those who are wealthy enough to avoid the confines of a day job will probably spend the least money acquiring the licence.

    On the highest dollar echelon of private flying you have people who hire crew for their jets. (i.e.: the NetJets crowd) I exclude them from this discussion as these people are not interested in aviation except as a means of convenience.

    Then you have similarly moneyed people who are actually interested in aviation and can shell out the time and money for their own 500 000$ new plane. I’m sure Dick’s challenge of “Do you have what it takes to be a good pilot and are you successful enough to afford flying?” can appeal to them. These people also have the time and money to remain safely current on their instrument ratings if they need to, making a personal plane practical for personal transport. These people expect polished customer service, nice trainers, nice school facilities. If you want to attract these people to flying clubs to share a Cessna TTX or something the clubs would do well to mimic country clubs with nice social facilities and a bit of panache. WIth nice social facilities you have also have “flying” members and “non-flying” members to spread the costs out even more.

    Below that time and money bracket you have those people who do not have the time and money to use flying as personal transportation. Even if they get that instrument rating they don’t have the time / money to remain safely current. They have a lot of money but perhaps inflexible schedules. Maybe they can join a flying club that has more affordable aircraft, like a light sport or a 172. These people are those which can take a long trip so as long as the weather is good enough over a weekend to make it back in time for a Monday morning meeting. Joining a club-organized trip might be a good option for these people.

    Here’s the competition in my area for your average well-off: A local country club in my area charges a $20 000 initiation fee, with $5000 annual fee and annual $1200 food / beverage spend. Of course, they also offer a nice golf course and nice looking clubhouse and the opportunity to rub shoulders with other moneyed locals. For that annual money ($6200) you could rent a 172 for 40 hours a year – not bad. Assuming you spend $12 000 on your PPL (“Initiation” fee) that $8 000 to spend on the club itself for decent lounge.

    Perhaps on the lowest end you have those who managed to get a licence but can’t spare the time or money to actually participate in flying afterwards. Although this an undesirable situation the fact is that getting the licence itself is an extremely rewarding experience for people, and just having that card or book in hand produces an enormous amount of satisfaction.

    We need to recognize that the golden age of GA was a combination of cheap gas, cheap pilot training (GI Bill), and regulated airlines that made GA flying as personal transport competitive. None of those factors are true anymore. GA will decline in its current state until a lot of the old baggage is dead (100LL, barely airworthy trainers, etc) From this death I think a new era will rise of highly efficient small airplanes running diesel or mogas. Flying for personal transport is a non-starter except for the very wealthy, but flying as an enjoyable social hobby for the rest of us has a bright future. The only risk during the decline is that regulators decide that GA is too much trouble and regulate it out of existence. We must be on guard for that.

    My recommendations:

    Grow the mid-low end pilot population by encouraging parents to put their kids in flying as a character building exercise, as an alternative or complement to sports. School boards can help by recognizing pilot training as acceptable for high school credits, for example. (There are plenty of scientific topics in ground school.)

    Grow the upper end of the pilot population with the challenge that Dick proposed with polished training experiences.

    For the mid-low market, forget about people buying a one-owner aircraft. Manufacturers and dealers should work to put together partnerships for both new and used aircraft.

    Flight schools and flying clubs should of course work to make their schools and airports people friendly.

    People will always want to fly, its only the economics have changed. We are going through a dark period of creative destruction but bright days can be ahead.

  27. David, you have a good and well presented strategy. Thanks for working on the solution.

  28. Matt P says:

    First, I’d like to caution anyone who would use Zillow’s real estate prices as a good indicator of the rate of general inflation. They are notoriously inaccurate. I looked up my house there and it is at least 25% overvalued. Another thing to consider is that inflation does not affect everything at the same rate. Over the last 30 years, medical costs have gone out of sight, and education and real estate prices have increased much faster than the rate of overall inflation, while most manufactured goods are cheaper. (Airplanes, not so much) Another thing to consider when looking at a household’s budget is that some expenses that were common 30 years ago are different, while others have greatly increased. It used to be a fair proportion of jobs had pensions, which now is unusual. When I look at my paycheck, the first line of deductions is six percent for my retirement account. My father didn’t have to do that. Also, with so many households having two earners, many budgets are strained with childcare expenses, something that was rare when I was growing up.

    Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you about myself. I was born in the late 50′s, my dad was a Korean war vet, and flew as a radio operator in B-29′s. Shortly after his enlistment was up, he bought an Ercoupe, flying out of what was then called Orchard Field. (You’d now know it as O’Hare International Airport). he flew it for a few years, and sold it shortly before he married my mother. He advanced from a blue collar position into sales, and was given the opportunity to buy into the company he worked for. The company thrived during the 60′s, and was ultimately sold to a conglomerate, at which time he took his share and bought two small businesses.

    Towards the end of the sixties, he got back into aviation,and in 1971 bought a new Skylane. If I remember correctly, the airplane was $20,000, and he added $5000 of avionics. He kept if for about three years, and sold it because it wasn’t getting flown enough. Naturally, I was interested in aviation as well, and I got my license when I was in my early 20′s. My father bought a used Skyhawk shortly after, and I had use of it, but I found myself flying less and less. While general aviation is a really neat way to travel, I just didn’t have anywhere to go and didn’t find flying locally was all that interesting. My father found himself in the same situation, and eventually sold the Skyhawk.

    I do have one last bit of personal aviation history. I started hang gliding about seven years ago, and flew gliders for five years. Eventually, the combination of these extremely variable Eastern conditions, and family and work obligations cut my flying time down so much that I didn’t feel safe, and stopped.

    Having said all that, I would now like tell you what I think ails general aviation: For the vast majority of us in North America, general aviation is a product in search of an application. In other words, most of us have no need for it. Let me explain.

    First off, when many of us talk of flying, we talk of it as it is the most compelling thing on earth, and it may very well be for some of us, but it isn’t for all that many. If it were that compelling, the dropout rate wouldn’t be so high. People would do all sort of things to keep flying, but for most of us, including me, that wasn’t the case. When my dad bought the Skyhawk, I was dispatched to go get it. I thought that was an awesome adventure, but flying around the local area, well, one of my hang gliding buddies, who was also a former GA pilot, likened it to driving your car at 35 mph on a straight road. Look at Richard’s experience, his interest was flying the airplane for transportation purposes in all weather conditions, and when he felt he could no longer do that, he hung up his headset. Go to Barnstormers, and look up some ads for fly for fun airplanes. Most of them are lucky to fly 40 or 50 hours per year.

    Second issue: For most of us, a GA airplane has has limited transportation utility. If the trip is less than 250 miles, it’s usually faster to drive, and if the trip’s more than 500 miles, it’s usually better to fly commercially. Let me list the trips I’ve made this year: Atlanta to Nashville for a football game in January, Atlanta to Phoenix in April for a week, Atlanta to central Florida in June for four days, Atlanta to Virginia for a family visit, and an upcoming trip to Savannah for a half marathon.

    First, let me examine the Nashville trip. The day was solid overcast, with a little bit of snow in Nashville. It was definitely solid IFR all the way, and could possibly have been below minimums in Nashville. I also think ice would have been a possibility, so it would have taken a very capable pilot and airplane to make that trip. Also, I said that GA was a neat means of travel, but not everyone would feel that way. One such person, I suspect, would be my wife. Think about the user experience for her. We’d get in the car, drive 20 minutes to the airport, wait in the car for 10 or 15 minutes to get the airplane out, then get into a cold airplane, sit for 10 minutes until oil temperature came up, five minutes to taxi, and then get underway. In any aircraft I could hope to afford to operate, figure two hours from takeoff to touchdown, then another 20 minutes or so to get the airplane tied down and to wait for a taxi, then a 15 minute taxi ride, for a total time of 3:20. It took 3:45 to drive there, including a potty break. Think about the flight from a passenger’s perspective. Most if not all would be in cloud, may have been bumpy as well. Airplanes are cramped and noisy, and don’t feel substantial. From my wife’s perspective, she’d much rather drive.

    Let me tell you about the other trips. Arizona is too far to fly GA, it would take two days each way, much better to fly commercially. The trip to central Florida could have been flown, first leg from Atlanta to Hernando County airport, get a rental car (not sure where, there would be none on airport and it’s not that close to a town that would have them), return the car, hop from there to PIE, get a cab to the hotel, and ultimately back to PIE, then to home. On that trip, you’d save a couple of hours on the Atlanta – Florida legs, and probably give one back on the short hop. On the trip to Virginia, we usually have five people, a dog, about 150lbs of luggage including a wakeboard, and another 100 lbs of food and beverages. There’s no aircraft I could afford to operate that could carry all that. And, it’s close to an hour to the nearest airport from our destination. Atlanta to Savannah might be doable, depending on the weather, but it’s only a 4.5 hour drive, and the time saving point to point would be less than an hour on each leg.

    I realize not everyone lives where I do, and there certainly are people in the less populous areas of North America who don’t have such convenient roads and commercial air travel, but there aren’t that many who have the need and desire (and means) to fly GA. So, gentlemen, that is what I believe is the crux of the matter, that for most of us the transportation utility of GA is not that great.

    Think back to the mid 50′s. There were no interstates, the country was much less populated, and commercial air travel was sparse and expensive. At that time, GA would have seemed like a wonderful dream, but like many dreams, it is better as a dream than it is in reality. That was also a time when operating a vehicle was one of the cooler things someone could do. Now, it’s not a big deal. When my father learned to fly, being a pilot was something like being an astronaut would have been during the 60′s. Nowadays, I’m afraid aviation has no cachet, it is what the French would call a fait accompli, and is taken for granted.

    So, what we’re looking for are men who are in the top five percent income bracket, who need to frequently travel somewhere that’s 250-500 miles away, and have an interest in aviation. I’m sure there are some out there, but there can’t be all that many, and therein lies the problem.

    • Tom Yarsley says:

      Thanks for an excellent explanation of why we’re where we are. As I read your trip analysis, I couldn’t help but think “what this guy needs is a Cirrus SF-50 jet, equipped with an autonomous control system. And nine other guys to share it with.” Or twenty other guys. How many hours per 8,766-hour year do most one-owner airplanes really fly? Fifty? Fewer? A whole lot of pilots can share an airplane, and still have all of the access that they need – with more left over. What we need is a NetJets-like scheme for the little guys. The biggest impediment to that is the perceived (or actual) quality of the owner-pilots. The only promising remedy for that is autonomous control systems. When they arrive, the share-owners no longer will have to be pilots – and the potential marketplace will expand 1,000-fold.

  29. Adrian Ryan says:

    Oh dear, once again we have the spectre of fully autonomous aircraft. As a (now retired) computer systems engineer, I have been writing high-reliability software for more than 40 years, and we still cannot do it. We are already inured to the Windows O/S requiring almost daily updates because yet another bug has been found. We’ve had this O/S now for more than 20 years – you would think that Microsoft could now produce a version that is bug-free, but, no, every few years they trot out another version that’s a triumph of fashion over function, and is as infested with these pests at its predecessor.

    Now consider the reliability of computer systems. Typical hardware reliability is measured in tens or even hundreds of thousands of hours mean time between failures. How often do you have to re-boot your computer system? Typically several times a week. In other words, an MTBF of a few tens of hours. Are you REALLY ready to entrust your life to a computerised aircraft without being a pilot who could take control when the inevitable happens? We have already seen several examples of what happens when we have too much cockpit automation, think what it might be like if we have total automation. The best Cray supercomputer does not even have the intelligence of a cockroach! If we are going to utilise cars, busses, trains, and planes as transportation systems, then you must have a human being in the control loop somewhere so that when all else fails this sentient being can use his/her skill and intelligence to do something. Unless and until we can develop at least semi-sentient machines, then the algorithmic procedural machines we use today are never going to do the job for us. I realise that senior people are dreaming of fully automated systems and thereby eliminating the human being and achieving ultimate safety – it’s a chimera. Do you seriously think that if we had total automation that there would never be another person hurt, much less killed because there would never be another accident? Seriously? Air travel today is about as safe as it’s ever going to be, we might manage to make some minor improvements, but a quantum improvement? Not likely.

    And, finally, the economies of scale apply. If you wish to conveniently get from point A to point B and have no interest in actually doing the flying yourself, then commercial aviation is WAY cheaper and more convenient. Small aircraft are simply uneconomical when viewed in this light – the only reason for using them is the fun factor. So let’s try and put the fun back into flying, please?

    • Tom Yarsley says:

      Adrian:

      Your image of a Windows PC connected to an aircraft’s servos is (purposefully?) far removed from reality. Mission-critical control systems bear little resemblance to commercial general-purpose computers – both PCs and Mainframes.

      “Are you REALLY ready to entrust your life to a computerized aircraft without being a pilot who could take control when the inevitable happens?” Yes. Really. We already trust computers to fly us around – even when we think that “we’re in control.” Fly-by-wire control systems ended that argument long ago. Apparently, high-end executives aren’t worried that someone is going to have to re-boot their G-650 before landing.

      “Do you seriously think that if we had total automation that there would never be another person hurt, much less killed because there would never be another accident?” No. I believe that the number of accidents would be reduced by only about 90%. Obviously not worth the ego-offending effort.

      “Unless and until we can develop at least semi-sentient machines, then the algorithmic procedural machines we use today are never going to do the job for us.” Not at all. Considered hierarchically, the task isn’t as complex as you like to imagine it is.

      “We have already seen several examples of what happens when we have too much cockpit automation, think what it might be like if we have total automation.” Apples and oranges. Autonomous control systems bear little resemblance to systems that are designed for human participation/intervention.

      “The best Cray supercomputer does not even have the intelligence of a cockroach!” True, but irrelevant. Intelligence is not needed to execute this task. Look no further than existing autonomous military aircraft and Google cars to see evidence.

      I don’t want to deny you or anyone else their fun hand-flying. But the future of aviation for the masses lies in autonomous vehicles. The time will come when this will look like a conversation about the relative virtues of manual and automatic transmissions. Virtue aside, neither represents a threat to the other. And autonomous airplanes will not comprise a threat to your ability to enjoy fun flying. Really.

  30. Adrian Ryan says:

    Hi, Tom,
    Thank you for putting the other side of this debate. I will admit that I was deliberately trying to provoke a response, and I’m glad that someone ‘rose to the bait’ as it were.

    Whilst I take many of your points, I disagree that 90% of the accidents will be eliminated. I do not think it will be very much safer, but, only time will tell. However, if you are going to eliminate the human in the vehicle, then I think you would agree that we will also have to eliminate the human in the traffic control side as well. This is all going to take a lot of time and money, and I wonder if at the end of it there will be any improvement or whether we have simply swapped one fallible system for another, albeit with different fallibilities. And one we have a fully automated ATC dealing with fully autonomous aircraft, where will we, the hand-flyers be left?

    But, again, thanks for your reply, I was hoping to spark a debate on this. Regards, Adrian

  31. Tom Yarsley says:

    Hey, Adrian.

    The direction in which our fearless leaders are taking ATC reminds me of the man who wanted to buy a suit with two pairs of pants. The tailor was more than happy to oblige, but curious. “Why do you want a second pair of pants?” The customer replied: “In case I tear a hole in the knee of one, I’ll be able to cut up the other pair, to make a patch.”

    In a world of widespread automation, hand-flyers will have less to fear than they do now – because deviations will be far less frequent. If I were King, I’d permit use of Mode-S to allow aircraft to share their intentions and requests – not just their position in the universe. Within guidelines/constraints imposed by the rules, autonomous vehicles could “work it out and let everyone know.” Hand-flown vehicles could pass their requests to ATC, which would act as their proxy autonomous negotiator. The result of the negotiations would be conveyed to the hand-flyers by ATC, as a clearance – via radio, text messages, or smoke signals.

    But I ain’t King, so we’ll just have to deal with what our resident geniuses give us.

    “However, if you are going to eliminate the human in the vehicle, then I think you would agree that we will also have to eliminate the human in the traffic control side as well.”

    Not to be disagreeable, but no – by definition, autonomous vehicles can do their thing in the total absence of ATC, so automating ATC for their benefit is unnecessary.

    Regarding accident-reduction, most GA accidents are caused by human error that’s comprised of some combination of ignorance (“I didn’t know there was a rock inside that cloud”) and stupidity (“I hope I have enough fuel to skip this stop”). Excepting mechanical failures and pilot incapacitation, somewhere along the chain of events leading to the accident, one or more rules gets broken. As you know, one feature of software is that it never breaks the rules. And really good rules can be composed and tested in comfort and safety, and with resort to limitless expert help. And expansions of our collective knowledge can be distributed for the immediate benefit of all. No more “newbies.”

  32. The match is getting good. Adrian 40, Tom 30.

  33. Jon Brooks says:

    I am 74 … and … “soloed ” … not long ago ….. I fly a trike … a motorized hang glider ….. I take off … fly around … and … land …..

    I fly a 103 legal ultralight … pretty much totally off the FAA radar screen ….. I have a landing strip on my farm … and … hanger my trike in my barn ….. I enjoy my dawn/dusk flights around my neighborhood … lovely way to keep up on local happenings …..

    The thrill of flight can happen at any age … and … relatively speaking … on the cheap …..

    Jon