Can aviation adapt?
“It’s too expensive, too difficult, too time-consuming, too exclusive and too environmentally harmful. Other than that I like it a lot.” Sound familiar? This description could easily apply to general aviation, but my friend was actually talking about golf.
The conversation had started innocuously enough, just two friends catching up on kids, work and hobbies. When I asked how many rounds of golf he had played in the past year, the once-avid hacker admitted he had only made it out for a single 9-hole round. This led to a rant about the declining popularity of golf and how it’s out of touch with modern life.
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future of general aviation, this criticism hit home for me. After all, golf and flying share a lot in common: a reputation as an expensive leisure activity, a mid- to late 20th century boom, a significant decline over the past decade and a search for relevance among a new generation.
There’s no point dwelling on the statistics, but a few are important to set the stage. The FAA estimates that active general aviation pilots are down by about 25% over the last 10 years, while general aviation airplane deliveries are down 60% from the 2006 peak (the numbers compared to the late 70s are far, far worse). Golf’s decline isn’t quite as dramatic, but it’s still pretty bleak: regular golfers are down about 20% over the last 10 years, the ones who are still active are playing fewer rounds, and golf courses are closing at a rate that makes airports look healthy.
The natural response from both industries has been to target youth with formal programs. Aviation has Young Eagles and the Next Step program; golf has The First Tee, which pursues “positive youth development through the game of golf.” These are good organizations that help plant the seed with kids, but they’re only a start. No matter how many people are welcomed in the front door, they will only stay active if they like what they find once inside. A more comprehensive approach to the problem has to acknowledge the cultural changes.
Which brings us to the comment about being out of touch. Golf clearly has a mismatch between its offering and many consumers’ expectations in 2015. What can pilots learn from this? Other than the stereotype about rich white guys being the only participants, are there similarities that are instructive?
An honest assessment has to at least consider all five complaints my friend made.
The usual suspect
Discussions about growing participation in aviation usually start (and sometimes end) with, “It’s just too expensive these days.” Golf clubs hear the same complaint, but while both golf and flying are certainly expensive, the problem is deeper than just the size of checks participants have to write. The real issue is value for money. Is the benefit worth the significant cost?
Light Sport Aircraft was an attempt to fix the value problem, and while it has lowered the cost compared to traditional new airplanes, it does not address the benefit side of the equation. You pay less, but you also get less – less room, less performance, and less reliability in some cases. Perhaps learning this lesson, the general aviation industry now seems to be focused on two new avenues for reducing the expense without changing what we fly: refurbished older airplanes and flying clubs.
Refurbished airplanes (like AOPA’s 152 Reimagined project and Sporty’s 172 LITE, among others) acknowledge the numbers involved: 133,614 general aviation airplanes were delivered in the 1970s, but just 29,293 were delivered in the last 10 years (and many of those were business jets). The majority of the GA fleet is over 40 years old, and will only grow older for years to come, so any attempt at scale must include these older airplanes. These refurbs aren’t much less expensive than LSAs, but they typically don’t include the same performance tradeoffs.
Flying clubs are another route, one that is particularly attractive for new pilots. A good club usually offers an economical way to earn a license, with the additional benefit of a built-in social support network. I think the focus on flying clubs is smart, but two lessons from golf are worth considering here. First, good clubs are powerful positive forces for participation and are actually as strong as ever, but bad clubs can ruin a person’s interest in the activity forever. Starting flying clubs isn’t enough; they have to be well run and built for the long term.
Secondly, many golf clubs are addressing the cost issue by offering “lifestyle memberships” that allow younger people to join clubs for very little money in their 20s and 30s, but then increase fees as members get older (and theoretically have more money and time to use it). Could this work for aviation, where a 30-year old new pilot pays a subsidized membership rate for a few years?
Two complaints we ignore
If the expense of aviation gets a lot of attention, the issues of exclusivity and environmental damage get almost none. Even mentioning such topics will probably elicit eye rolls from some readers, but we do ourselves a disservice if we keep our head in the sand. The fact is, America is an increasingly diverse place: whites now make up 63% of the population, down from 80% in 1980. The role of women in society has also changed pretty radically since Cessna was building thousands of Skyhawks and Augusta National was for men only. Such trends are only accelerating. If our target market in 2030 is white men, we will be ignoring a huge segment of the population.
An important lesson the golf industry has learned is that eliminating the reputation for exclusivity means more than just admitting a few black members. It also means welcoming women and even families as a whole. Some of the most successful golf courses now sell themselves as getaways for the entire family – a shocking change for some men who are used to the golf course being their four-hour escape from fatherhood. A few airports are shining examples of this new approach, but most are not.
Likewise, complaints about environmental damage may seem to pale in comparison to issues of cost, but it’s an issue we as an industry need to at least acknowledge. No matter what your personal opinion is about climate change, potential pilots’ perception is our reality. And the perception among people under age 40 (not to mention those under 20) is that environmental considerations matter a lot. Golf courses are now expected to use dramatically less water, hence the rise of natural (read: brown) courses. In aviation, leaded fuel isn’t exactly great for public perception.
What really matters
Expense. Exclusivity. Environment. These are big issues with no easy answers. Two final complaints may not be easy to solve either, but they are a little less daunting: golf and flying take too much time and are too difficult. Merely the complaints of a spoiled, lazy generation you say? Perhaps. But consider a few cultural trends.
The time-consuming part, in particular, is massively under appreciated. Part of the issue is the increasing number of dual income households and the creeping pull of work outside “normal” business hours. The weekend is no longer reserved for leisure. Combine this with the accelerating trend of couples having children later in life – and yet simultaneously wanting to spend more time with their little devils – and it’s easy to see why time has become the ultimate luxury product.
A recent study sums it up well: “Of full-time working parents, 39 percent of mothers and 50 percent of fathers say they feel as if they spend too little time with their children. Fifty-nine percent of full-time working mothers say they don’t have enough leisure time, and more than half of working fathers say the same. Of parents with college degrees, 65 percent said they found it difficult to balance job and family.” Where does flying fit in there?
Another element is less practical and more psychological: our attention spans are getting shorter, and we expect instant results. Look at the average length of online articles, where “snackable stories” and short quizzes dominate (yes, we love breaking that trend at Air Facts). Aviation and golf are selling fine dining in an era of fast casual, eight-course French meals in the age of Chipotle.
Golf’s response has been the “time for nine” campaign that encourages golfers to play nine holes instead of the more leisurely 18-hole afternoon. Attempts to make golf clubs more family friendly have also had some effect, by offering activities besides the traditional golf outing. One club boasts that it will become “a health-and-wellness center that just happens to include a golf course.” Are airports ready to make that kind of seismic shift, where flying is only part of the puzzle? The quality of most FBO coffee certainly isn’t encouraging.
Another, more important, reason flying is too time-consuming for people with a Sesame Street attention span is that it takes so long to earn a license. With an iPad and a month of hard work, you can learn to write software or speak Chinese; flight training offers no such quick rewards. Modular flight training is part of the answer, because it redefines the flight training goal from the Private Pilot certificate to a number of stepping stones, like the first solo, Recreational certificate and then finally the Private. It may still take 60 hours of flight training, but if there are intermediate successes, it feels a little less impossible.
Here’s where the complaint about flying being too difficult comes into play. If something is hard, it takes longer to learn it, longer to do it, and longer to stay current. Golf has launched the “Tee it Forward” movement to encourage players to use tees closer to the hole and thus make it easier to play well – and quickly. There’s even a Hack Golf organization that is looking at the entire process of playing golf and trying to improve the most difficult areas. Some of their proposals are downright heretical, like playing golf by kicking the ball or dramatically increasing the size of the holes.
Aviation may have to consider some radical ideas too, but a few “Hack Flying” ideas are already among us: Garmin’s Electronic Stability and Protection system that gently pushes the controls back if the pilot banks too far, Icon’s virtually stall-proof wing design, and new Rotax engines that start almost like a car engine instead of the typical 1950s engine design. Even basic things like Cirrus’s decision to use fixed gear and no separate propeller lever can make a difference. None of these make flying a walk in the park – and we probably don’t want to make it so – but they at least add in some safety margins for the non-professional pilot. It’s worth considering what might some other Hack Flying ideas look like.
The “it’s too hard” topic is one where purists hate to cede ground: the challenge of flying is exactly what makes it so rewarding, they say. I agree with that, but only up to a point. There will always be craftsmen and sailors, just as there will always be pilots who like to hand-prop a radial engine and land tailwheel airplanes. But most people want furniture that’s fully assembled and powerboats, and I suspect most pilots want airplanes that are reliable and easy to fly too. Cirrus and Icon have proven that people – many with no aviation background at all – will pay a lot of money for easier-to-fly airplanes.
Besides, flying even the easiest airplane today is still a major accomplishment. A pilot who keeps the needles crossed on his G1000 and breaks out at 200 ft. above the runway probably doesn’t feel any less pride than a pilot of 60 years ago who used a four-course range and a whiskey compass.
Some good news?
On the surface, all of these complaints bode ill for aviation’s future, suggesting a cultural mismatch at least as significant as golf. It’s not all bad news, though. Another defining characteristic of modern consumers is their focus on experiences instead of stuff. While the talk of a “post-consumer mindset” is seriously overblown, there is a discernible trend towards spending money on things to do instead of another shirt or a new car.
Aviation can win with this crowd, because it really is about the experience of being in the air, in command of an airplane. It’s not a thing, but a feeling – one that can be enjoyed before, during and after the actual event. This is especially true if flying enables other experiences like vacations or unique business trips, and even more so if it welcomes friends along for the ride.
The focus on flying as an experience brings up one final question, perhaps the most important one of all: what does it mean to be a pilot?
Golf is asking that same question about itself, because the most successful golf course in America right now isn’t even a course. TopGolf, a chain of urban driving ranges that includes glitzy bars right next to the tees, promises “Golf skills are definitely not required to have fun.” Besides being easy and fast (it has a unique scoring system and no putting), participants can play any time of day and in any weather, with a fancy drink close by. It may sound crazy to a traditional country club golfer, but it’s also wildly popular, especially with younger people.
The aviation parallels are obvious: is being a pilot all about time spent in the left seat? Or do airport-based social activities count too? How about flying a simulator? A drone? Are these diversions from the true meaning of pilot, or a smart on-ramp to a life in aviation?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but simply having such conversations would be a start. I do know that our narrow definition of a middle age white man flying a Cessna 172 on Saturday seems awfully limiting in 2015. Wishing for the good old days won’t work. It’s better to envision what the good news days might look like, even if that means some major changes.