General aviation trends in 12 charts

What’s the state of the general aviation industry? That’s a question we hear at lot at Air Facts, sometimes by prophets of doom looking for confirmation, sometimes by new pilots trying to get a handle on the community they have just joined, and sometimes by outsiders who genuinely don’t know. Unfortunately there’s no simple answer, although plenty of pilots are willing to offer one.

Answering the question is hard because, for a start, “general aviation” includes a huge variety of airplanes, pilots, and operations. A powered parachute soaring at treetop level on a quiet evening is lumped in with a Gulfstream flying from JFK to LAX. So an assessment of the industry’s health really depends on which part of the aviation world you inhabit.

Another problem is history, or more precisely, the questioner’s perspective. Compared to 1978, general aviation looks utterly shattered by most measures – active pilots, new airplane deliveries, number of airports, etc. On the other hand, if you learned to fly in 2009, things look a lot better. Which one is a more legitimate comparison?

Finally, there are some changes that can’t be measured in statistics. Free ADS-B weather on an iPad is dramatically better than talking to Flight Service over the radio, but there isn’t a great way to measure that improvement in FAA data. Likewise, widely available self-serve fuel, less expensive non-certified avionics, and a more flexible FAA enforcement philosophy help pilots, but in less measurable ways.

With all those caveats in mind, here’s a look at 12 interesting charts that offer a glimpse of general aviation in the 21st century, from airplanes to pilots to safety. Together, they suggest a few trends and raise some questions too. More than anything, these charts shows how general aviation continues to change.

NOTE: click on a chart to see it full size.

Airplanes and Activity

1. New airplane sales still stink.

One popular yardstick is the number of new piston airplane sales (published by GAMA), and it’s quite obvious that these fell off a cliff during the Great Recession and have not recovered. I don’t think this chart is necessarily a great way to take the pulse of the industry, but it does highlight how general aviation is much more about restoration and upgrades to old airplanes than it is new airplanes. It’s also a reminder that any significant new safety technology has to address the 95% of the fleet that was built before 2000 – OEM isn’t enough to move the needle.

2. But experimental airplanes are more popular than ever. 

With new piston deliveries so weak, is there a bright spot? Yes – experimental airplanes are growing in popularity and make up an increasingly large part of the GA fleet. They are also increasingly sophisticated and packed with advanced technology that is driving the market in many cases. The Van’s RV series isn’t quite the 21st century successor to the Cessna 100 series, but the market is slowly moving that way.

3. GA airplanes aren’t flying as much as they used to.

General aviation activity – at least with approach control and centers – has likewise not recovered from the Great Recession, although it has leveled out recently. This could be a result of less flying overall, or simply less use of ATC services.

4. Avgas is sliding towards irrelevance.

Avgas volume is another measure of activity, and after seeing the new airplane sales and ATC activity charts the slope of this one won’t be a surprise. But this is also a reminder of how small avgas volume is in the context of the global energy market: it’s down over 30% compared to 2006, and is less than 1% of jet fuel production. As new powerplants hit the market (unleaded gas engines, diesel, electric), expect this volume to continue dropping.

Pilots

5. Private pilots aren’t as old as you think.

Student pilot starts and active private pilots are frequently cited statistics that measure the health of general aviation, but both are flawed. The former is subject to all kinds of noise (BasicMed, new plastic certificates), while the latter is just a guess (who is really active?). The distribution of age for private pilots is a more interesting chart to consider. It appears to peak at ages under 30, dominated by those pursuing a career in aviation, then fades through the 30s before booming between ages 50-70, when time and money are often more abundant. The average age of a private pilot in 2016 was 48.4, but this is not exceptional: it was 56.4 for sport pilots, 46.0 for commercial pilots, and 50.2 for ATPs.

6. ATPs will soon overtake private pilots.

Here is that chart of active private pilots, but instead of just looking at the trend line, consider it in comparison to ATPs and you’ll see a major trend. The pilot population is increasingly professional, not recreational: active private pilots are declining, but active ATPs are increasing.

7. Airline hiring is booming.

Airline hiring trends (via FAPA) back this up, with regionals, legacy, and majors all hiring in numbers not seen since the pre-9/11 era. This is also an under-appreciated driver of overall aviation industry strength right now – primary flight training has picked up as new pilots chase a career with the airlines.

8. And so are remote pilots.

Also worth noting is that more Remote Pilot certificates were issued last year than Private Pilot certificates. Certainly it’s a lot easier to become a drone pilot than a Cessna pilot, but it’s another an indicator of how the makeup of the pilot population is changing.

Safety

9. Fatal accidents are declining.

Besides the number of pilots and airplanes, one important measure of industry health is safety, and fatal accidents are the place to start. The headline number is declining, albeit slowly. Obviously this could be due to either safer flying or lower levels of activity. The FAA attempts to measure an accident rate (fatal accidents per 100,000 hours flown), but this is, at best, a rough guess. Even using that measure, the same trend holds: a steady but slow decline.

10. The causes are not new.

Beyond the total, it’s worth exploring why pilots crash airplanes. The story is depressingly familiar, with loss of control leading the list. This has received massive amounts of attention in recent years, but note how many accidents are caused by powerplant failures and runway accidents.

11. Weather accidents are getting rarer – is it technology?

On the positive side, weather-related accidents seem to be declining, according to the AOPA Nall report. The most common cause of a weather accident is continued VFR into IMC conditions (69% in 2014), so perhaps technology is helping pilots avoid these traps. Alternatively, perhaps there’s less cross-country flying going on.

12. But we still haven’t solved fuel exhaustion and starvation.

Another familiar accident cause – fuel exhaustion or starvation – has not gone away. As an NTSB alert recently highlighted, roughly 50 airplanes crash every year because there was either no fuel on board the airplane or no fuel getting to the engine. This most preventable accident has not been solved by technology, at least not yet. The answer may be in the left seat.

Conclusions?

None of these charts tells a complete story, but when combined it is fairly easy to determine the state of the industry. The 2008-2009 financial crisis clearly dealt a heavy blow to general aviation activity, and there has not been a major recovery from it yet (although there is some reason to think 2017 data may be slightly more encouraging). The word “pilot” increasingly means professionals and drone operators, not just recreational flyers. And while the safety record may be improving slightly, airplanes still crash because a pilot lost control or ran out of gas.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

19 Comments

  • As for airplane sales, it’s 2017 and we are still being asked to pay over $500,000 for a four seat airplane with an engine designed in the 1960s which burns leaded gasoline.

    • Good point Mark, and that would barely carry 4 people. I think most of that is in the cost of certification thus the experimental increase I reckon.

  • I wish we could drill down into those powerplant failures. What was the primary cause? Were these primarily certified engines, or experimental? Engines designed for aviation or automotive conversions? Was the failure post maintenance? Was it a true component failure (something unexpectedly broke that shouldn’t have), or was it the result of poor maintenance?

    I’m of the opinion that modern aviation engines are fairly bulletproof when properly maintained, that failures are rare, and that they generally give plenty of warning before self-destructing. I’m surprised to see powerplant failure feature so high on the list of accident causes.

    • I also would like to know the answers to Mark Shelton’s points. All good questions. Powerplant failures seems surprisingly high.

    • Any pilot using the fuel gauges on a ga airplane to monitor his fuel situation is out of his mind imho. At best it’s a backup confirmation instrument. And only if you fly the a/c enough to know it’s quirks. Accurate fuel flow instruments and a healthy reserve are a pilots best friend.

      • I have found a watch/flight timer to be a pretty-much fuel-management tool for my PA-28-161. I record my fuel after every flight, manage my power levels properly, and usually land within a few litres of where I expect to be when I refill at the pumps. Of course, a minimum 1-hour reserve helps, too.

        Another advantage of a low wing is that if something goes wrong and you run a tank dry (and didn’t expect to), you still have a small reserve in the other tank for an emergency landing.

    • Therefore good advice says pretend they don’t exist and you don’t need them. Of course you do know what your consumption per hour is. And remotely known and accurate, right ?

    • The “pencil/timer/never trust fuel gauges” crowd will eat you alive for saying that, but look what advancements in in-cockpit weather technology did to reduce weather related accidents? We were always admonished to give a wide birth to bad weather, but pilots still died from flying into bad weather. With vastly improved in cockpit weather technology, the reductions in weather related accidents can be clearly scene in the data. The technology exists to accurately tell me how much fuel I have in my 172 down to the half gallon. Fuel related incidents absolutely will be reduced with better technology in the cockpit to replace the old float analog gauges.

      • At first there’s usually the urge to cut it closer when you have more information, just as happened with cockpit weather. Instead of simply staying home when there are too many CB on the route, or leaving an hour of fuel in the tanks to be safe, people start looking for the holes in the squall line, or pushing on to the next airport 20 minutes away because the fuel totaliser says they still have 45 minutes in the tanks.

        Eventually, though, good practices do reestablish themselves.

  • I have noticed that general aviation aircraft, flight activities, quality of news reporting of general aviation activities, use of GA aircraft used for humanity and rescue assistance, etc. not presented to the public via television coverage or movies. No advertisements on TV, newspapers, etc. have been presented. Years ago we had Saturday morning shows GA activity. Sky King was a serious favorite. There have a few short run programs but those stopped. A recommendation would be to have EAA or AOPA show their half hour runs of those gatherings. Show some flight training or aircraft construction might be a good try.
    There are tons of auto advertisements everywhere but no general aviation aircraft.
    If Trump wants to ignor the environment, why don’t we advertise using GA aircraft to monitor the environmental destruction.

  • I’m not surprised that a snowflake would somehow bring Trump into this discussion. I believe we should concentrate on improving our industry overall. We could do a much better job of promoting GA to the public. Something more than a “Learn To Fly” sign at the airport. Good idea about the Commercials.

  • No surprise to me that powerplant failures are a big safety issue. My overall experience with GA maintenance personnel is that I get more professional service at Tire Kingdom or Pep Boys than at a local GA repair shop. Just read some of Mike Busch’s articles in AOPA magazine and you see the huge disconnect between how maintenance should be done and how it is actually done. The FAA watches pilots a lot closer than they do mechanics.

    • As a professional A&P/IA, I take exception to your comment. Maybe you need to shop around more to find a better shop and/or mechanic, but my personal experiences as both a mechanic and as a pilot (C-ASE/MEL-I) are much different than yours as just a pilot. The FAA is all over us as mechanics, and even more so as an IA, but I have never had any kind of encounter with them as a pilot. On the other side of that is pilot/owners who seem to resent the fact that they are required to get an Annual inspection done on their airplane every year. I agree with the fact that parts prices are ridiculously too high, but that is not “our” fault. It is no fun being in the middle of critical oversight by the FAA and by unappreciative customers on the other.

      Maybe you should consider too that getting formal aviation training under a Part 147 maintenance program is much more involved than almost any automotive training I can think of (and more involved than any Part 61 or even 141 flight training you got too.) In practice as well the stakes are so much higher – as I like to put it, our job is to maintain a life-support system that keeps you alive in an environment you would not survive without it, yet too many aircraft mechanics actually make less than automotive mechanics (I have known many A&P’s who gave up to go work on cars instead.)

      And as far as Mike Busch is concerned, I generally disagree with about 70 – 80% of what he has to say – and I recommend that you ought to be more critical and wary of what he says too. That is because he is NOT a “real” A&P or IA as he claims. He has never “turned a wrench” professionally. His professional background and training is in business development and software. I don’t know how he even managed to get much less keep and maintain an IA because from where I sit he does not qualify as “actively engaged.”

      The supposed business model for Mike Bush’s company Savvy Aircraft Maintenance actually makes me mad too. Inserting themselves as middlemen into the natural relationship between mechanics and pilot/owners. In my opinion, that was even possible in the first place for only two reasons – mechanic do not do a good enough job communicating with their customers and customers do not do a good enough job paying attention and being actively engaged in learning and knowing what they really need to know about maintaining their own aircraft. In my experience, too many of them are only too happy to pawn off the responsibility that is really theirs on to someone else so that they don’t have to do it themselves. Ref. 14 CFR 91.7(b)

      From my perspective as a mechanic with going on 30 years of experience, I was actually surprised by the apparently high incidence of mechanic failures and engine problems that was reported. But also in my experience, that is more likely to be due to operational abuse and failure to seek out and allow regular, good maintenance to be done than it is to be due to “bad maintenance” by mechanics. Pilot/owners with enough money can do just about whatever they want, but mechanics are in an employment and business “market” that tends to limit opportunities for and even weed out people who don’t know what they are doing or do a good job. That is simple economics.

  • GREAT article that has so much interesting and ‘challenging’ information. While I no longer fly, I had almost 60 years of flying with many, MANY exciting and challenging ‘adventures’ flying in the Air Force, Mass ANG, and Cessna 182 civilian life

  • A lot of great information and comments. I too remember in the 1970’s there was a however small aviation weather segment on a local station in northern California. But, I believe the increased cost probably dashed many hopes of learning to fly.

    This however brought on the beginning of the ultralight business which seems to have flourished.

  • One needs to correlate the decline in accidents with the decline in flying hours and the decline in pilots flying. That number should be about the same.

    Regarding cost of aircraft – one must adjust the price for a new plane for inflation. A $1 in 1960 is worth $9 today. So, are aircraft prices running at a 9:1 ratio?

  • Dave Marion is spot on in his assessment of the majority of IA’s and A&P’s that I’ve dealt with in 30 years of aircraft ownership. All were concerned about my aircraft’s “health”. Each one has taken the time to explain what is necessary to keep the plane not just airworthy, but safe and operational with a 98% dispatch reliability.

    I view the mechanics of our 60’s and 70’s vintage aircraft as “curators”, helping us to preserve and maintain these artifacts for future generations to enjoy as much as we have. Mike Busch, on the other hand, is just out there to serve himself.

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