Your comments on the declining pilot population

Last week, we launched a special report called Mayday! The declining pilot population. Five authors shared their thoughts on how things got so bad and how to turn them around, each with a unique perspective and interesting suggestions. As always at Air Facts, our readers really drive the conversation, and over 300 comments were written during the course of the week. Many of these comments were thoughtful, constructive and based on personal experience. To share these opinions with a wider audience, we’ve collected some of the best comments and organized them below. We hope to continue this important conversation about the future of general aviation.

Cost

The overwhelming comment from readers during our special series had to do with the high cost of flying. Many readers shared how affordable learning to fly had been for them 30 or 40 years ago, and newer pilots complained that now those costs have risen 10-20X. General aviation is simply out of reach for most Americans right now. Beyond that, the ones who can afford to fly aren’t interested; the ones who are interested can’t afford it. Here are some of your comments:

Jim Guida says current economic conditions are especially bad for learning to fly: “Until the unemployment goes down, disposable income will not be available for people to fly. Food and shelter come first.”

Dave says travel by GA is much more expensive: “Aviation HAS always been expensive, but the percentage of disposable income it takes today to pay for a simple 300 mile flight on a long holiday weekend is dramatically higher than it was in the early ’80s.”

Colin says we can’t ignore raw cost: “As much as I agree with all that’s been said here, I really think the raw cost IS an important factor. Getting more value from flying is important. However, if we want those people to say ‘I’ve always wanted to do that’ to go do it, we have to make raw cost more in line with disposable income.”

Mike Prevost says Richard Collins didn’t give high costs enough credit: “My first reaction, as a student pilot at age 51, that you are not giving the economic factors enough weighting, not by a long shot.”

Steve Brandt says the costs add up quickly: “I too am a seasoned citizen just entering GA. 57 yo and over 60 hours and $11,000.00 still no PPC in-hand. Close but no cigar yet. Amazed at the costs. All costs.”

Grant Barnum says it’s not just avgas: “The factors preventing me from flying more are mostly cost. Nearly $6 a gallon for avgas. Annuals averaging well over $5000 a year for a single engine retractable Cessna. Avionics that used to be upgradable to standards in new aircraft for an affordable price now approaching or exceeding six figures. New aircraft that cost double the average price of a new home. I daresay that even when adjusted for constant dollars, aviation is more expensive than ever.”

Keith Bumsted says compare airplanes to other products for a real shock: “If you want to see how totally whacked out airplane prices are, compare the cost of a shiny new Cessna 162 with an Airstream Interstate RV, or a new Cessna 172 with a Bentley. If lined up side by side, the Cessna products elicit a ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ response.”

Keith Bogut says it’s not just the cost of getting a license: “Not only the cost of getting your ticket, but figuring out how to take advantage of it once you do.”

Flights Schools

This is where the next generation starts, and most readers (and authors) seem to agree that they are in bad shape. At heart, many of these schools simply aren’t well-run businesses, with poor communication, shabby facilities, non-existent marketing and unfriendly employees.

Edward Todd says the initial contact is critical for prospective pilots: “first impressions of FBOs and the CFIs happen. Not all folks walk into an actual flight school with full time instructors who look and act the part. I would dare say that MOST folks walk into an FBO and meet up with a part time CFI that looks like he just jumped off his farm tractor.”

David Dickens says people are busier than ever, and need new training styles: “Making the training experience much more attractive and flexible to accommodate people’s packed schedules will go a long way to attract a younger generation.”

Kurt Nelson says the state of rental aircraft is pretty sorry in most cases: “I’ve grown tired of renting tired, filthy, low powered, systems-challenged, boring aircraft. I take off and the radio fails or the oil pressure begins to fluctuate, causing an abort. One FBO was so bad we called it ‘Malfunction Junction.’ Where’s the value for my dollar? My now grown kids used to love to fly with me and ask when we’ll fly again. I can’t answer that because I won’t pay $200 an hour to fly a 50 year old piece of junk.”

Billy Payne says a little friendliness could go a long way: “Now for instructors and flight schools. If these two entities do not come across as friendly then the aviation community is in very big trouble. At this time flying is an expensive privilege. If some one does nor feel welcome then they will most likely not continue to stay in the aviation community. In my experience being friendly and inviting is just the spark that will ignite the fuel of that will attract and keep people to the aviation community .”

Anna Moseley Osborn says flight schools need to tell new students what to expect: “They need to communicate better. They need to follow a syllabus and be on time. Students must realize it is not easy to meet FAA guidelines, that the written is a convoluted reading test, a necessary evil. Prospective students need to be told the truth: it is difficult at times, it is expensive and finally, it IS worth it.”

Todd says there aren’t enough flight schools to accept bad ones: “I have talked to too many people who have experienced the same lack of interest from flight school employees when they inquired about flight training or aircraft rentals. In some cities that is okay because for the student or renter they can find someone else. But, too often there is not another provider who does want to earn their business and instead this person often walks away and tables their dreams for another time.”

Government Regulation

This topic didn’t come up as often as cost and flight schools, but there was a steady stream of comments about how new regulations have made flying more complicated and expensive. In particular, concerns about the FAA medical, new airplane certification costs and complex airspace came up time and again.

David Albright says he’s worried he’ll unintentionally break a rule: “With all the regs. I felt there is no way I can’t keep from braking a reg. sooner or later. I have a clean record and want to keep it that way.”

Glenn Darr says other industries aren’t as burdened by regulation as we are in aviation: “the ungodly amount of regulation a student pilot has to learn is quite discouraging. It is easier to go learn to drive a boat!!”

S Booth has personal experience with the cost of regulation: “A 4′ line of small copper tubing with a compression fitting on either end. $30.00 part, right? $489.00 later I got the part. Over regulation has put the price of these normal type products in the same catagory as the $900 pentagon hammer. No wonder people are scared away.”

John Green says the medical is another form of regulation: “I stopped training two years ago, trying to get my prior medical issues resolved to the satisfaction of the FAA. Just re-applied for my medical three weeks ago.”

Rich says airplanes shouldn’t be so expensive: “The FAA has also contributed to costs through their aircraft and equipment certification procedures…I think the way they do things in Alaska has some validity – my grandpappy taught my daddy, my daddy taught me, and I don’t need no stinkin’ government agent telling me what to do.”

Dale Olsen says the punishment is a problem too: “It isn’t just the complexity of airspace and regulations, it is also the draconian consequences of violations of the same. Sharing the airspace with others is serious business, and demands a ‘professional’ diligence.”

What can be done?

With all of these headwinds, can anything be done? Many readers did offer solutions in addition to complaints. Many said aviation simply needs to improve the value it delivers for pilots, whether it’s lowering costs or increasing the utility we get out of flying. Neil said it well: “The market place drives the American consumer. When the cost outweighs the benefits they stop purchasing a service or product and move on to something they find value.”

Here is a selection of other ideas you offered:

Jeff Lowe says if more licensed pilots were out there mentoring new pilots, we might get more student pilots to complete: “So my answer now is to recommend becoming a mentor pilot.”

Thomas P. Turner says we need a lot to make GA competitive for successful people looking for an airline alternative: ” All indications are that the industry needs a professional, career instructor force, well-run, inviting FBOs, appealing, no-deferred-squawks airplanes, a pilot support social network, and a training system that meets the schedule and needs of well-healed but busy potential pilots, and the fly-for-transportation market will thrive.”

For David Dickins, his experience in a flying club offers an answer: “It is possible to rent through a flying club (I am lucky to have one of the best in the county – Plus One Flyers here in San Diego) once a week and stay within a monthly budget of around $600. This isn’t small change but still definitely not limited to the famous 1% crowd.”

Rich says partnerships work better than flying clubs: “I see the best situation being some form of partnership. The max of 3 pilots seems to keep the insurance companies at bay.”

Hunter Heath says regional training centers could help, too: “What if one could go to a pilot training center in a nice place, and in 2-3 weeks go home with a Sport Pilot certificate? And after enjoying the privileges of flying an LSA-eligible plane, return when ready to complete training for a PPL? What if the school offering this training kept in touch with you by email, with reunions of graduates, suggestions for trips, discounts on pilot tsotchkes, and a system for linking those interested in a partnership? Ah, such a dream…”

Timothey McDonough says he has an idea to fix regulation: “I believe that one of the greatest impediments to reviving general aviation in the USA is the Byzantine interpretation of 14 CFR 61.113(b) by the FAA General Counsel known as the ‘Mangiamele Opinion.’ If private pilots were allowed to receive reimbursement for the use of their private property for private benefit in connection to their business or employment in the same manner as they can for their privately owned automobiles, I think we would see an immediate and dramatic increase in GA activity nationwide.”

C Umphlette says sailplanes may be the answer for recreational flying, “If you really want to fly you find a way, I flew a recreational flight Sunday for 4 hours and a direct cost of $18.00 dollars. Gas for a towplane to launch a 78 Schweizer sailplane.”

What’s your reaction? Add your comments below.

23 Comments

  • Flying : “a rewarding medium”.

    Dear all,

    I think we can add two additional problems to the case.

    First is that planes are too old (or too expensive if new).
    If I want to learn driving racing cars, I would not do it in an old, unattractive and small car. I would want to learn with a rewarding sporty car.
    What about my image if I take my girlfriend flying in an old 150…
    Not all potential pilot are “pure fans”.

    Second is “fly, yes… but what for ?…”
    To last, flying has to be connected to something else.
    “Learn to fly… to visit new golf courses”.
    “Learn to fly… for efficient business”.
    “learn to fly… to go sightseeing”.
    Etc…
    Flying has to be sold as a “medium”, not as “finality”.

    Flying has to be a “rewarding medium”.

    Fly safe.

    • Back when I learned to fly, I was not concerned about impressing girl friends or anyone else. It was the sheer excitement about flying … By the way, my first airplane was a old two seater. One of the problems I see today that is a negative is the FAA and third class medicals… They have lost their way….

  • Job conditions are being degraded so much that becoming a commercial pilot is loosing most of it’s appeal.

    Prospective pilots can read this and see that the future is not of an attractive or rewarding career.

  • The place I get my medical done has just raised its price again, five years ago it was $90 this year it is $165, but that is about par for everything in aviation. The increasing cost wouldn’t be so bad if the potential pay would merit the investment. There is a reason that lenders hesitate to offer any type of flight training loan, they probably won’t see any return…Ever! Until pilot jobs and wages increase proportionally to the rest of the aviation expenses the industry will continue to stagnate. Sure there are the private pilots who can afford to fly for pleasure and still will but I bet the majority of GA fuel is burned by career oriented pilots. All we ask is that it’s a worthy investment.

  • Wages are just fine for commercial pilots who have been in the business for awhile. The trouble is pay for the guys just starting out. How can you make payments on debt and support yourself let alone a family on less than minimum wage? If you actually do the math that is really what new airline pilots make. Also how dumb is it that a 15 year pilot who changes companies goes back to square one? We need job portability in addition to pay. Doctors, lawyers, even waiters can leave one job for another that will treat them better for their experience.
    As a CFI I agree that we need more career instructors. Trouble is… Cost! Flying is already expensive enough now imagine paying $100/hr for a “master” cfi. People pay therapist more than that but that is expectes because they are a “licensed” professional.
    Some day I may be able to go back to being a full time instructor I absolutely loved it but it will be awhile.

  • I learned to fly in 1988 when I was 39 years old. It had been a lifelong dream. I learned to fly at the West Valley Flying Club in Palo Alto, CA, a truly wonderful place. Aircraft rental was $50/hr and my wonderful instructor Jeff Arensen charged $25/hr (you never forget your first love nor your first CFI). When I moved back to Connecticut in 1995, my local FBO was charging in excess of $110/hr for a clapped-out Archer and in excess of $50/hr for the CFI. I recently retired and live on a decent fixed income but to take an airplane up for a couple of hours and pay in excess of $250? It’s no longer affordable nor fun. Let’s stop all the hand wringing and talk about this very real issue, no? That’s the reason I no longer fly. I can’t afford to.
    John Ginnetti, Private Pilot, SEL, Certificate # 41443082

    • Your story is similar to mine. Started flying in 1989 at age 41. Paid about the same as you in charlotte NC. Eared my Commercial Instrument rating. than it became to expensive to fly. I no longer can afford to fly…Lost Love

  • I think we can safely say that flying is expensive – for myriad reasons. There are always ways to save money, but I think the real question is, “how important is it if there are fewer pilots in the U.S.?” We waste a lot of time and energy bemoaning the declining population, without clearly articulating just what we fear the effects will be. Is it really as grim as certain organizations make it out to be? I dug into GAMA’s own data and found a few interesting implications: http://wp.me/puHhv-cu

  • It has always been expensive to fly, but it has never had the competition from other expensive/intensive entertainment as is now the case. Our culture has changed significantly in terms of our social interaction due to virtual entertainment. Who wants to bother spending huge amounts of time learning to fly a puny C150 when you can own the sky in an F-22 from the comfort of mom & dad’s living room?
    I recently returned to my small home town in OK. During the 70’s main street was usually busy with people “dragging main” and parked in social clusters; a scene right out of the movie, American Pie. The town population today is the same but main street is a ghost town after 5pm. People, mostly the young, have less need for in-person contact. Flying is an intensely social activity when you think about it.
    From a selfish point of view the dirth of interest in flying is in my favor. The depressed price of used aircraft has made it possible for me to afford a used Super Decathlon and a 1/3 partnership in an old, but nice Mooney. Several others at my local strip are similarly positioned and we have a welcoming group of CFI’s and A&P’s that help each other free of charge and foster affordable starts for the new and young. I’m not clairvoyant enough to solve the issue, but there are ways to sustain the hobby-leaning participants in aviation.

  • The horendous tort laws we have with ridiculas lawsuits made every one from manufactures down to pilot nervous about getting sued in the big lottery game we all have allowed to grow like topsy

  • I have ready many pieces in a number of publications which attempt to analyze the declining GA pilot population. I am a relatively low time pilot with 4 years flying experience, but a couple of the issues stand out to me as affecting this current situation.
    1. Flying is expensive no matter how you try and justify it. It should be no surprise that in these challenging economic times that this activity whether for fun, fulfillment or professional aspirations is trending down. A simple example for illustration purposes is that to take a 1 hour lesson in a typical Cessna 172 will cost around $150.00. This cost per gain ratio is just simply not in the “reasonable expense” category for most people, even if they can afford it.
    2. I have seen many small airports and sadly the inviting atmosphere that may have attracted many in past years is gone at a lot of them. Moreover, at least around my area in Ohio there is no obvious extension of a “Learn to Fly Here” attitude at many of these airports. I know some groups do a good job of sharing our world of aviation, especially with youth, but it seems to me that this aspect of our culture has been seriously degraded. Consequently, the activity and ethos of these airports has been largely absorbed and shaped by professional and corporate aviation elements.
    By nature, aviation and pilots will share some dynamic of exclusivity within our society. However, somewhere through the decades this has evolved more into exclusiveness.
    Unless there is a program to involve people in pilot training for free or at dramatically lower than current rates you can count most people out.
    I think this issue is one that invites over analysis so let us be cautious about jumping over some of the most obvious reasons why not everyone learns to fly.

  • If you are correct – and I agree with you – we will see more decrease in Pilots.
    For me a major factoe is that we have too much Government.
    A example is the reluctance to upgrade the thied class physical. Logic and accident statistics confirm there is no need to continue for extensive, costly, examinations.

    Jim Phillips Tipp City, OH

  • If you are correct – and I agree with you – we will see more decrease in Pilots.
    For me a major factoe is that we have too much Government.
    A example is the reluctance to upgrade the thied class physical. Logic and accident statistics confirm there is no need to continue for extensive, costly, examinations.

    You replied that I had already expressed this comment _ NO WAY.

    Jim Phillips

  • Arthur, Flight schools used to have financial aid readily available for students but about 2008 banks ran into a problem, as students finished their ratings and began looking for work. It was almost impossible for a 300 hr pilot to get a flying job let alone one that would provide for basic needs like rent or food not to mention pay back any kind of a loan. As a result lending institutions learned that flight training loans were a bad investment and the majority of them stopped lending. Now with the 1500 hr regulation the problem will only be compounded.

    However there are a few places that still give flight training loans but they have learned how to hedge their risks.

    • Thanks Sage, now a days most college grads can not find work after
      they have earned their degree. Do you think banks that invest in student
      loans are making bad investments?

  • Piloting aircraft as a career choice has always and still is hampered by operators putting the squeeze on young pilots needing to build hours. For the responsibility and skill required to be a competent pilot the industry grossly underpays. We’re our own worst enemy. I’m a contractor who starts ‘green tradesman’ at better pay than many Flight Instructors receive.
    A better pay scale industry wide would serve the pilot population.

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