Looking for sunshine – general aviation’s future

Editor’s note: This article kicks off our latest Special Report, “Looking for sunshine.” Over the next two weeks, we’ll examine the current state of general aviation and hear from some companies that are trying to create a stronger future for pilots. Check back for a new article every day.

“GA is dying.” We hear this statement so often that it’s become accepted wisdom among many pilots. But it’s wrong.

General aviation certainly is weak (as we chronicled last year in our first Special Report), but there’s a difference between dying and declining. One suggests a terminal condition, the other a situation that can be improved with the right actions–and I firmly believe that GA can recover. Recovery doesn’t mean we’ll return to the glory days of the 1970s, but a more vibrant industry with new pilots and new airplanes is entirely possible.

So don’t believe the death sentence: while it may look different, GA can come back.

It’s the product, stupid

How to engineer this turnaround is obviously the problem, and everyone has an idea or two. A lot of talk centers around new nationwide marketing campaigns or radical ways to reduce the cost of flying. Neither of these ideas is necessarily bad, but they miss the bigger point.

Airport fence no trespassing
What message are we sending about our airports and our industry as a whole?

In my experience as a retailer and product designer, big discussions about marketing plans and pricing strategies are usually what happens when the product isn’t good enough. Great products that deliver real value for customers (read: people really like it) catch on, even with mediocre marketing or a high price. Look at the money people spend on high end headsets–every month, hundreds of pilots drop $1000+ for a headset, even when there are options available for less than $200.

The fact is, general aviation’s “product,” whether it’s the flight training experience, the airport experience or the new airplanes for sale, just isn’t good enough right now. Lower costs would help, but more value for the money is an easier and more sustainable way to attack the problem.

An interesting parallel here involves the big three American car companies in the late 2000s. While Ford, Chrysler and General Motors reminisced about “the good old days” of big trucks and 50 cents/gallon gas, their vehicles became stale. Meanwhile, Asian and European car makers were innovating, offering more attractive options and winning. The big three failed to adapt their products to a changing market and they nearly died because of it. This changing market was the real reason for decline; the economic crash was simply the final blow.

The same is true for GA. Faced with radical change, we’ve more or less hidden from it. Just like the big three, we’re often too focused on the glory days or the bad economy to imagine a future that may be smaller, but much brighter.

Change, times two

What changes do we face today? There are obviously a number, but two types of change–cultural and technological–have had the largest impact on general aviation.

The cultural changes have most influenced how people learn to fly and how they stay active once they have a license. From the rise of two income families to always-on jobs to busier kids’ schedules, everyone has less free time today (or at least feels like it). And yet simultaneously there’s never been more competition for that free time, whether it’s 500 channels of satellite TV or the latest internet distraction.

In short, the prospective student pilot today has dramatically different desires and expectations compared to one from the 1970s. In particular, the time commitment required to earn a pilot’s license has become as much of an impediment as the cost. Many of the people with the money to afford flying–and there are still a lot of them–don’t have the time for it.

Avgas truck
The rising price and declining availability of avgas is trend that must be dealt with.

Advances in aviation technology have been no less dramatic. On the good side, new avionics have added impressive safety and convenience features to the cockpits of even the most basic airplanes. More recently, the iPad revolution has changed the way many general aviation pilots fly.

But there are plenty of negative changes brought on by technology, too. Foremost among them is the elimination of 100LL avgas, which will eventually require new or modified powerplants for thousands of light airplanes.

How we as an industry react to these changes will determine to a great degree how successful we are in building a healthier future. And unlike the health of the overall economy or the state of politics, the general aviation industry can control these issues.

The innovators

Fortunately, all is not lost. A few organizations are innovating in the face of this change, daring to challenge the status quo or at least trying a new approach to old problems. Some of these companies are startups with tech-savvy leaders; others are long-established names that simply never lost their restless spirit. All of them are finding success in a weak market.

Over the course of the next two weeks, we will hear from these companies. We’ll hear their diagnosis for GA, their vision for a more vibrant future and what role their organizations can play in helping us get there.

In week one, we’ll tackle the cultural issues, with an emphasis on the flight training and flying club experience:

  • Sporty’s Academy–what today’s student pilot looks like and how we can meet his expectations without resorting to gimmicks or unaffordable promotions.
  • AOPA–how flying clubs could be a critical part of a healthy general aviation industry, making flying more affordable and social.

In week two we’ll examine the technological issues we’re facing and how to embrace them:

  • ForeFlight–the iPad revolution and how it’s redefining the world of avionics by making them easier to use and less expensive.
  • Van’s Aircraft–what we can learn from the success of the experimental movement and the future of Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs).
  • Continental Engines–confronting a future without avgas and the coming wave of diesel engines.

Last but certainly not least, Richard Collins will offer his unique insight. As an observer and participant in general aviation for over 50 years, he will share a first-hand account of how the industry has changed (and how it hasn’t). His suggestions for fixing general aviation are provocative, but well-reasoned.

As usual at Air Facts we want to hear from you, so we’ll be asking for your comments on each of these articles.

Realistic expectations

Let’s be clear: just because some companies are innovating does not mean all is well. We recognize the existential threats facing general aviation and this Special Report is not a naive attempt to hide from them. But these stories should give us hope. GA isn’t dead, just like Ford wasn’t dead in 2009. We just need to size our industry to the new reality and start putting out a good product again. Easier said than done, but some of these companies offer at least a first step.

On an individual level, it’s important that we don’t allow our memories of “what used to be” to drag us down. The next generation of pilots may not expect $2 avgas or a host of other things we take for granted–and they may be entirely different types of people. That’s OK. As a recent Air Facts contributor (and new pilot) wrote: for a new student pilot in 2013, these are the good old days!

30 Comments

  • I think that this analysis is spot on.
    However, there’s a segment of the population with both the time and the money to indulge the desire to become a pilot- the retired population.
    Some of the advertising should be directed toward that group.
    Many of those folks may have started down that road in the past, but gave it up for lack of time and money.
    The technologocal advancements in the past few years have been truly wonderous, and emphasis on the affordability and availability of these exciting developments may outweigh the impediments that have been placed in the path of the aspiring older pilot material.

    • I help run a small glider club and at least half of our new students come from the retiree community. Some are people that gave up flying for one reason or another many years ago, others are new to flying all together.

      Additionally, gliders are a great way for folks to get started in aviation, many of our former students (and new glider pilots) go on to earn ASEL certs and beyond. A PPL glider cert can be earned for a fraction of the cost of a PPL ASEL cert starting from scratch. The glider experience also cuts the cost of ASEL significantly for most people. We recently had one of our new glider pilots start toward his ASEL and solo a skyhawk in 4.5 hours. Please read the above as a simple plug for flying gliders.

    • You hit the nail on the head. I scratched a very old itch to become a pilot, commenced flight training at the age of 68, and passed my private pilot checkride six weeks short of my 70th birthday. Unfortunately, our cohort doesn’t have a lot of flying years ahead, so any robust GA strategy will have to bring young pilots into the community.

      • Young is a state of mind. If you are in good shape at 68 you might have 15-20 more years of aviating. What better way to enjoy life.
        The potential aviators I’m thinking are spending loads of money on boats, golf club memberships, and many other things.
        Yes, insurance is more expensive as you get older, but it’s still obtainable for many.
        My point is that this is a neglected area for recruitment

  • Here’s a thought. It’s cheaper and easier – up to a point – to speed up an aircraft by removing drag than to add power. I suggest we go after the low-hanging fruit that is drag on the system.

    That “No Trespassing” sign in the picture represents one item of drag. Some airport managers seem to be maliciously against the very fields they manage! I’m betting that there are lists kept somewhere in a desk drawer in AOPA, EAA, and other organizations that have their names.

    Model checklists from national organizations, showing what a “good” chapter/club/school looks like and acts like can help struggling groups to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

  • I think its a good analysis overall and a fairly accurate view of he problems and the direction we should look for solutions. One thing you might consider though, is looking for completely different inputs to the problem.

    You are doing what almost everyone in aviation does around this problem – you reach out to the same people/organizations, over and over for insight. Sporty’s/AOPA/Continental and with all due respect – Richard Collins. These organizations are almost completely comprised of old white guys – many of them wealthy old white guys! Are they really going to tell us anything new? Is Sporty’s or Continental that likely to have some new and innovative approach to general aviation? How about looking for some diversity? How about involving younger people in an effort to figure out how to become more attractive to younger people? How about seeking out new business models that might be applicable to GA? How about involving people from completely different disciplines to offer up ‘out of the box’ ideas?

    If we keep asking the same people for ideas – we’re probably going to hear more of the same thing…………

    • It’s a fair point, Gary, but I’d offer a few thoughts in response. First, many of the people you will hear from aren’t old. In fact, quite a few are under 40; hardly the old guard. We’ve also been running a number of articles from young pilots in our Summer Writing Series (all 16-24 years old), hearing their perspectives on learning to fly. If anything, Air Facts has more young writers than anywhere these days.

      Plus, I’m not sure I agree that young people are the best target. As others have posted above, retirees may be better prospects. That’s OK with me.

      Secondly, the Continental example is interesting because they are now owned by AVIC, the Chinese conglomerate. It’s pretty clear if you listen to them that they have a very different take on the situation. It is not business as usual for them.

      I am always open to new ideas from outsiders, but their track record has hardly been spotless. The IT geniuses at Eclipse were going to reinvent aviation, and they blew through $1 billion before figuring out they were wrong.

  • I am about to turn 71 and have never had any health issues. Agree that retirees are a great potential source of new pilots, however, the FAA and my insurance company (by the way thru AOPA) has about convinced me that it is dangerous for me to fly. Until we get some clear information on how safe it is for us to fly, and some rationality returned to the medical procedure issues, flying is not a good investment for older persons.

    • Flying is nice because the risks are under your control.

      A local flight in nice daytime VFR conditions is much safer than zooming across the country under varying IFR conditions.

      Compare to say – riding motorcycles – where you often have to account for the failings of your fellow drivers.

  • Agreed that we should look to innovators for new ideas, but most of the guys that Mr. Zimmerman listed as your “innovators” are hardly that … they’re old school, rear guard examples. Sporty’s? Continental? AOPA? Richard Collins? Are you serious, man?

    I’m much more impressed by the REAL innovators in aerospace – both those who took a concept through to completion and actually changed the industry, like Cirrus, Garmin, and yes, Foreflight (whom you did list as an innovator). And I’m also interested in others who perhaps haven’t quite made their mark fully, but they are getting very close … folks like Icon and TerraFugia, who are clearly thinking way outside the box and have gotten their products to market, or are they are now very close. Of course, as you’ve snarkily blogged before, Mr. Zimmerman, you’re not much impressed with Icon.

    And even those who have failed, such as Eclipse which you seem to disparage so much (and who actually are still in business, reincarnated post bankruptcy, as most other airplane companies have done from time to time in our perpetually up and down business of aerospace). Failures oftentimes teach us much more than do successes, especially in aerospace. Experimentation and, yes, failure too characterize the entire history of air travel.

    This series of yours as described really doesn’t sound that interesting, to be frank. I’d expect a whole lot more from Flying. There’s often times much more interesting stuff in Popular Science or Popular Mechanix.

    • Duane, thanks for the comments. I really am rooting for Icon–I think they have taken a fresh approach to the market and have an interesting airplane. But it’s fair to wait until they deliver an airplane before we judge their successes and failures. As an example, the price of their airplane has risen dramatically as development proceeded (same for Terrafugia).

      Some other names you mention are being considered for future articles–I am quite impressed with Garmin and Cirrus. I’m also a fan of the new Eclipse and what Mason Holland’s team has done. But it’s worth pointing out that this is a completely different company with much lower production numbers and much higher prices. It’s a nice airplane, but the whole air taxi revolution didn’t happen.

      Our focus here is on realistic innovation that can happen in the next 5 years. Sometimes that’s less exciting than the longshots, but it may be more applicable for everyday pilots.

      • Thanks, John. A 5-year timeframe is useful, and in fact there are going to be some significant innovations and new products released within the next 5 years. But with the burdensome FAA certification processes, it’s virtually impossible to bring any new clean sheet products to market within 5 years unless the manufacturer has extremely deep pockets.

        The best innovation that could happen to general aviation is in the realm of law and regulation: i.e., to greatly simplify and streamline the FAA certification process for light aircraft … both for original equipment and for modifications. As is usual, government bureaucracies serve mainly to squelch innovation while providing no measurable net increase in flying safety. From the FAA perspective, the fewer GA aircraft and pilots the better – then they can claim that they improved flying safety by the elimination of private flying, leaving the skies strictly to the big boys in the airlines and air freight and charter outfits.

        Just imagine if the free markets and engineers were actually turned loose to innovate in the aerospace markets. It is actually possible that general aviation has yet to experience its “golden age”.

        • I couldn’t agree more on the certification process. It sucks the life out of innovative projects. I’m hoping the Part 23 review will change some of that, but history isn’t too encouraging.

          But I hope our report will show that there are some things we can do fairly quickly. These may not be moonshot-style innovations, but some of the nuts and bolts improvements may pay big dividends. Some of them we’re doing already and just haven’t talked about enough.

  • A few years ago, I was positively impressed by Garmin. But when I found I could buy an iPad, and Wing-X, and other apps – for less money than I had to spend to renew my Garmin Aera, I became UNimpressed with them. While their engineering is nice – their predatory accounting department isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s all in one package.

    • Kayak,

      Garmin literally invented GPS navigators for aviation, both panel mount and portable. They have consistently produced superior products, to the point that they have greatly outsold and out-competed the previous avionics “kings”, Bendix-King and Collins. That’s reflected, unfortunataely, in their not-so-competitive product pricing. Today Garmin completely owns the panel-mounted GPS navigator market with their 430/530 series, and are repeating that success with their new GTN-series touchscreens. Those units are great but definitely not cheap, by any stretch.

      On the other hand, Garmin also markets the best performance to value glass panel retrofits, the G500/G600. The competitive pricing for these units reflects the fact that Garmin has stiff competition in that market from Aspen and their excellent Evolution line.

      I believe strongly that the real culprit is the FAA TSO certification process, which serves as a very high and costly barrier to entry for competitive products in the cockpit avionics market. It’s the same issue with airframes and engines too.

      The FAA is on the road to a more simplified certification process for light aircraft, per recent Federal legislation. Let’s hope that the reforms go far enough that it really opens up competition in the world of certified aircraft. If so, it will significantly reduce the cost of flying which is the single largest reason that general aviation has been in a decades-long decline.

  • It would be great if GA could form partnerships and alliances with innovative tech firms such as Oracle, Apple, Google, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and other visionary companies that have demonstrated “the right stuff” with their excellent products and spot-on marketing savvy. Many of the founders and leaders of those companies are pilots or aviation fans. Let’s enlist their energy, drive, intelligence and sense of purpose in our mission to revitalize GA!

  • I’m one of those new pilots. I’ve had my license for a little over two years, and have owned a ’67 Skylane for about a year. Cost was (is) a major hurdle for me. It is true that for others that isn’t the main issue. The bottom line is making GA more appealing than the hurdles for existing and new pilots. Those hurdles are different for each of us, but some broad categories probably exist. Cost is a big issue for some of us. Risk is the main factor for others. Feeling over regulated discourages folks. The time investment needed probably stops many. Each needs to be addressed. Right now the information available from any one source isn’t really organized in a way that makes it easy to find a solution path that addresses a particular person’s hurdles and drives.

    The planes and avionics are not the “product”. The product is flying, whether that is just to enjoy the experience or to get somewhere. There is a certain appeal to being able to do something most people can’t do or experience something most people never experience. Flying delivers on that, within limits. The planes can be a very appealing part of that experience, but they are not the main attraction. The GA industry will recover and thrive when we get more people flying.

    Maybe more effort needs to go into the public perception of GA. The Young Eagles program is great, but what about the parents of those kids? I’m guessing that the program is limited to kids to keep from stealing intro flights from flight schools and FBOs. To me that seems short sighted. We should get folks introduced to flying any way we can. I read an article a year or two back about setting up a system to match up empty seats with folks that wanted to fly. I wonder what happened to that? How many organizations, clubs and schools regularly submit articles to their local papers or keep up blogs that are positive about GA? Nothing to stop individual pilots from doing that either. I don’t think we need to wait for some big disruptive technology or situation to turn things around. We just need to make things one percent better each day.

  • Another way of looking at it is this. Yes, there are some hurdles to an aspiring person becoming a student pilot getting a license. BUT – there are also many more possible activities s/he can do today than 30 or 40 years ago.

    Then, there were cars, motorcycles, boats, and planes. Now, there are more possibilities and ways to spend time and money. Flying simply has more competition today than it used to. And, at the same time, more hurdles.

  • Looking forward to the articles. Having taken 19 years off from flying I have found it again in my mid fifties. Although my new (to me) 1963 Skyhawk is only a few years younger than myself I feel we have many good years ahead of us!

  • Great post and great comments! As a younger guy in aviation I do wonder about its future; not if it will be available but the experience. Will it maintain its freedom/ become prohibitively over regulated, is the GA airport environment going to stay fun, etc. I think an advocacy network of regular pilots would help. If every current pilot made it their mission to get one person into flying, mentor them and help that person complete their private pilot training, we would be off to a great start. The focus to accomplish this has to be on the experience. So many conversations with non pilots end up focusing on the cost or challenges of flying, this is obviously discouraging. These conversations should be focused on what we can do. Flying in the North East there are amazing adventures to be had in places like Lake Placid, Block Island, Bar Harbor and the list goes on. Obviously everyone on this forum knows this, but is this the message we are communicating to our non pilot friends, family, co-workers? After reading this article I am going to do a better job of communicating this. Can’t hurt.

  • I am am 35 years old and just finished my 5.5 hour in training. The price is a MAJOR issue on top of the time. If I was to do four hours of instruction per month we are looking at a $1000 and this would mean 10 months at a minimum to get my license and when this is done this is $10,000!!!!! Come on this is ridiculous that flying in 1950s technology of a Cessna 172 cost this(everyone tries to tell me it is not but in reality it is the same basic plane). But when you add in fuel, instructor, and the airplane, this cost it is the realty. I love flying and after each lesson I am dying to get back in the plane. But, finding a extra $1000 per month is a tough sell. I love in NJ in the NYC market and between rent, food, car, and everything it is hard to make this dream a reality even with my low six figure income. So when this article talks about cost savings it is true that it needs to be done. Something must be done to make this more available to us that are not making a quarter of million dollars a year.

    • Finally someone identifying the REAL reason GA is dying! It’s primarily $$$$$ folks! A “certified” Garmin unit (G500/600 with GTN 650/750) costs anywhere from $50K to $90K when you factor the installs in addition to the equiptment. C’mon, ~100K for a set of gadgets that provides marginally more than an iPad with WingX? That’s more than the cost of my 1973 Turbo Viking, which I paid $40G for. What car person would pay $40K for a machine from 1973 that wasn’t a classic and wasn’t going up in value? The problem is there is no-one building finished airplanes that fly 160knots in the 25-30K range (ie. the price of a car). Once there is, you will see a resurgence of GA like you won’t believe when hordes of others from my generation (X) on down find out they can get into flying without spending a hundred and fifty grand to fly a machine from the 1950’s or a half million dollars for a Cirrus (which is *still* slow as molasses for the money) or spending 10 years of their lives gaining the skills and experience required to build a kit.

      When you can buy an airplane for the price of a car (that flies significantly faster than a car drives) then you’ll have your resurgence in GA.

  • GA is not dead but it is critically wounded and unattended while the majority of the players, remain static and disorganized. No action – just talk. It appears as if they are conditioning their minds to a lower standard without a sense of urgency. I choose to exempt myself from this crowd.

    GA is in bad shape and getting worse and Commercial aviation and peripheral businesses are feeling the pain. The Aviation industry as a whole needs a fix, it needs a joint effort, an extraordinary grass-roots effort that will benefit all. Simply put, the more pilots the greater the demand for goods, equipment and services. So what are we waiting for.

    To invigorate our industry I suggest a national program, where all US aviation players merge with a common goal, and that is to create more pilots. Let’s use as a model the American aviation standard of forty years ago, a goal achieved by individuals with courage, knowledge and skill. Call on the big and the small while keeping it simple. We have been successful in molding a healthy aviation industry before – we can succeed again.

    The old guys. The 1970s and the 1980s created thousands of new pilots and many continued training to professional levels but we are now near or at the end of our careers. Many of us, the old guys from the 70s, have given back to the system and continue to be part of the solution as donors and tutors. We should continue to volunteer to implement nationally coordinated programs specifically organized to generate effective and massive new starts in aviation. Perhaps via youth aviation education flight and ground instruction activities on the over 5,000 airports across the system. If AOPA wants increased interest and access to airports this will get the public’a recognition and participation AOPA wants.

    The solution is in the young. EAA’s and Sporty’s “Route to first flight to licensed pilot” is really a good aviation program that supports the cause and can serve as a base. To enhance its effectiveness add to it a free Youth Aviation Education Program with extended formal ground and flight instruction put into effect on every local airport in the system while working with EAA, YAA, AOPA, SPORTY’s and others. In short, a similar form national summer camp with year round monthly seminars. Go to facebook.com/cvyaep for an example.

    Too few and too old. Our pilot population is less now than in 1980 and is aging. Thus, there is a need for thousands of younger beginning pilots, preferably in their teens and early twenties as the existing average age of pilots will not yield a good return for the industry or individual. The FAA’a 2012 statistics list the average age of new students as 31 years, private pilots 48, commercial pilots 45, ATPs 50. In the next ten years we will lose many due to drop outs, bad health or age limits. The number of private pilots wanting to become commercial pilots needs to increase but without appropriate action and a sense of urgency the pilot population decline will continue. Increasing a younger pilot population is a significant part of the solution.

    The 1970s created thousands of new pilots many continuing their training to professional levels. These generation of pilots is fading away, we now need new starts in aviation to fill the void in GA and Commercial aviation and feed it to a continuously growing and robust level. This is not being dealt with. Many of us are obliged to revitalize the industry. Businesses and individuals owe the system, it’s pay back time.

  • Maybe the first step would be to change those “No Trespassing” signs to something like “Welcome, Y’all go on down to Billy Bob’s Flight School to see how you can become involved”. Maybe something shorter than that would be better; but it would make the fence seem much less onerous.

    • I think you’re onto something big there, Stephen. Before we launch into some large-scale program, I think there’s a lot hiding in plain sight. The state of airports today is shameful, and would deter all but the most die-hard aviation nut. I’ve heard AOPA’s new president Mark Baker talk about this, and I hope he stays on it–we need to make our airports more open and inviting.

  • Guys, it is not about playing WWII as Montgomery or Patton. While we take down the “No trespassing” sign and plant tulips about the Tarmac we can start getting new pilots. Baker has a plan, but it is only one side of the solution. I suggest a rapid approach, all can be integrated.

  • I hope we can turn this around but from personally experiencing it to watching those I know with aircraft stop flying and selling I believe it all comes down to money. Money for lessons,rating addons,rentals,insurance,hangars etc. The flying club idea is a good one as I have been in two and it defintely helps keep the cost down. There are only two FBO’s renting here in West Tennessee and they are both high. I’ve even tried offering A&P services to those whose aircraft I see not flying much to barter more flying time no luck so far. One of those planes now sits on flat tires. Don’t know all the answers and certainly hope for a brighter future but just from what I see cost is the main driver.

  • I am at the aopa summit in ft worth. It is a shadow of its former self. Both the display at the airport and the companies represented in the convention hall are way down.
    Lycoming didn’t even show up.
    Looking around, I expected to find more booths selling long term care insurance than aircraft parts. I heard someone ask, “Is this AOPA or AARP?”

    I hope general aviation can turn around, but not am not optomistic.

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