Busy family
12 min read

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.

Abandoned golf course

A depressingly common sight these days.

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.

AOPA 152

Refurbished airplanes are the new trend.

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. According to Golf Holidays Direct, 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.

Environmental protesters

You may not agree with them, but perceptions are changing.

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.

Busy family

Where does flying fit in?

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.

Icon A5

ICON’s nearly stall-proof wing makes flying a little more forgiving.

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.


TopGolf is really popular – but is it really golf?

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.

John Zimmerman
76 replies
  1. Jason Burke
    Jason Burke says:

    I like this comparison. In fact, it parallels a short piece I wrote three years ago based on manufacturing and pilot certificate trends. Interestingly, I wonder if golf suffers so many lost courses because there is no group like AOPA lobbying for the sport at high levels of government. Sure, there are countless golf groups, some national, but there is no far-reaching need for federal infrastructure as there is with aviation. If a golf course is up for redevelopment, there is probably little public comment from anyone but local golfers.

    We surely benefit from having this kind of support, but the cultural shift is probably more significant. As I said three years (and even longer) ago, flying will look different in the future – that much is a fact. What it looks like and how different it is from today is up to us – current aviators – to own.


    • j3cub
      j3cub says:

      John misses the point completely. The decline is cause by government over regulation. This causes the cost to rise, and takes the joy out of flying. It is that simple.

      • John Zimmerman
        John Zimmerman says:

        I wish it were that simple. For example: bowling is hardly regulated at all, not much more expensive than it used to be, and yet its popularity is down dramatically.

        Your point about over regulation is completely valid – we desperately need to roll this back. A Cessna 172 is weighed down (both literally and figuratively) with far too much from regulators. Fixing that problem is essential, but not sufficient. It goes deeper.

      • AzangBugs
        AzangBugs says:

        J3, You are entirely correct. I have seen small uncontrolled GA strips with tighter security than major airports. There are no public airports left where a kid can ride a bike onto the ramp and look around, find a beautiful flying machine and light the fuze on a dream. The ever more expensive and restrictive airspace and equipment requirements, despite fewer airplanes, only add to the harrassment after you get started. Governments treat GA like an illegal product, a symptom of a modern disease that goes far beyond aviation.

    • Eric Marsh
      Eric Marsh says:

      Cost is a big consideration, especially with a declining middle class. My flight training went on hold a couple times because the expense. Eventually though I came into a little money and bought my own airplane – a ’58 Tripacer.

      Now that I have an airplane that I can fly whenever I have the free time and the weather cooperates. But here’s something else that I don’t hear anyone talk about very much – there’s simply not that many destinations worth flying to.

      There are two or three airports with restaurants about an hour’s flight from home. A flight to the coast is about an hour and a half. There are a few airports with courtesy cars but they are just Texas towns. There’s not that much to do when I get there. There’s a handful of fly-ins and I attend them when I can.

      I’ve spent the time and the money to get my PPL and buy an airplane. I’m committed now. But I think that the subject of what to do after getting that certificate is worth discussing too.

      • Duane
        Duane says:


        There’s not much that can be done about making the average Texas town more exciting (I’ve done a fair amount of flying in and across Texas) :-) , but part of the fun of aviation is becoming a member of our community – our “tribe” – that shares common interests and activities. You can find a wide array of associations or clubs of pilots with whom sharing flying, aircraft, events, and activities will greatly enhance your view of what it means to be part of our tribe.

        As for some specific suggestions, check out the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) at http://www.theraf.org. They have a Texas liaison (see the “Contact Us” page on their website who can get you involved in local and state recreational activities, fly-ins, etc. There’s also a Texas Pilots Association (also on the web at thetpa.org). Various airports around the country also have their specific fly-ins and local pilots associations and so on.

        You can even join a neighboring state pilot’s association – when I was flying in New Mexico I was active in the New Mexico Pilots Association (www.nmpilots.org) and we had quite a few members from Texas, Colorado, and Utah. They conduct a variety of fly-ins within New Mexico and they recently did a fly-in in West Texas. The Colorado Pilots Association (www.colorodopilots.org) does joint events with New Mexico, and they also get a lot of Texas pilots. Ditto with Arizona and Utah pilot associations.,

        Then there’s various type clubs (the cub pilots are very active), and there’s also antique aircraft clubs (your TriPacer would qualify). Don’t forget EAA either – they tend to be pretty active in their local chapters.

        The point is, as much fun as flying solo or with friends and family can be, your enjoyment of private recreational flying will be magnified to the extent that you get involved socially with other pilots and their families and friends who also are active recreational flyers. If you don’t try some of that you’re missing out on some real fun.

      • Mike Bonsal
        Mike Bonsal says:

        Wow, that is a great point. I’ve observed the same thing. There are a couple of airports I like to fly to for lunch or breakfast and there are crew cars available (usually). Only a few airports, like Winslow, AZ, actually have good food on the field. Maybe we should see what we can do at our home fields to make people want to fly in.

      • Dustin
        Dustin says:

        I agree completely with Eric. I recognize this is a huge, multifaceted problem just as John described it, but Eric calls out that we don’t talk a lot about the destinations available to pilots after they get their licenses. I’m fortunate to live in the NW where natural beauty and fun airports abound. But despite that, the truth is, once you get to a destination, you’ll need a courtesy car, a rental car agency, or your activities have to be within walking distance or flying is not an option. It’s one of the biggest frustrations for me, and frankly, it’s why my wife doesn’t fly with me more. I love to fly in the backcountry and camp. A lot of backcountry airstrips are being decommissioned or shut down. It’s sad.

        • Duane
          Duane says:

          Dustin – ground transportation can certainly be an issue at some destinations, especially lightly-used airports lacking a staffed office with available crew cars. Yet, with a little advance planning and communications (easier done with group fly-ins), that challenge can disappear or even turn into a pleasant opportunity.

          I’ve flown into quite a few GA airports or just airstrips in small towns around the country where local business owners – restaurants, hotels, outfitters, etc. – and even local governments are quite happy to provide a lift to and from the airfield for visiting flyers. Call them in advance for best results, but sometimes they can still respond even “on the fly”. Business owners often appreciate the business, certainly, and also appreciate that a happy fly-in customer will spread the word.

          Quite a few local airports with small offices but not attended will post notices of telephone numbers to call for a lift. One time I had to make an unplanned stop in Santa Rosa, New Mexico due to being cut off from my planned destination in Albuquerque by a line of thunderstorms. I found a posted note at the airport office with a number to call for ground transport. I called the number, and in just a few minutes, a local Sheriff’s Department deputy showed up and gave me a lift to a local hotel. He promised to pick me up at the hotel in the morning for the return trip to the airport! That’s the only time in my life I’ve ever ridden in a cop car (thankfully!).

          I’ve been given many a two-way lift by local restaurateurs and tourist outfitters. It’s always fun to meet folks that way, and they often seem to really enjoy meeting and hosting flyers. They also enjoy telling visitors about the best places to visit, recreate in, eat, sleep, etc., acting like impromptu personal tour guides.

          Think of ground transport as an “opportunity” and not a problem, and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

          It is the social aspect of flying that makes it truly fun, interesting, and rewarding beyond the intrinsic benefits of flight.

        • Roca
          Roca says:

          Regarding the ground transportation debate…don’t forget we are living in the Uber era! If you haven’t learned how to use this service yet, look into it. It’s not available everywhere (yet) but it is growing and is proving to be more reliable and affordable than most taxi services.

    • Stephen Davis
      Stephen Davis says:

      A little late to the comments here but here is my take: It is expensive. I am someone who a year ago decided to fly at 39 years old. After taking 6 months between work, about $10,000 in expense to get the license, time, and study, it is a commitment not many can make. Then after you get your license, you have the ongoing cost of everything from either renting at $145 an hour (which means if you really want to go anywhere you are going to pay through the nose). You could buy, but that investment seems to be hardly worth it (I need someone to explain buying to me on cost vs. renting – either way I seem screwed). Hanger cost, insurance, engine rebuild, surprise cost….I mean really, how can a “normal” person afford it. I don’t have kids, have a good income and can enjoy it, but I don’t think many of my friends can nor could anyone just getting started in life. Expect GA to continue to fall for sometime unless cost come down, which I seriously doubt will happen.

  2. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    good comparison. I actually find flying much easier than golf, and have done both extensively. one distinction is that flying will kill you, whereas playing golf typically will not. along with that threat comes government intervention in the form of the FAA and its regulations. I personally think that GA carries a much less hopeful chance for survival for that reason. the FAA regulations are restrictive to the point of being prohibitive … no such governmental restrictions exist for golf. so while I agree with the premise that easier to fly and safer airplanes will attract more fliers, I do not think that it will be enough to save GA without a thorough overhaul of the federal regulations. pilots must be allowed to assume more risk, in the same way that the operator of a land or sea-bound motor vehicle is allowed to.

  3. Duane
    Duane says:

    Perhaps there are some parallels between recreational golf and personal flying, but I think it’s more apples to oranges than apples to apples.

    The biggest difference is one of scale. There were 25.7 million golfers in the USA in 2011. Per the FAA there are 593,000 active pilots in the USA in 2014, and another 741,000 or so other professionals (mechanics, flight attendants, etc.) but only 174,000 private pilots. No matter how you cite the stats, golfers are a population that is rough 50-100 times larger than the population of private pilots flying light aircraft.

    Also, golf is much more readily accessible to a wider demographic, in part because it is a lot less costly to play golf than to fly aircraft. Golf can, of course, become very expensive, when played at exclusive private resorts and in golf course communities that requires the purchase of a home.

    But still, virtually anyone can buy a set of clubs for a few hundred bucks and play on public daily fee courses for less than $50 a half day (for 18 holes), whereas even the cheapest aircraft have an all-in cost, considering both fixed as well as variable costs, well in excess of $100 per hour. Considering the high fixed costs (aircraft purchase, maintenance, hangar, and insurance), one has to really fly the heck out of most of the cheaper legacy or experimental light aircraft in order to drive the total costs below $100 per hour. But relatively few private pilots fly more than 100 hours a year.

    Yet, despite all of the above, I don’t believe that private aviation is ever going to die out in the USA as some predict, but it will continue to evolve as it always has since the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. Nothing ever stays the same.

    Yet even in Europe, where private pilots do not enjoy the privileges of private navigation that we American pilots enjoy, and the user fees and fuel costs there are much higher than we have here in the USA, private aviation still exists and many would say it thrives. Indeed, the light aircraft aviation manufacturing industry in Europe is much more diverse and energetic than is the sclerotic US light aircraft industry is today. Most of the innovations in aircraft design it seems are coming from the Germans, Italians, and Czechs these days. Most new model aircraft are certified first via EASA in Europe after which they then obtain reciprocal certification by the FAA.

  4. Duane
    Duane says:

    I’d also like to address the environmental argument that John suggests that we private aviators are compelled to defend.

    I don’t believe that there is a significant environmental argument that holds water against the use of light aircraft for travel or recreation. The actual impact of light aircraft operations, including 100LL fuel, is negligible by any rational measure.

    The people who complain the loudest about carbon emissions, however, seem to think nothing of climbing in their $50M Gulfstreams burning tons of jet A to fly to Paris to yak about what neanderthals we little people are. Because, you know, our “betters” need only pay some peon a few bucks or Euros to plant some trees in Brazil to purchase their environmental indulgence, leaving their consciences clear. I might be a little more open to their environmental arguments if those same folks gave away everything they owned and lived off the land, and commuted to work in donkey carts, and gave up their 15,000-square foot vacation homes in Aspen and St. Moritz, rather than emitting gazillions of tons of hot air and carbon talking down to the rest of us.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      There’s plenty of “do as I say, not as I do” when it comes to the environment, no doubt. But we can’t pretend that general aviation doesn’t at least look bad to some potential pilots from an environmental perspective. The fuel efficiency of our engines is unchanged since the 60s, we are the only people who still burn leaded gas, and noise pollution is an ignored problem for a lot of airports.

      I’m hardly a crusader for Mother Earth, but the only reason GA’s impact (perceived or real) is so small is that not enough people fly. If GA grew by 200% next year, I guarantee the environment issue would flare up overnight. We should be ready.

      • Duane
        Duane says:

        John – I agree, it’s true that if private aviation suddenly grew, there would be a lot more focus on our gross environmental impacts. Just the same, though, they’re not making any new 1968 Piper Cherokees like I own. Any significant growth in American private aviation, if it ever occurs, must necessarily come from new airframes and engines, both certified and experimental.

        Actually, the latest products out (at least from the European manufacturers) are much more fuel efficient than our old birds. Due in part to new aerodynamically smooth and lightweight composite airframes, and in part to new technology engines such as the latest generation fuel-sipping diesel and gas engines.

        Indeed, if the FAA would just get the heck out of the way with its antiquated and ridiculous engine and aircraft certification standards – supposedly to be deep-sixed by the new regulatory reform mandated by Congress, but so far ignored by FAA – it wouldn’t take many years at all for much more fuel efficient gas and diesel engines and even other technologies (such as hybrids and fuel cells) to be quickly brought to market and made significantly cheaper to buy and operate than they are today.

        The problem with the antiquated, inefficient engines in the fleet today is not us aircraft owners, it’s the government.

        • John Zimmerman
          John Zimmerman says:

          Agree 100% there Duane. Exhibit A: electric airplanes may be the best long term answer for recreational airplanes, but you can’t even make an electric LSA.

  5. John
    John says:

    Very interesting and insightful thoughts above. I’ve played golf and flown airplanes on/off for most of my life; I tell my friends you can make double bogeys and triple bogies, shoot 110 and still walk away from the course, but you better not make too many double bogey’s in an airplane… Still, as Hans Solo, err I mean Harrison Ford said, the great responsibility associated with flying makes it so special… flying responsibly takes effort, you can’t skip the walk-around or ever be mentally disengaged…but there is no greater freedom or sense of accomplishment that I’ve found than flying a small airplane. In thinking about why young people are not flying as much these days, I wonder if society is just simply more risk averse now than it was in the 60’s 70’s 80’s… I don’t really know. I do know it’s tough to make time for either golf and flying while managing a career and raising a family…

  6. Linda Fritsche Castner
    Linda Fritsche Castner says:

    You are on target. I am both a golfer and a pilot. Alexandria Field (N85) is owned by my brother and myself. Our father built the airport in 1944. If you take a look at our website you will see that I not only believe what you are saying but I have actually taken action over the last 15 years to make flying and small GA airports of “greater value” to their communities. I have done research on using flight training for empowerment Leaders Take Flight website is takeflightworkshops.com I belong to several aviation organizations and the sell for “open you eyes” and make some changes is a hard one. But recently I have won several aviation education awards for innovation and feel soon people will listen.
    Linda Castner

  7. Brandon Freeman
    Brandon Freeman says:

    Lots of interesting thoughts, and certainly no clear answers (though your idea about breaking up Private training sounds suspiciously like Sporty’s’ MO, no?).

    Earlier this year, AOPA did a great write-up on a Facebook group I belong to that really brings Pacific Northwest area pilots and aviation aficionados together and really brings out the social aspect of aviation that I think it could use far more of.


  8. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    I think golf and aviation have both suffered recently because no one has any money. Our economy has been terrible with over 90 million people unemployed. This is by far the worst economic recovery from a recession.

    Golf will make a comeback when the economy does.

    Aviation? Not sure. For me the motivation was and is business travel so that the airplane more than pays for itself. There must be many more like me.

    This incredible kicker might be the hook to catch more new pilots: becoming a pilot has changed me for the better in so many ways. I have learned more about myself in the process of becoming and being a current pilot then anything else I have done in the last 20 years.

    I expressed that insufficiently here:


    “Flying has many contradictions that force you to think in different ways, to challenge your assumptions. Because of this becoming a pilot can be the ultimate self-improvement tool for successful people. By following your dream to fly, you become better at everything else you do.

    The message needs to be that learning to fly feeds the passion of exceptional people, opening vistas both outside and inside of them.”

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      A stronger economy would help all of these issues overnight. It’s a major factor, especially looking at aviation trends since 2006.

      Having said that, the negative trends were all present long before the latest recession. You could really argue things have been sliding downhill since 1980, with a few minor upticks. That points to deeper issues, I think.

      Love your article about how flying “feeds the passion of exceptional people.” If a few of those people chose a Cessna or a Cirrus over a Citation, we could welcome some new folks.

  9. Roca
    Roca says:

    I have a number of thoughts on this issue as a woman, a parent of young kids, and a pilot. I’ll try to be concise as attention spans are short.

    First, I agree the FBO/Flying Clubs/Airport should be more family friendly. A playground area, toy airplanes for sale next to the charts, kids headsets available for rent would send the message that kids are welcome. Kids activities at social events in particular would be appreciated. Our squadron used to have a family Christmas Party in the hangar with bouncy houses, gift exchanges and an aviation-themed Santa with photo opportunities. Something like this open to the community would attract young families for sure, and be an opportunity to tout the benefits of flying out for a weekend trip instead of driving. Holiday, spring break and summer camps for kids and teens is another way to keep people comign to the airport. It’s not just for the kids; anything that gets parents and families to the airport has a chance of hooking them into flying. How about sponsoring a Scout troop even, supporting their activities and offering a meeting space? As a mom, I’m most likely to stay involved in activities that involve my kids too.

    Second, newer equipment. Millenials are just not that interested in getting in a 30+ year old piece of equipment that feels like a dirty old Datsun their father drove in college when they have the whole internet in the palm of their hand. I understand costs of new equipment are prohibitive, but Manufacturers could partner with flight schools on leasing out new equipment as a marketing tool. I’d like to see if someone could make the numbers work on this idea.

    Looking even further ahead, look at the market for hobby drones right now. Radio controlled aircraft were always a niche hobby, until the technology jumped ahead and made them much easier to fly. Now everyone’s got to have one. I’m convinced people can be persuaded to part with their money if we can bring light aircraft into the 21st century. Tech in the new Cirruses and other aircraft do not go far enough. They need to be closer to driverless cars in ease of use. Get in, set the destination, press “go.” I realize that’s scary, but the right technology could mitigate most of the risk and even make flying a lot safer.

  10. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    As many have written, FBOs and GA businesses in general have done a poor to miserable job of selling their products to the larger public. Some of that poor performance is part of a vicious cycle, having insufficient income to buy ads on TV, etc. But some of it is a remarkably inward-looking attitude about aircraft and flying. For years, I have read of non-pilots– prospective students– walking into FBOs and being ignored, or worse. And aircraft manufacturers limit their marketing to publications seen only by people already involved in GA. Were I an aircraft marketer, I would try things other businesses use successfully– for example, paying to have GA and my airplanes written favorably into TV dramas (“product placement”), touring America with my planes and offering public family events and media interviews. There is a lot more that could be done, and not all of it requiring monstrous investments. HOWEVER, nothing presently done resolves the issues of cost, time requirements, challenging learning, and perceived danger. Sadly, the governmental responses to global terrorism may turn out to be the greatest threat to GA of them all.

  11. Greg Klasson
    Greg Klasson says:

    Interesting read… as always.
    I see some of the similarities but not sure any direct correlations can be drawn. My personal sense is that the problems with turning around the participation in GA may be directly attributed to those in charge of turning out new pilots. The latest figures that I have read are that over 80% of student pilots never finish their training and become PPL’s. that’s a very big number that if we could convert even 20% of that group into certificated pilots we wouldn’t even need these endless discussions. So why are so many dropping out? From my own training and observations of the process as it exists today… flying for many wanna be’s is NO LONGER FUN !!! Now who said it had to be fun? Well nobody… but if you are no longer having fun and you have plateaued in the training process. It becomes harder and harder to drive out to the airport and continue. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is…
    Much of the ‘blame’ on this rests with the CFI community. They have done a terrible job in turning out newly minted CFI’s that know how to teach and how to make learning fun. AND before I get flamed…. I know and respect the large number who do know how to teach this difficult subject !!! but there is a very large percentage of CFI’s who have little interest in teaching and as we all know so well are there only to build time. When the instructor would rather be some place else the student knows this. Until we can dramatically change how instructors teach and the ‘reputation’ of the ‘ learning to fly’ experience in this country we will never turn this situation around.
    For those of us who had to endure bad CFI’s… many of us wear it as a badge of achievement that we persisted in spite of all odds. Having endured the now old clichés of learning to fly in the USA. But is that how it should be? If you want to change the outcome .. you need to address where the problem lies. And unfortunately a large part of the problem lies with where and how we make new pilots.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Hard to argue with that, although I think some of the much-maligned “time builder” instructors are quite good. Especially for primary training. It’s an attitude thing more than time

      I do know flight schools where the dropout rate is close to zero. Some things that help: nice facilities, newer airplanes, managers who aren’t line instructors. But these things aren’t free. Can we fix the “too expensive” part while upgrading flight schools???

      • Greg Klasson
        Greg Klasson says:


        good point and there are good flight schools… but there have to be a LOT of bad CFI’s to have an overall rate of 80% not finishing. imagine if those were the numbers for where your children went to high school? I know how expensive flight training is.. but I firmly believe that a very large number of all students know in advance how much flight training costs. these are bright people. and I doubt that these students who do drop out do so after the first lesson. they also know that learning to fly can be hard. which makes having well qualified and properly motivated CFI’s critical.
        Flight instructors who only fly to build time has been a cliché in the business for a long long time…as well as those of us who have endured and lived long enough to relate the short comings of bad instruction.

        • John Emerson
          John Emerson says:

          That is an interesting comment about poor instructors and instruction and I will add to it.

          For background, I got my start in professional aviation by being a CFI with a pretty good reputation. This led to flying individuals’ planes around and eventually to a corporate jet gig and now to teaching on very light jets.

          I really do not believe that anyone gets into instructing with the idea of being a poor instructor. If you check it out, you will find that getting a CFI is LOTS of work and study etc. I believe that initial CFI may be the hardest cert to earn in aviation.

          I hear the scornful acccusion of people just “building time” while instructing. Yet some of my best past instructors were guys who wanted to earn a living in aviation. Sad to say, instructing for a living is a very hard way to do that. Almost inevitably, the good ones, if so inclined, will be asked to take a “real” aviation job that acually pays a living wage.

          So what is poor instruction? I believe it occurs when a CFI is too rigid in the way he/she teaches, when the CFI is not aware of and teaching towards the goals the individual has for his flying, and really, when the CFI devalues his/her own expertise and therefore misses opportunities to really hit the instructional mark.

          I see some young CFI’s at my local airport, one of whom was my student, with full booking and unable to handle the flow. And I see some who believe that it is slow because of the poor economy.

          It all comes down to how the CFI handles things overall. We traing CFI’s to be great technicians, but not for much else. That missing 40% is what makes bad instruction.

  12. James A. (Jim) Frankenfield
    James A. (Jim) Frankenfield says:

    Linda Fritsche Castner, Hi from Jim Frankenfield, and I would bet that, back in 1955 or so, that it was your father, Bill, who gave me my Commercial Pilot check-ride, out of your Alexandria Field, in my Aeronca Chief. He was a DPE out of the Allentown FSDO (as was I too, 1961-71 under FAA’s Mr. John Doster. My home base was the Bethlehem-Easton Airport then, Gene ‘Trig’ Trigiani, FBO. Then 1961 thru ’71 worked for Art Turner at his field near Ambler, PA. Then on to Ft. Lauderdale (now Melbourne, FL). (321)543-1013 What a great guy was Bill Fritsche. Everybody loved him! Low-N-slow jim.

    If I’m right on this, get back to me. Great memories from back then. Glad to hear that N-85 is still up and running.

  13. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    A really good essay with many good insights.

    I do believe that Mr. Piper wrote an article similar to this for FLYING magazine back in about 1947 (just before the big GA crash). His conclusion was that the young crowd should not be the target of sales, but it was the older people that had some money left over after raising the kids that should be the target market. Mr. Piper was a pretty good salesman; was he wrong?

  14. Rich
    Rich says:

    I think an aspect that wasn’t mentioned was family and friends. Yes, some women do fly with their husbands, but the majority of pilots have spouses that either because of illness, lack of interest, or fear, just will not go in light aircraft. I know multi thousand hour ATP’s whose spouse will not go near a small plane. Then there is the limitation of going out with another couple. A four-place small plane is really a three seater unless the flight is very limited.

    As for LSA being a savior, I don’t think so. The regs are too restrictive to allow much more than a single person in one plane if you really want to go anywhere. Third class medical reform may help, but you really need to get the FAA out of the medical business altogether for recreational pilots. You don’t have continual oversight to drive a 6,000 pound SUV at 70 mph on a crowded freeway, and there is no licensing to drive a recreational boat on any waterway.

  15. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    John, one thing you seemed to overlook is the outright unfriendliness of local airport owners, especially community leaders and their political buddies.
    Where is the old interest so many of us had as kids. Seen this mentioned in many places where local airports are actually having “open house,” “kid’s day,” even the simple “watch the planes take off and land.” The area I live in, and seen or heard of similar problems elsewhere, the local airport is NOT the friendliest place in town. Now, it’s where the community leaders want to build big businesses, and are only interested in “commercial” aviation, as opposed to General Aviation. Comments made by one of our local leaders – “All general aviation planes need their batteries pulled, and the rest of the planes torn apart for recycling..” “They serve no useful purpose.”
    Sorry John, just an old, disgusted (now former) PPL wishing he was back in the air.

  16. Chuck MacArthur
    Chuck MacArthur says:

    As an airline pilot, my view is that golf is so far from aviation, that comparison is only related to the loss of participants. For the extreme example, let’s put locked gates and barbed wire around every golf course and see how many new students of the game show up! Then the largest differences between the two are alcohol and profitability. You can stop for a cocktail mid-course in golf and drink and drive your boat but you can’t turn either into a money making profession like you can in aviation, and those are the killer realites that new pilots young and old face when considering whether or not to invest in getting started.

  17. Kenny Phillips
    Kenny Phillips says:

    I truly believe that flying *should* be a “walk in the park”. Wing levelers or even full autopilots, GPS, anti-stall systems (that do not let the pilot override them), electronic engine and prop controls, etc. all benefit pilots who fly 20 hours a year or 500 hours a year. There’s little reason to exclude them, even in trainers, given the cost of admission. With a little standardization, none of those items are expensive. (Heck, you can get a car with navigation and stability control and anti-lock brakes and a backup camera – those last three either mandated now or very soon – for under $20K. Not a fun car, just a car! Multiply that by twenty – or more – for a analogously equipped airplane.) Have ’em run on MoGas if the flight envelope allows. Get ride of the medical for all non-commercial flying, leave it up to you and your doctor as to whether you can fly or even drive a car.
    The other issue with flying is the lack of performance regarding speed and carrying capacity. My Skyhawk could carry 660 lbs. with full tanks (and I’ve done it). You can pay nearly a million for a plane that won’t do as well. I’d pay $250K for a true 160 kt plane that has the equipment mentioned above, and could fly 700 miles carrying 900 lbs. of people and luggage (because we’re all fat now.) I won’t pay four times that.

    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      Kenny, when you wrote “get rid of the medical” I felt the lightning bolt. I learned to fly 40 years ago. Two months ago I got bit by the bug and I began to take lessons again. My instructor was an ex-Navy fighter pilot with a calm and friendly disposition. The fact that I bought the X-Plane flight simulator and a bunch of its peripheral devices helped me regain my skills.

      Three weeks ago I went to an FAA doctor, having filled out the online forms before. Turns out that because of two medications I take, one which I have taken for 15 years and has never induced a single side effect, the other which I have taken for about six months for a condition of minor severity, I am now prohibited from obtaining a third class medical, and hence, from ever flying an airplane by myself. (I could “go off” my longer-term medicine, and fly again, but the medicine is useful and necessary and very difficult to withdraw from.) My instructor was very enthusiastic about my progress – my ground reference maneuvers were particularly good he said – and I regained the hang of slow flight and pattern work very quickly. The next logical step was to solo. Alas.

      While I am a far far left liberal (I “Feel the Bern”) I now have common ground with my libertarian colleagues in that I believe in my case, over-zealous regulation has killed my aspiration. My time in the cockpit was joy for me, even when the air was a little rough and I would say to the instructor “(name), let’s go home” before I started to feel uncomfortable.

      So I would be – happily – a poster child for your suggestion of eliminating the medical certificate and simply letting one’s MD endorse his or her fitness to fly. Unfortunately, I will be a box full of ashes and grit before this kind of reform ever happens.

      The one silver lining to my situation is that my instructor also found my mastery of the ground school knowledge to be pretty comprehensive, and since I spent seven years teaching extremely sharp high school kids in a rather elite boarding school, I am a perfect candidate to become a CGI: a certified ground instructor. I may indeed pursue this, but I wonder what will happen after I get certified and apply for my first position, at age mid-50 something, and for $20,000 a year? I just think that perhaps having a more grandfatherly type in front of a class of aspiring pilots might have a lot of benefits. And the pay isn’t even a factor at this point; my wife works and we are fine.

      More personal responsibility, less hyper-regulation and fewer litigation lawyers might be nice after all.

  18. Joseph V
    Joseph V says:

    With relatively few hours (10) I became disillusioned with flight lessons. I had a good CFI and the plane was a well kept 172. The problem was the money kept piling up and I felt like I was not learning anything. Stall after Stall after Stall but I was not familiar with the plane. Time is the isue and it is wasted not learning about the plane and flying. When I learned to dock and run large yachts I was on the boat for hour just getting comfortable then practicing in the bay. With a plane it is here you go… push the throttle ok we are in the air. Zero room for error even with a CFI.

    When I looked into simulators they were either a joke, for tech geeks or insanely expensive. There is no middle ground in flying and with this is the flaw. Cirrus has done a amzing job building a safer plane especially with pull the shute mentality. Maybe they can build simulators all over that are ready to go and usable. Put a couple in the middle of NYC and pilots will come out of the woodwork’s.

    Then time in the plane would be about stick and rudder skills and everything else would fall into place.

  19. Don R
    Don R says:

    A great article and lots of meaningful discussion. It is always worthwhile to look at other businesses and activities for ideas on how to improve, and the golf/flying comparison is a lot to offer. I happen to love both, and it is sad to see them both in decline. What I fear is declining in both activities is the passion. From the time I was a small child I loved to go to the golf course with my Dad and “caddie” for him. Of course with the current legal environment you can no longer do that, but it instilled in me a love for the game that continues to drive grand feelings of anticipation when I pull into the golf course parking lot and pull out my clubs. Or watch a well hit ball soar on it’s intended path.
    Similar with flying. My Dad again got me started with model airplanes. When I decided I wanted to learn to fly in my late 20’s, from the first time I took the controls the feelings of freedom and fun were overwhelming. Even today after 35 years of traveling around in small planes, it is still exhilarating to pull back on the yoke and leave the bonds of earth, or enjoy one of the many gorgeous views of our beautiful planet from the our exclusive vantage point.
    So why aren’t more people drawn to the passion?

      • Don R
        Don R says:

        Richard Collins did a great analysis of the cost of flying today versus 50 years ago, and when equalized for inflation, the cost as a percent of income has not really changed that much. I do believe people allocate their money differently today. People seem to want to spend more on big fancy homes, multiple new cars, and tons of electronics (many with monthly fees). Perhaps flying and golf have just been out marketed and are losing the battle for discretionary income.

  20. Greg Viola
    Greg Viola says:

    Great article, all excellent points. I will add another activity to the comparison (one of my bad habits): shooting skills and marksmanship. Same model, except its a lot less expensive than golf or flying.

    The overall appearance we present to potential new aviators is a big deterrence when compared to the customer experience in all other areas of life. Technology is well integrated and inter-operable. Administrative process are almost fully automated. Our cars are slick, nice and easy to operate, with advanced electronics, and very little maintenance and reliability issues.

    GA airplanes for training are mostly old, ratty, in need of paint, and feel like you’re operating an advanced lawn mower from the 1950’s. Many local airports look like something out of 1980, and there is still an air of aloof elitism at some flight schools among the cognoscenti. Lots of aviation is still paper based. Management and presentation of information, in the cockpit and on the ground, is still heavily silo’d and arcane. Our NextGen technology is last century. No wonder our young people who master the iPad at age three are turned off.

    Do not discount the overall potential impact of the electric power plant, especially when you consider how much training time and cost is consumed learning the vagaries of properly operating fossil fueled aviation engines, including emergency procedures. Operationally, most internal combustion power plant management complexity and risk management simply go away with electric power plants, in addition to noise and air pollution. We need significant R&D and regulatory reform to make that happen, including subsidies for transition. I’m not sanguine about any of that happening any time soon.

    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      Greg, I’m one of those crazy contradictions – a gun–owning liberal – and you are right on the money. Very well thought out and very well written. Loved “advanced lawn mower from the 1950s” and thank you for not putting and apostrophe before the s!

  21. Michael Cowan
    Michael Cowan says:

    Why do golf, flying, yoga, & even religious retreats see a loss of interest among many/most people today? Smart Phones!!

    People won’t even willingly quit texting to drive! Why would we expect them to spend time doing something that keeps them disconnected or distracted from their phone for actual minutes at a time?? Offline they might miss out on whether their best friend was currently in the bathroom or watching NetFlix! How terrible is that!

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Fair point, Michael. Although participation in yoga is soaring right now – up almost 100% in the last 5 years. Maybe we need tight-fitting flight suits???

  22. Scott
    Scott says:

    Decline in participation is as much a marketing/image problem as any of the aforementioned items. GA has been sold worse than horribly to the public, or rather sold in the negative. Remember when legacy airframe manufacturer’s could only sell very few traditional airplanes in the early/mid 2000’s? Then Cirrus came along and sold more than one(1) more expensive airplane per day for years with many sold to non-pilots. The same problem exists with creating new pilots or demand for GA. About ten(10) years ago we started a STEM program for 14-18 years where they fly each day for a week – see http://www.young-aviators.com By creating a comfortable path past the barbed wire airport fence the public is thrilled with the GA experience. Many pilot starts result and GA’s image becomes a positive one. The 1950’s era business practices of GA are simply obsolete. C’mon guys this isn’t rocket science!

  23. John Stark
    John Stark says:

    OK, so my two-cents may irritate…but here goes. I am a 100+ hour student. An accident has kept me from finishing (car, not plane)–and as I finish re-hab, I begin to wonder if it is worth it to start up again…..

    In Des Moines, IA: (DSM) {and btw: there is no LSA club that allows students around her or I’d do that in a second!}

    –$60 month for flying club after $400 to get in

    –$110 an hour for the plane plus fuel
    *assume a 2 hour lesson at 8gph and $3 per gallon = $48 + $110 plus $75 instructor = $230+ an hour to learn. WHAT??? So maybe $6500 or more to get the PPL

    –yeah it is incredibly satisfying to fly solo. I love the challenge of landing! I love the freedom. I love talking to ATC…seriously. I love wearing a SIDA badge and wandering around the hangars….I just love aviation.

    –stalling is scary and ridiculous. We don’t send a car into an icy skid just to prove how not to do it. Sorry, old time flyers, but this idea is way past it’s time. Most planes like the 172, PA 180, Cherokee 140, and the like, are near-impossible to stall. So, we toss the plane into an attitude guaranteed to scare the sh– outta you and recover. Whoopee.

    –too many hoops: 3rd class medical, hours and hours with an instructor, then time with a DPE….3rd medical class reform seems close so there’s that. But if I use a Gold Seal CFI, then s/he should be able to sign me off. Period.

    and then, the PPL. Again, we go the expense; a nice flight to DBQ or OMA would take an hour there and another back, so figure $250…I am lucky in that Iowa has lots of great scenery and neat small airports, so that’s appealing…but $250 for 2 hours? do that 2x a month and we get to $6k a year before club dues….

    So, I don’t know what to do…give it up? finish and not fly often? Wait for change? for now, I’ll keep my AOPA membership, plane and Pilot subscription, Flying mag subscription and watch videos as I ponder. Your thoughts, pilots??

    • Robert Thomas
      Robert Thomas says:

      If stalls scare you maybe you should reconsider pursuing a PPL. Simple statistics show most accidents are from uncoordinated flight at low altitudes. If you don’t understand stalls and experience them, how will you know what you are avoiding? My first instructor, while extremely competent, didn’t in my opinion, spend enough time on stalls and uncoordinated flight. I’ve gone so far as to seek “unusual attitude”, or spin training. Never mind when the aircraft stalls, do you recognize the subtle burbles, bumps and feedback the aircraft gives you right before it stalls or spins? Can you arrest the stall or spin before it happens? You can’t if you’re afraid of it. Don’t get me wrong, Im not a thrill seeker, nor do I really enjoy spin training. But it makes me more aware, and less likely to kill myself.

  24. Jerry Heller
    Jerry Heller says:

    I think Mr.Piper was dead on when he suggested that mature adults could be the best target. I am in that category and am thrilled to have the time and enough money to fly my Cherokee. In fact when I look around the FBO I see a lot of retirees doing the same. I learned in the USAF but didn’t fly for amost fifty years while I had a career and raised a family. Now I fly with an instrument rating and concentrate on flying. The AOPA should be advertising in the AARP magazine and get the old guys back in the cockpit.

    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      With more realistic and pragmatic approaches to medication in the older flying demographic, that goal might be achieved.

  25. Louie
    Louie says:

    Lots of good comments. My $.02: An “average” (Cessna 172) family plane costing $180,000 and up should discourage 95% of the people. Of course there’s the rental cost to match. The feds aren’t helping with enormously outdated certification procedures. The lawyers don’t help with outrageous lawsuits. I’ve been doing this for 54 years now and I really don’t understand how anybody could afford to get into this activity unless they are independently wealthy. Currently, most people are struggling to justify buying a home and to keep the car running. With modern production methods and equipment and materials, a manufacturer should be able to crank out a 4 Place plane for a fraction of the cost that they are currently charging. I have been listening to the mantra since 1962 that the manufacturer has to recoup the certification cost of something like an engine. If they haven’t recouped that cost since they were designed in the 1920s and 30s, they are doing something woefully wrong. The production methods are stuck in the 1940s, at best. The legal community and the Feds aren’t helping things at all and are mostly counterproductive. A person could get panicky watching airports close but why would they try to maintain such a large facility with its attendant investments when nobody lands there, because of all of the above. I hold out very little hope that general aviation is not going to shrink to about 5% of what it is now unless we can all get together through our various organizations and make some drastic changes. I watched my friend start with a pile of aluminum and create an airplane by himself in 60 days, working part-time. It has 4 seats and flies. A factory full of people and machinery should be able to pump out several of those every week. Look at what we accomplished in World War II. But of course we have to get the attorneys off the backs of the manufacturer and get the Feds to start printing maps again,instead of trying to enforce antique regulations. Although technology has advanced enormously since World War II, the Feds have not. And since the Feds have not, the manufacturers cannot. In order for this incredibly wonderful activity to survive, we need to be far more militant in getting the rules changed. We generally have been so grateful to be involved in this wonderful activity that I think we have got use to begging instead of demanding. Pilots tend to be nice guys and it’s probably not in the makeup of most of us to pick a fight with those who rule over us. And that will inevitably result in our demise. Just saying.

    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      Louie, I’m a liberal with a big mouth, but I agree with you. GA is antiquated, behind the times, too expensive, too regulated, too litigated and too complicated.

  26. Jack Garzella
    Jack Garzella says:

    I hate to say it, but “recreational” GA just seems to be dying and almost dead. If you can’t use 100K+ aircraft (let alone a jet) for business, it is REALLY hard to justify the cost, time and commitment (training, hangars, etc.) for recreational GA. I have a Baron, and I could not justify it for a casual weekend fun flight. When I had a DA-40 before the Baron, I did do that once in a while but only if a friend wanted to go. Otherwise I was using it for business and/or training.

    I also used to golf (15 years ago) over 100 rounds a year, last year I think I did 2 rounds with my kids. That is 100% a time issue for me, the expense is very cheap compared to aviation.

    In my/our business, we find GA is strong and growing in ‘business’ and business related activities, but I personally don’t see a way to get “recreational” GA back unless something dramatic changes in the structure of the industry costs or time. Flying Clubs, etc are not the answer, help a little, but not the answer. (FYI I don’t have an answer other than dramatically lowering the cost and time factor, which is not going to happen in the short or mid term, if ever).

    However, DRONES, are growing. I have 7 cousins that talk to me on a regular basis (they are not pilots) about flying their drones, how to get bigger ones, regulations, etc.. This may just be the final dagger in recreational GA. Maybe though if enough fly Drones is will migrate to LSA/inexpensive GA planes.

    FYI – love the new stuff, iCON, etc. – but I don’t think it does enough to turn the tide.

    Great comparison, I would not have put them together but there are a lot of parallels.

    • Rob
      Rob says:

      Jack, saw your comment regarding drones. It may actually go either ways. I have been wanting to get my PPL since I was a teen but didn’t have the money or couldn’t justify the cost up till recently.
      Over a year and a half ago, I started working with drones (all types, including military). The company I work for hired me off the street with nothing more than some RC hobby experience. As of Dec 2014, my employer does not hire any new drone operators unless they have, at the minimum a PPL. That is what “forced” me to finally get my PPL because I would be out of a job/career if I didn’t.
      As time went on, I have seen an increase of drone/UAV companies increasing their requirements for their operators. More and more companies that fly the hobby style drones as a business are now requiring at least a Sport lic.. More companies operating the bigger UAVs require a PPL. Some UAV companies that fly the big UAVs (such as the Predator) are already requiring Instrument/Commercial ratings for their civilian contractor operators.
      The odd thing about this, is that this phenomenon is not due to any FAA requirements. It is the customers we fly for that set said requirements/standards for the operators/pilots.

      So maybe, the whole drone phenomenon will be a good thing for GA. Time will tell.

  27. Scott
    Scott says:

    Eric’s comment on declining utility of GA is also key. As airports close usefulness declines. What about creating an app for crew cars for GA use? Or has Uber solved that?
    For day VFR weekend operations
    available choices are used up fairly quickly. That just means you gotta do longer trips – we’ve done family summer vacations for 20+ years. Great fun and much better than airlining!

  28. Frank
    Frank says:

    I started flying in 1966 when I could rent a Debonair for $20 and hour wet with no Hobbs meter ticking away like a taxi cab.
    Sure I made about $5 and hour but it was doable.
    The frivolous law suit trial Lawyers and out of control inflation is what is killing aviation.
    After being grounded and treated the way we were after 911, I really think big government was looking for an excuse to get rid of us “little people”.

    • Doyle Frost
      Doyle Frost says:

      Frank, I think you may have hit the nail on the head. Too many “government entities” involved, and the lawyers of course, all conspiring, (not actually, as far as I know,) against general aviation. After all, GA doesn’t really bring any money to a community, or does it, and the big shots are not interested, as it doesn’t personally go into their pockets, and the local constituents are not fans of aviation for anything except their personal long distance trip out of the area? Sorry for the negativity, but this is a particular sore spot for me.

  29. Rob
    Rob says:

    As several of you already stated, the expense of being a frequent pilot is the biggest issue that I and others have.
    I have just passed my PPL check ride last month which I have wanted to get since I was a teen. It was always the same, not enough money and/or no time.
    I’m 43 yrs old now and I do make good living, not great but good. For the last 2 months or so, I have been day dreaming about buying my own aircraft. Based on the ads I have seen, there is a verity of used aircraft that I can buy at a cost of an average new car. And in all honesty, if I was to buy one, the initial cost would not break me. But when I added up the annual cost of insurance, storage, and inspections, its just overwhelming.
    What gets me is, with the new ratings available, manufacturers advertise their Sport Aircraft as low price, affordable, aircraft.
    Did I miss a memo? Since when is $100k~$200k considered low price/affordable?
    The Icon 5A, in my opinion a beautiful aircraft, its all I would ever need if not more. But at $180k, its NOT a low cost aircraft for the middle class.
    Even a new good ultralight cost as much if not more then a used C-172.
    Although rental is cheaper, it also is expensive, over $100 an hour.
    I was interested in pursuing an instrument rating. But even with the cheaper rental fees, it would take me months if not years to save up the money to rent an aircraft to achieve the required hours to even qualify for the course.

    I realize I’m beating a dead horse here. Nothing I wrote is new. But based on my interactions with already existing private pilots, new private pilots, and young want to be pilots, THIS IS the number one issue.
    Why invest the time and money into a PPL when one cannot afford to do anything with it afterwards?
    If GA was truly affordable to the masses, many of the issues would resolve themselves. Better quality FOBs, more clubs, more aviation get togethers, newer, safer and more affordable technologies to address the environmental concerns.
    Anyway, thats my 2 cents worth.

  30. Scott
    Scott says:

    So many GA airports are under utilized by the local community. In our small Midwest town most families have no idea the value the airport offers to them. We started a kids STEM program at the airport that has become a channel for families to learn about and have enjoyable/positive access to the airport. Aviation has never been inexpensive, but when families see the value offering to positively impact their kids then more resources become available or are directed to such programs. A gathering of pilots & parents then develops for the benefit of the community. Checkout http://www.young-aviators.com. Have you seen the size & cost of boats at the local marina? Most of which leave the slip once or twice a season? What about weekend traffic that makes access to vacation spots ridiculous? Don’t tell me there’s no money for GA. A lack of marketing is a big cause of the decline in interest.

  31. Tim
    Tim says:

    Good Article, but I continue to be amazed that aviation people are missing one of the major reasons aviation is sliding. The simple truth is that less than 1/2 of the US population can physically fit in the training aircraft and 2 seat GA fleet. The average US male is over 180 lbs and the average US female is over 170 lbs. How many LSA, older GA, or 2 seat trainers can carrier 450+ pounds of pilot and passenger. The few that are out there are not at the low end of the price range. Bottom line is that Americans are larger and heavier today and GA is not available to these people.

    A local flight instructor offers free ground school and gets a lot of students. His problem is that at least 1/2 of the serious students can not get instruction in a C-150/2 with him being 160 pounds. These students are simply to heavy and large for the training fleet. Yet these are the people GA needs to target since they are not occupied by many other sports like golf. These people like sports like riding ATVs, boats (non-physical sports) and would love to fly when given a chance.

  32. Roca
    Roca says:

    One other aspect that’s bothersome is the standards for taking compensation. It would be awesome if there were an “Uber” for light aircraft, so people might tag along on trips to the same destination. How many of us flying solo cross country would love to split the cost with a rider? Alas, unless you get certified as an air carrier, insure yourself, and perform 100 hour inspections, forget about it. Another case where over-regulation stifles us.

  33. Ricky
    Ricky says:

    I’m a 5 handicap golfer and a helicopter owner and pilot and an airplane owner and IR pilot. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished both on the course and in the air. I’m also proud to say I’m an American and I’m thankful for the brave men and women who paved the way of freedom so a guy like me can enjoy life. There’s a certain feeling that comes with a nice solid drive on a tight hole, greasing the mains on with passengers on board and holding a hover in a machine that looks like it shouldn’t even fly. If you want to do it find a way and do it.

  34. Robert Thomas
    Robert Thomas says:

    A better comparison would be sailing and flying. Let’s face it the average GA aircraft is not really good for much other than getting up in the air and the $100 hamburger. A sailboat is a terrible way to get anywhere unless you like being cold, wet and going slow. And the cost is comparable. In fact I can tell you owning a 38ft sailboat is more expensive than the average 4 seat GA ship. So why do I love both? I’m one of those strange people for who the journey is the goal. So how do you get more people involved? You just have to take them flying. It’s really only going to stick with the ones that simply love the sensation of flight and the satisfaction of mastering a skill. Is this type of person a dying breed, the electronic devices have won? Maybe, but I’m not going without a fight.

  35. JD
    JD says:

    When General Aviation dies the FAA will find a new mission…when you hit a golf ball it is no longer on the ground and is in the air, um……

  36. Ricky
    Ricky says:

    Flying is expensive no doubt, its not even close to affordable or cost effective for most owners and pilots. So why do it? Now that’s the question. How do you convince someone that flying is a good idea when you know its tough, scary super expensive?

  37. Steve
    Steve says:

    Seems to me aviation has been overanalyzed since its inception. Despite the cost and influence of regulation it’s still a market driven activity. There’s no rule that requires a market to survive if it’s appeal or utility has become obsolete.

  38. Andy
    Andy says:

    Are you kidding me? This has to be the most ridiculous comparison imaginable. As much as the author would like to pretend, even in the comments, that this is a complex issue involving socio-economics, it isn’t! It’s an incredibly simple issue of money, and an overly rigid regulatory body, which can, in no way, be compared to the costs of playing golf! I notice the author is listed as regularly flying a PC-12… clearly this is not someone in touch with the regular GA community. It never ceases to amaze me the rich pilots that seem to claim to have an understanding of why no one flies anymore. Do you guys even know what it currently costs to get a PPL? I mean really get a PPL, not what flight schools tell you to get you to spend money with them. I have friends that are CFIs that started flying in the 50s and 60s who nearly died when they heard how much my last 3 friends that got PPLs spent.

    Now let’s also address the only valid point of this entire article… airplanes themselves. What’s the point of refurbishing a 1976 Cessna 172M? Seriously, sure the airframe gets a new lease on life and marginally upgraded instrumentation, but you’re still flying on an ancient motor based on 1920s technology. The FAA has to be the most obtuse organization known to man. Rather than realizing GA needs a huge revamping, they’ll fight to the death to keep ancient aircraft with borderline dangerous technology in the skies for as long as possible. These days if you can’t blow at least $500,000 on an airplane, you can’t afford to be safe. Or at least take advantage of really modern safety features. And more realistically you need to be spending in the millions of dollars.

    Not to mention the greatest racket/union in the US has to be the A&Ps that get paid exorbitant amounts of money to do absolutely shoddy work on GA aircraft with no real oversight. The cost to overhaul an aviation engine is criminal, and for no explanation other than: because airplane. I’ll never forget having a new landing light installed in the aircraft of a club I flew with and looking in horror at how it had been wired and the wiring routed. It looked like a 5yr old had done it blindfolded. We claim that everything in aviation is done for safety, but we fight our damndest to keep it as unsafe as possible by being to afraid to change anything, and too often the people who should care just write checks because they don’t know any better.

    Diamond is the first manufacturer to do something insane and have a computer governing the engine of an aircraft! And let’s see it cuts the fuel burn in half, they still don’t know what the TBO is because the engines simply don’t wear out, it’s triple redundant, but according to the FAA this computer nonsense just has no place in aircraft. What’s the point of revamping an aging fleet if you’re not actually going to improve them with the absolute latest technology? Oh right, you can’t because no one can afford it, and even if they could, no one would then ever be able to afford to rent them.

    The only current answer that makes any sense to just fly anything economically is to boycott manufacturers and build your own airplane. It’s a known science, the technology is there, there are a plethora of proven kits that a 5 year old could build, and you can afford absolutely state of the art avionics for kitplanes. The rub of course being who has 900 hours to spare… and conveniently it’s illegal for someone else to build it for you. Plus most people to have a useful aircraft need at least four seats.

    Aviation doesn’t need to adapt it needs to change, and not succumb to antiquated views of antiquated people and organizations that wouldn’t know about the reality of flying in the 21st century if it bit them. The only way to get people flying is to get people flying, something no one seems to have an interest in unless you’re talking about millionaires.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Golf and flying are not the same – wasn’t trying to suggest that. But there are some lessons we should take, just like there are probably some lessons to learn from plenty of other fields. In the end, I just refuse to accept that cost is the only problem. It is a problem – I’ll reiterate that flying is too darn expensive – but we are simply kidding ourselves if we think that’s the only problem. There are 3.6 million second homes in America, there are 160,000 active GA airplanes. There are about 12,000 Ferraris and Porsches sold every year; we sell under 1000 airplanes per year. The stats go on and on. Plenty of people out there have the money to fly but have chosen not to. That should worry us.

  39. Ricky
    Ricky says:

    Its all talk and no action till you go flying isn’t it? What kind of person are you a talker or a doer? Go take an intro flight and if you like it you’ll find a way to fly and be a better person because of it. Like lots of hobbies flying improves other areas of your life don’t worry you’ll understand later. When you compare golf and flying you need to only address serious golfers not 10 round a year duffers. How about 60 round a year people who like to travel to play as well as play locally. Then the numbers start pairing up. Rich is subjective, if you’ve got enough money to do it and the health to do it guess what? You’re rich!!!!

  40. Claudio Friederich
    Claudio Friederich says:

    In one month and an iPad you can learn Chinese or learn to write software? Not so, buddy. I am bilingual, and have taken almost a decade worth of courses in a 3rd language, but fluent in it, I am by no means. I have seen software written by very intelligent people who were non-software professionals, having PhDs in respectable universities in the hard sciences, who had learned programming from reading a book for a month. Their software was among the most hideously bad software I have seen. I am a professional software developer, who owns and flies a C172 for a hobby, and I can tell you that learning to pilot a single-engine airplane in IFR and go from nothing to Private+instrument is a walk in the park compared to learning to develop any software worth booting up on even simple platforms. And speak Chinese in a month? You must be joking. You cannot become bilingual in any language in a month, and Chinese is known to be one of the more difficult languages for Westerners to learn.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      You may be reading too much into what I wrote. My point was that, with a month of hard work and an iPad, I could learn enough Chinese to walk into a restaurant and order some food. Bilingual? Hardly. But I could at least feel like I’d had some success. Same with software – one month would certainly not teach me how to write the world’s greatest app, but I could at least see some result to be proud of (even if it’s just Hello world).

      In aviation, I’m not talking about flying a Gulfstream to India here (the bilingual parallel I’d say). I’m talking about the Hello world moment. To get there (solo?) is time-consuming, frustrating and difficult. Mostly because a lot of the flight training business is stuck in a WWII mindset.

  41. Tony Sabos
    Tony Sabos says:

    There are solutions to these problems. As you have identified, many have other plans for their discretionary income. It comes down to the way our industry markets to potential customers. As you and others have identified, creating community and missions are the way to keep pilots and their families interested in the fun of flying. Aviation needs to be looked at more like the motorcycle industry. They sell the lifestyle and they sell FUN versus only as a mode of transportation.

    “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.”

    Be careful making blanket statements such as this one. Unfortunately, Light Sport was intended to reduce the cost of entry but was marketed to existing pilots as a solution to deal with an ageing pilot population. We have had great success using Light Sport Airplanes in our school. We have also seen many Sport Pilots go on to achieve their Private, Instrument and Commercial ratings. Sport pilot was an entry point for them. In many cases our aircraft offer more in useful load, better performance, and have more shoulder room than a 172. I’m not sure where “less reliability” was sourced from, but that seems to be inferred. We need to embrace new technology and new ways of doing business to adapt to a new generation.

    We run a flight school that has been attracting a broader segment of the market. We do it by getting off the airport and educating people on some of the false perceptions that they have about flying. Lets face it, the way people interact and meet has changed drastically over the past 10 years. The way we build the flying community has to be attractive to a large audience. There are so many ways to get people involved in aviation other than flying. In fact, we connect pilots with other pilots and non- pilots to split flights in order to encourage sharing the experience.

    Most people will budget for something if they see the value in it. Create community and invite the family into the sport and more people participate in the long run.

  42. Scott Cole
    Scott Cole says:

    I’m a recently licensed pilot, and fairly new to aviation. However, I’m skeptical that GA decline can all be explained away by over-regulation or greedy lawyers. Regulation is almost always a reaction to a problem. I would ask that those who blame regulation show the precise regulations responsible for this decline. Whenever conservatives decry regulation, one has to ask “well, which exact regulation are you talking about?” Because with most regulation, there are winners and losers. Would you thus have the industry totally unregulated? I’m not sure that I’d feel any safer. For example, I do feel safer knowing my rented 172 has to have both an annual and a 100 hour. How many out there would do away with that? How many would return to cars with 1960 safety technology?

    Regulation may be a contributing factor, but I would point to two other powerful disincentives for flying:
    1. Fear. Due to the 24-hour news cycle, we now hear about every GA accident. They may be rare, but they are often gruesome. Most car accidents are survivable, including my own (I was rear-ended by a semi). But look at the high- profile accidents in recent years, including John Denver, Harrison Ford, and JFK Jr. The recent mid-air collision in CA. The miraculous survival of a young girl after her grandfather flew into a mountain in the Cascades. Four Case Western wrestlers burned alive when their overloaded 172 couldn’t make it back to land.
    Yes, car travel is dangerous, but the public thinks small aircraft are death traps.
    And it’s hard to blame them. Many people get sick in small planes, especially if they are used to jet travel. Landing is scary. High winds are scary.

    2. Cost. When I first thought about flying lessons in the 90s, it was only $40/hour. It seemed expensive even then. But it is recognized that real income has steadily fallen since 1970 and the forces that have pushed down wages (corporate greed, lack of unions, globalization, technology, etc) and pushed up expenses (the privatization of education, health care, etc) do not seem to be headed for change.
    So there is much less money for a hobby that has never been cheap.

    Gas is certainly expensive, but here’s another issue involved in the spiral of cost: could aircraft rentals be any cheaper? There is little competition. In my area, there is one plane to rent. That’s it. If there were more, would the price come down? It’s a chicken and egg problem: fewer pilots, fewer FBOs, fewer planes, higher cost leading to… Fewer pilots. After gas, my FBO makes $60/hour. I don’t know if they make money, but after maintenance on a 40- year-old plane, I suspect not much.
    FBOs could do one thing: lower the lesson rental cost, or even do a fixed price for a license up to the national average of 65 hours. Surely they should recognize that a newly minted pilot is now a customer who will want to rent.

    Finally, a big question: can a new factory- built plane be constructed for $30,000?
    Is that simply, given the size of the market, feasible? I don’t want to build my own, nor do I want one some guy built in his garage. But surely there is a need for something between old rust bucket and obscene new? Is it really just FAA regulations, or are other market forces at work?

    When I tell people I got my license, it is these two factors, fear, and cost, that come up.

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