What will general aviation look like after COVID-19?

Making predictions about COVID-19 is a fool’s errand right now, with a year’s worth of news happening in a week. When will schools open? When will sports stadiums again host packed crowds? The best guesses seem to change by the minute, so I for one am not making any predictions about these topics.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t think in broad outlines about the future of flying. While the medical community is focused on finding a vaccine and parents are contemplating the merits of online schools, many pilots are thinking about what changes we might notice at the airport six or twelve months from now. There is plenty of analysis to read about the airline industry and the challenges they face (a lot). But what about general aviation?

I’m obviously biased because I love light airplanes and the freedom they offer, but I genuinely believe general aviation will come out of this crisis stronger. This isn’t just wishful thinking; there are reasons to be optimistic about our small corner of the transportation world.

Consider why most pilots choose to fly in the first place. It’s typically for one of three main reasons: for fun, for transportation, or for a career. At least two of those three seem to be on very solid ground.

Cub
in the virus era, the isolation found aloft is a feature, not a bug.

Recreational flying should be relatively unscathed by COVID-19, at least once the expected recession comes to an end. In the short term, some pilots will be nervous about flying purely for fun during shelter in place orders, others will be worried about family finances with unemployment rising fast. But after these immediate threats subside, taking a Cub or RV-12 for a lazy flight down the river will be a very safe way to have fun—in the virus era, the isolation found aloft is a feature, not a bug.

Besides, with fewer concerts or sporting events, there will be less competition for time and money in the family entertainment budget. A flying club might offer some sense of social interaction but in a more controlled way, plus the option to fly for fun. Light airplanes could start to look pretty appealing when compared to some larger group activities.

Pilots who fly for personal or business transportation purposes face a slightly more uncertain future. Some people are writing dire predictions about how business travel and face-to-face meetings will never be the same. I don’t doubt there will be a lasting impact from this forced experiment in digital meetings, but we often overestimate how much fundamentally changes after a crisis. Business travel took a major hit after 9/11, but it did not disappear. Less than three years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airline travel was back above its previous peak. The major changes were mostly in the type of flying (more low cost carriers, fuller airplanes), not the actual amount of flying.

In fact, I think this time of isolation may reinforce how valuable in-person meetings are. Certainly not all of them, but among your most important colleagues and customers there is simply no substitute for being in the same room—no matter how good you are at Zoom meetings. You might skip the handshake, but I can’t imagine major deals will be sealed from thousands of miles apart. My experience over the last month with Skype calls, Teams meetings, and Hangouts chats has been helpful for keeping things going, but it has also been very inconsistent and occasionally quite frustrating.

When this type of travel does come back, general aviation and business aviation will be highly preferred over airline flights. The certainty of knowing who you’re flying with is worth a lot, and those quiet country airports you visit by light airplane might start to look quite safe compared to LaGuardia or LAX. With good planning, a private flight can also save an overnight stay in a hotel and thus any associated concerns about additional exposure. Some large companies have long prohibited senior executives from traveling by airline, and more recently fractional jet companies have started moving their pilots around using empty legs on corporate jets in order to avoid airlines. These policies may become more widespread, at least for a while.

The desire for personal travel will be even stronger than business travel. After months of no contact with grandkids and close friends, I suspect many pilots’ first long flight will be to visit loved ones. What better way to do that than a Cessna or Cirrus? With avgas prices dropping under $4/gallon in some areas, the economics will look better than they did just a few months ago.

Anecdotally, I’ve found many people are rediscovering their families after being “forced” to be together for weeks uninterrupted. That statement sounds sad at first, and there have been some sarcastic jokes about the pain of home schooling kids, but plenty of parents have also realized that children should be loved as people, not managed like expensive assets. Maybe the rat race of school, travel sports, music lessons, and SAT classes isn’t worth it, and a family vacation is a better investment than a new Mandarin tutor for Johnny? If so, then a general aviation trip to the nearest beach or national park is going to be a great option. Such a vacation will certainly be possible much sooner than a long international airline flight to a country with strict quarantine rules.

Airline pilot hiring
Airline pilot hiring goes in cycles—what will the next one look like?

That leaves us with flight training, and this is definitely the biggest question mark. Just two months ago, the world was suffering from a long-running pilot shortage, with airlines taking elaborate steps to attract and hire new pilots. Some were even buying flight schools to fill the pipeline with prospects. Overnight, this “problem” has been solved. Will it come back?

The exploding demand for airline pilots has certainly gone away, at least for now. Many airlines have cut their schedules by over 90%, and some have gone out of business completely. Any recovery from this hole will take time, and probably major progress on the healthcare front.

But it’s worth remembering that the other side of the airline pilot market, supply, has not fundamentally changed. The demographic trends can’t adjust overnight, and the US airline industry still faces significant retirements over the next five years as the Baby Boomer generation reaches age 65. An analysis last year showed that the peak of airline pilot retirements would not hit until 2022 or 2023, perhaps right around the time airline travel is booming again. The military is certainly not turning out large quantities of pilots, so the best supply of new regional airline first officers will still be general aviation.

Some things will undoubtedly be very different at these flight schools. Health may be monitored much more carefully, so pilot and instructor temperatures might be checked alongside the fuel and oil levels. Yokes, throttles, and touchscreens may be cleaned thoroughly between flights, in addition to the windows. Some ab initio schools may operate like semi-quarantined campuses. Whatever changes we have to live with, flight training will be back—our pilotless future is still many years off. Plus, learning to fly is a one-on-one instruction model, so the solutions for flight schools will be easier than those affecting university lectures and other large gatherings.

Many pilots are wondering when this whole virus mess will be “over” and our aviation lives can return to normal. That’s the wrong question to ask. Sure, a vaccine will hopefully solve our problem one day, but COVID-19 is a fact of life for the medium term. We need to solve the health crisis in order to solve the economic crisis, and only then will we be able to deal with many of the problems unique to aviation. In the meantime, travel restrictions may lift, only to be put back in place if another outbreak happens. That uncertainty argues for flexibility and creativity, and that’s the hallmark of general aviation.

22 Comments

  • “plenty of parents have also realized that children should be loved as people, not managed like expensive assets” A hard and welcome hit on many people, I’d say.

    Besides that, I agree with you on every word – and should I have arrived at my long term goal (which now looks naturally farther), I would gladly be flying my C152 around with family – something that, alas, not many places but the US can offer with such ease. Now, since I totally depend on my airline payroll, I look worried at passenger traffics as low as 1% in some of the once busiest airports in the world. But it will pass, like every crises passed, and they are good opportunities, specially, like you mentioned, for who is seeking a career: it is a lifetime chance to surf the tide upwards from the very bottom. I am overall optimistic, and pre-covid traffic levels by 2021 summer wouldn’t come as a total surprise – and just like you, I am informed enough to not consider it wishful thinking. And just like all of us, we can all be deadly wrong – I hope we are not. Other than that, the only real threat to aviation is the teletransportation – which is probably farther away then the already far enough autonomous flight.

    • Many airlines, and industries serving airlines, have already folded, thus not all places will be served by the airlines in the future, that been so till now!

      So the amount of commerce in this sector is dwindling now and will take a long time to pick up again.

      Then we have the rest of the infrastructure, that volume-wise has dwindled, too, so it will take more than a little while for the industry to pick up, so I would be surprised if everything is back to normal in a years time.

      But we could always wish!

  • The 182 RG that I rent has been out of service for some time, getting updates and upgrades done to it. However, since the airport is open and operating, I still go out there to get some practice in a 172. I can’t wait for the 182 to get back up!

  • “…plenty of parents have also realized that children should be loved as people, not managed like expensive assets.”
    My favorite line of the article. What a thoughtful reminder. As a dad to seven, thank you.

  • That dad of seven should be charged an extra $ 50,000 to off set the extra cost
    Of high education. The first two are on me!

  • HERD IMMUNITY will happen. GA will resume unless the socialists destroy the the fabric of the
    USA. A vaccine will be nice as long as it isn’t made in China and contains nano chips to control thought and report to Big. Brother.
    The doctors think only as far a curing one patient. The cure is worse than the disease.
    The Ten Year AVERAGE death toll in USA IS 8000 DAILY.
    As bad and sad as corona virus WUHAN 2019 is it is just a blip. Smoking and vaping, drug useand old folks are at risk. I’m 74 and not worried at all except to the 2020 election.

    • nano chips? you’re a moron. I hope your ATP is for show and not actually for carrying live passengers because your judgment is about as good as a wet potato.

  • Omitted from this article is the risk involved in flight training. Even if we neglect ab initio training, licensed pilots need an occasional recurrency lesson to maintain their skills. The training environment is an enclosed space with at least one other person. The instructor interacts this way with many people per week (maybe even per day at a busy flight school). The author mentions sanitizing the buttons and switches in the cockpit but doesn’t consider the risk of spreading the virus by aerosol inhalation. With a disease that’s contagious more than a week before showing symptoms, I hesitate to risk flying during the epidemic.

    • Exactly my thoughts. I am a CFII and I’m sitting this one out until the authorities make it clear we’re safe to work again.

    • This is a tough decision, and one that many flight schools are struggling with right now. At the end of the day, this will be a calculated risk—like almost every flight! For the next year (and probably beyond that, honestly), any dual flight will require a personal risk assessment and the right answer will vary depending on the pilot, the CFI, the airplane, and so much more.

      The only good news is that pilots are trained and practiced at making risk assessments and judging what the tradeoffs are. We usually talk about weather or weight and balance; add health to the list.

  • I have to admit Covid 19 has not really affected my flying. This time of year I fly rescue dogs for pilots and paws. Shelters are still filling up so I believe rescue flights are critical. I have not taken anyone with as I often do in the interest of social distancing. I have had to wait for an IFR day to do some local approaches for currency. VFR clearances through class B are freely offered with the drastically reduced commercial traffic. I encourage anyone with an airplane to get out there and fly if the rules in your state allow it.

  • Great article and your optimism is well placed. We will get through this obviously, not if just how. I don’t think I’m alone in using this time to really focus on what’s important in life. Taking a step back and pondering what is needed and what isn’t in life is not a bad thing. Even more important is awareness of what’s happening to some of our fellow citizens and prioritizing empathy and caring for others.
    The country has never been more divided and sadly we pay a price for that.
    Perhaps we can learn from the perils of hyper partisanship and juvenile name calling and move forward to be the country we are capable of being.
    Even though we lack leadership in this country that can unite us, there are a lot of good smart people behind the scenes working very hard to come up with solutions to every problem we are facing, they are the ones that will be leading us out of this.

  • I’ve spent 30 years as a pilot trying to convince myself that GA flight could actually save money vs. airlines before finally concluding that it can’t at any utilization level. However, it does offer something better, privacy, security and control.

    Until the last 45 days, commercial air travel had an affordable way to get anywhere on Earth within the next 24 hours but there are restrictions. After 9/11, we began waiting in long lines to check baggage, get our boarding passes and clear security. We lost the ability to bring our own bottled water and snacks for quite a while and forever surrendered the right to carry a pocket knife. Am I the only one who’s tired of the TSA agent frisking his wife? No amount of money will purchase a ticket for our dog to sit in the seat beside me like she does at home and that makes all three of us anxious! This will eventually end and we’re return to some kind of “new normal” but commercial aviation be evolve, too.

    I’m not inclined to worry but have always wondered about being confined in a pressurized tube with the lady in 7A who’s obviously sick and that guy in 23B just keeps sneezing. I always stayed away from these people when possible but never really thought about touching the same handrail, seat back or bathroom, much less wondered about who sat there on the last flight.

    GA gives protection from all of this, it’s just a bit more expensive. I really enjoy taking whatever bags I need out of the car and putting them directly in the plane, carrying my pocket knife, letting my pup sit in the seat beside my wife, never missing my connection and if there’s a weather issue, being involved in the choice of alternatives. The airports are generally nice, quiet and the only people you’ll see there are typically professional. GA is not as fast, dependable or affordable as the airlines but it puts me in control and I like that. Be honest, city buses and Greyhound are still cheaper ways to commute than having your own vehicle but how long has it been since you’ve paid to ride one?

  • I am 59. Earned my license at 23 years of age and have added ratings and endorsements along the way. My aviation activities haven’t changed except going out for the $100.00 burger or breakfast.
    I have owned several aircraft over the years and my chosen steed is now a Tailwind W8. I still fly when the wx permits and enjoy every minute. Yes, Dawn Patrols may be out for a bit and those I will miss but….to be able to go out to the airport, look at my airplane and go flying still thrills me as though I am still a kid.
    Yes, things are different now, may be for a while and some things may be permanently changed, but the dream and excitement of Aviating will always be here…at least as long as I am around to climb in, yell “clear” , taxi out to the active runway, line up, go to full throttle, bring the tail up, ease back on the stick and see the earth fall away as my aerial steed and I climb into that beautiful sky for another adventure together.

  • I always read the comments to John’s blogs with interest. On this occasion my belief is at considerable variance from the mean.

    I agree that the pandemic will have no long term effect on GA – corporate operations will continue apace and private flying it will continue its decades-long decline. Where I disagree is the future of part 121 passenger airlines. The single causative factor that allowed a local public health crisis to expand into a world-wide pandemic was cheap international air travel. While COVID-19 is comparatively benign (in terms of mortality) there are a host of more threatening zoonotic diseases (Marburg, VEE, etc.) waiting in the wings. Their reservoirs are mainly in developing regions where, I believe, increasing prosperity, tourism and commercial development will unleash them into the global transportation network with some regularity. This was a widely held, if not openly shared, concern within the bio-security community a decade ago.

    I don’t think the airlines or their regulators will take many lessons from the corona virus pandemic. But another outbreak with higher mortality is going to occur in the future and it might take air travel, as we know it, for its first victim.

  • After COVID-19, GA will look the same as before only there will be fewer participants due to deaths and ravaged health for those who were infected and some will be poorer as a result of lost income and some foreclosures and forced sale of possessions.

    GA will be facing the same headwinds as before (costs to own, cost of ownership such as fuel, maintenance and repair, escalating insurance costs and storage/parking fees plus the usual taxes and administrative fees. All of that will lay alongside the rather abysmal and largely ineffective training environment that costs too much and does little to decrease the number of accidents.

    The allure of personal air transportation continues to be strong, but the industry has been priced out of reach for many who finance it with after tax disposable income. For those who utilize GA for business purposes and are able to generate income and count the expenses as tax deductions, it is a different story. The price structure and overhead of the major providers of GA products and services is heavily influenced by the profit demands of their shareholders and avoidance of liability through hefty insurance premiums bought to defend against predatory trial lawyers and the plaintiffs bar.

    On the personal side of GA, perhaps the most significant factor is opportunity costs, i.e., what could be done with the after tax disposable funds if income producing assets were purchased rather than the financial liabilities associated with airplane ownership and operation.

    Given all that, the return of a more vibrant personal GA seems increasingly unlikely absent major changes in the cost structure despite the strong interest and desire of many would-be participants!

    • Concerns about costs are valid, but I’m not sure COVID-19 changes that in a significant way. That is to say, it’s a problem we need to work on, but it was before this mess and it will be after.

  • For many of us Swedes, the number of airports available at a reasonable cost in hangarage, access, and fuel is rapidly dwindling, and nothing tells us that things will get better for the private user.

    That it would return to old times is high doubtful!

  • In our north of Seattle suburb, the skies are much less polluted by noise and turbine exhaust. Commercial aviation must move away from fossil fuels ASAP.

    For myself, the concept of being crammed into a metal tube with recycled, dry air and unknown cleanliness of those near me and preceding me revolts me. Thus, my use of commercial air travel will decline drastically.

    Flying my Zenith stol GA aircraft will remain fun, economical, and quiet.

  • We must adapt to the changing times. For example, we have completely separated the instructor from student in our simulation facility. They speak over headsets and we have a ton of technology to interact as if they were sitting along side one another. This has had other positive outcomes as well because we are now able to so things which we could not do before. Very hard to social distance in a 172 but in our facility we have taken the lead on distancing while still being able to train and stay IFR current.

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