General aviation has had a good pandemic. While I meant it when I wrote 20 months ago, “I genuinely believe general aviation will come out of this crisis stronger,” even a dyed-in-the wool aviation enthusiast like me was surprised by how quickly our industry bounced back. Covid has been a disaster for the world, killing millions and wrecking jobs, but GA is one of the few silver linings in an overall dark cloud.
If you have seen signs of the boom around your airport but weren’t sure if it was a real trend, rest assured the statistics back up your gut feel. FlightAware stats show that, compared to 2019, business aviation traffic is up 20% while airline traffic is down 20%. Most flight schools report booming enrollment, airline pilot hiring set a record last year, used airplane prices are at multi-decade highs, and the unofficial industry barometer—EAA AirVenture Oshkosh—pointed up last summer.
Like an airplane owner hovering over a cut oil filter, though, many pilots are just waiting for the bad news—and there is plenty of history to support such pessimism. Who is right? Is the current GA boom just temporary, one that will soon break hearts and bank accounts, or has something fundamentally changed?
Predictions are notoriously hard to make (especially, as Yogi Berra memorably said, when they concern the future), but I think we should seriously consider the possibility that general aviation has some steady tailwinds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not convinced we’ll reach the level of the late 1970s, but there are some long term trends that could make light airplanes more attractive. Just think about the following changes on both the supply side and the demand side of the market.
The first positive development for general aviation is a change in migration patterns within the US. Some of this is overblown (“every job is remote!” say the writers who have never worked in a restaurant or warehouse) but it’s clear that some meaningful percentage of Americans have moved due to changing priorities, more flexible work policies, and a more nomadic lifestyle in general. One influential paper suggests that as many as 23 million people have moved or plan to move due to the pandemic. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky reported recently that, “In the past year, 100,000 Airbnb guests booked stays of 3 months or longer.” Both suggest an unusual period of mobility for Americans.
Why does this matter for aviation? Because the majority of these moves are from big, expensive metropolises to smaller cities or suburbs. And while New York, Boston, and San Francisco are exciting cities, they are pretty bad places to learn to fly. It can often take an hour or more to drive to a general aviation airport, and even then the hassle of long taxi routes and complicated air traffic control procedures can make flight training expensive and frustrating.
Americans are also moving to certain geographic regions, in particular the South and West, which are conducive to general aviation flying. These places often have more airports, less crowded airspace, and excellent flying weather—there’s a reason many of the largest flight schools in the country are in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Sure enough, some of the most popular destinations include Orlando, Austin, and Phoenix.
Another change is also related to the work-from-home boom: more flexible schedules. A recent study suggests that 20% of workdays will be permanently work-from-home, compared with 5% before the pandemic. That has implications for many businesses, from commercial real estate to restaurants, but flight training could benefit. If you work 9 to 5 downtown and commute an hour each way, it’s pretty hard to squeeze in a flight lesson twice a week. But if you work from your living room (even just three days a week), finding a morning or afternoon to go flying is significantly easier. And since you moved to the suburbs to get that home office, your new house is only 20 minutes from the local GA airport and your mortgage is 20% less expensive. Suddenly that dream of earning a pilot’s license doesn’t seem so crazy.
Many hybrid work schedules might even create a new justification for GA, especially at larger companies that require remote workers to visit the office at least occasionally. Sometimes that means monthly meetings, sometimes that means quarterly retreats, but either way travel is involved. I’ve talked to a few people over the last year who are either learning to fly or getting current in order to make these trips via light airplane. Their plan is to work from home three weeks per month, then spend the fourth traveling to and from the office and working in person. With a laptop and Zoom, they feel comfortable conducting business from FBO conference rooms if bad weather changes their schedule en route. This approach could also appeal to another growing class of workers: new entrepreneurs (who suddenly work for themselves), a group that grew by over 20% in both 2020 and 2021. No doubt this class of worker is small, but it barely existed two years ago.
One final change in attitude is both depressing in general and yet encouraging for pilots: pandemics are not going away anytime soon. As this winter’s huge Omicron wave has showed so vividly, diseases travel as easily as passengers in our interconnected world. With each new wave, many people are reminded of personal aviation’s unique strengths, in particular privacy and flexibility. Whether it’s a basic Cessna 172 or a brand new Citation, going GA means not worrying about catching a disease or wearing a mask on a long flight. And that’s assuming your airline flight takes off in the first place—the rash of canceled flights over the Christmas holiday last year was another reminder of how little control airline passengers really have.
Perhaps you buy my argument that Americans are more open to general aviation than before the pandemic. The natural follow-up question is, can we do anything about it? Will dreams be shattered when our new generation of student pilots drives to the airport and meets a chocolate brown airplane that burns leaded gas and was built during the Nixon administration? Disappointment is possible, but it’s also possible that a new generation of aircraft and newly reinvigorated airports will offer new opportunities that are more suited to the 21st century consumer. Yes, I’m talking partially about electric airplanes and VTOL aircraft, but stick with me.
Let’s start with the facts: as of today, over 100 companies are promoting electric aircraft of one kind or another, from fully vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) designs to regional airliners. One key driver of this dramatic increase in aircraft designs is a change in funding model. Almost all of the buzziest aviation startups these days are backed at least in part by venture capital firms—something that is completely normal in the software world, but utterly foreign for pilots. Previous aviation businesses were typically either “mom and pop” affairs with too little capital or were supported by (and beholden to) the government or military. Success meant merely staying afloat, and maybe being bought by a conglomerate some day.
No more. Big name investors, including some Silicon Valley heavyweights, invested over $7 billion in aviation startups in 2021 alone, including ones focused on electric airplanes, urban air mobility (UAM), and supersonic business jets. To take one noteworthy example, Joby reported last year that it ended its third quarter with $1.4 billion cash on hand after going public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). For comparison, Cirrus Aircraft, one of the few GA companies in recent memory to take significant outside money, made headlines by taking less than one tenth that amount in 2001 as it scaled up. This new funding model doesn’t solve every problem overnight, but it does have major implications for research and development budgets, management style, and product timelines.
Can it work? Venture investors have traditionally focused on software, where powerful network effects and low marginal costs mean the game plan is to ship a minimum viable product quickly and iterate as customers adopt it. Companies like Uber or Airbnb didn’t have to worry about FAA certification standards or scaling a manufacturing plant—neither company even owns their own physical assets, serving instead as a platform to connect supply with demand. That seems like a warning sign for aircraft companies, but the recent boom in biotech funding shows a willingness on the part of the VC community to move “from bits to atoms.” Healthcare is one of the few industries with a life-or-death mindset similar to aviation, and the success of venture-backed Moderna in creating a Covid-19 vaccine has shown the potential for big returns even in a highly regulated market.
The aviation investment boom is also being driven by a newfound focus on climate change from many large investors. Roll your eyes if you like, but the drive for green investing has made electric airplane companies cool in a way that Mooney or Enstrom were never going to be. As an industry that has been decidedly uncool for a long time, general aviation should probably just take the compliment.
That push for sustainability will also have an effect on these companies’ business models. For example, Joby is planning to make money by selling carbon credits, a helpful way to offset what might be a loss-making core business early on. Is this just greenwashing or a smart business strategy? The line between the two can get blurry: remember that last year Tesla made more money selling carbon credits than they did selling cars. It can work.
One part of the booster’s case for GA is that all these new companies, beyond just shipping aircraft, could define a new structure for aviation OEMs, one that is more scalable and forward-looking. The legacy GA industry has undergone a 40-year consolidation away from family businesses (think Olive Ann Beech) to large companies (think Textron), much the same way the car business did in the 20th century. But the latest trend in the automotive world is beginning to undo this consolidation, as electrification fundamentally disrupts who the most successful companies are and what their supply chains look like. If aviation follows suit, the economics of aviation parts and new airplanes could change for the better.
Electric cars have far fewer parts than their internal combustion engine predecessors, and many of those parts come from new players. Just three battery companies supply almost 70% of the world market for electric vehicles. This means large carmakers like Ford and BMW get to enjoy the benefits of industry-wide investment and huge economies of scale, while shutting down their engine design groups. Contrast that with the typical GA factory: airplanes are made by hand in limited quantities, using custom parts that are definitely not made by the millions in Shenzhen or Shanghai.
It’s unlikely that an electric airplane could simply bolt on electric car parts—nobody believes the FAA would sign off on that. But given the billions of dollars being invested in battery and electric motor technology, it’s plausible that a future light GA airplane could free ride on the electric car supply chain (even if it’s just experimental airplanes). That means better technology and lower prices, two things any pilot should welcome.
All this makes for exciting reading, but will it happen? You don’t have to be a curmudgeon to find reasons for doubt. For a start, many of the SPAC companies leading the UAM charge haven’t done very well post-IPO. Archer, Joby, and Lilium are all down over 40% since launching. Even if the aircraft fly well, finding suitable landing spots or earning approval from cities may be significant hurdles, not to mention the challenge of creating a new business model around short haul VTOL.
Yet even if the boldest dreams aren’t realized (and they probably will not be), there could still be winners. First, remember that not all aviation startups are created equal. Bye Aerospace is in the electric aviation business, but not as a VTOL or UAM platform. The company was founded by an experienced aviation executive and is building airplanes with fairly traditional designs (low wing, 2-8 seats, 1-2 propellers) and realistic performance goals. At the higher end, Embraer has invested serious money in an electric aircraft business, alongside regional airlines like SkyWest and Republic Airlines. Boeing just pumped half a billion dollars into Wisk Aero, another electric airplane startup. When the end user buys into the manufacturer, that is a vote of confidence in a different way than a VC partner’s blog post.
Perhaps more importantly, even an industry-wide bust could lead to growth—eventually. The dotcom boom, another exciting time for technology enthusiasts, quickly fizzled, but not before laying the groundwork for today’s tech economy. As Carlota Pérez has written in her influential theory of cycles: “What is perhaps the crucial role of the financial bubble is to facilitate the unavoidable over-investment in the new infrastructures. The nature of these networks is such that they cannot provide enough service to be profitable unless they reach enough coverage for widespread usage. The bubble provides the necessary asset inflation for investors to expect capital gains, even if there are no profits or dividends yet.”
Something similar could happen in the aftermath of the current funding boom. The trickle-down benefits of the billions of dollars invested could be significant: new battery and motor technology, economies of scale in the supply chain, new regulatory flexibility, and fresh thinking about regional aviation infrastructure.
There are at least five areas where advances in technology could help general aviation:
- EVTOLs could lead to new investment in small airports. There are no time savings if these services use existing airline airports, and rooftop landings may be unpopular at first. If that means the suburban airport with a 3500 foot strip gets renewed attention or funding, that’s a good thing for GA pilots.
- Electric aviation (VTOL or not) addresses our environmental problem. Even if you don’t care about carbon emissions, the need to replace leaded avgas is a pressing concern for Cub and Cirrus pilots alike—even more so given the EPA’s recent endangerment finding.
- Most of these new aircraft designs are dramatically quieter than traditional piston airplanes. This should help with strained neighborhood relations in many parts of the country, who view airplane noise as second only to leaded avgas on the list of aviation’s evils.
- A new aviation supply chain, focused on 2-6 seat aircraft instead of airliners, could unlock new possibilities for homebuilders, Light Sport Aircraft manufacturers, and even restoration companies. Let Wisk and Joby build their autonomous fleets; for us, having a powerplant option other than Lycoming or Continental wouldn’t be all bad.
- There’s even a chance that new technology might make flying easier and thus open up personal flying to a much wider audience. This is a stretch, but there is some promising research. I personally won’t give up the challenge of a crosswind landing in a taildragger, but not everyone has the aviation disease quite so bad.
Here’s one final development for pilots to ponder: the first wave of this technology boom could reach the market just as new aircraft designs become possible under the FAA’s much-touted MOSAIC plan. This complicated but ultimately worthwhile project aims to simplify certification standards and allow new technology (like electric motors) to be adopted by the GA community, including Light Sport Aircraft. There is speculation that some of this new regime could be announced this year and possibly come into force by late 2023. Nobody should underestimate the FAA’s ability to move slowly, but aviation groups like EAA and AOPA report real progress.
So, rising demand for and supply of light airplanes, at the same time FAA policy becomes more accommodating? It sounds too good to be true, but if Van’s launches an electric STOL airplane in 2025… sign me up!