Airline pilot hiring by month
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General aviation is growing. That simple statement would have been unremarkable to a pilot in the 1960s or 1970s, as surprising as saying the sun rose in the east that day. But for anyone who learned to fly after about 1990, and especially between 2008 and 2016, it’s a shocking thing to admit. Yet that is exactly what is happening right now, as data from a wide variety of sources show. 

The growth of the GA industry in 2024 is both broad-based, covering everything from two-seat piston trainers to 15-seat business jets, and sustained, with over five years of upward momentum (excluding a few Covid-induced drops during 2020). This suggests the trend is more than a statistical artifact or a temporary bubble. It also matches the gut feel of many pilots, who are sharing the pattern with more airplanes than five or ten years ago. 

Before you pop the champagne, though, there are some important details to understand. 

The training boom

The most obvious driver of increased GA activity is flight training, and sure enough, the data show that it’s up significantly. According to the annual FAA activity survey, instructional flying hours increased 71% from 2012 to 2022, far more than the overall growth in flying. As a share of all hours flown, instructional jumped from 15.3% to 23.7%, meaning nearly a quarter of all GA activity right now is flight training.

Another way to look at flight activity is GA airport operations, pulled from the FAA’s OpsNet website. This is a good way to track actual operations, since it does not rely on voluntary response surveys or flight plan data (more than half of all piston airplanes fly without a flight plan of any kind). OpsNet data tracks both local flights and itinerant flights, which are defined as “Operations performed by an aircraft, either IFR or VFR, that land at an airport arriving from outside the airport area, or depart from an airport and leave the airport area.” For the first time ever, local flights passed itinerant flights in 2023. That suggests that local training flights are powering much of the increase in flights, not cross-country travel.

GA airport operations by type

A more direct way to track flight training volume, although not necessarily flying, is Private Pilot Knowledge Tests. This is the first step for many new pilots and here the trend is unmistakable: test volume has nearly doubled since 2012.

FAA knowledge tests

All those knowledge tests are leading to certificates, too. While the flight training dropout rate is still high at many flight schools, original Private Pilot certificate issuances are up 47% over 2012, with 24,405 issued in 2022. That’s a lot of new pilots, at least compared to recent years.

Why the boom in training? The force drawing all these people into flight training right now is the once-in-a-generation peak in airline pilot hiring. Worldwide airline growth, early retirements during Covid, and long-term demographic trends have combined to create a real shortage of airline pilots. The market has worked its magic, as this shortage has led to skyrocketing pay packages and increased interest in aviation careers. Data from Future & Active Pilot Advisors (FAPA) shows that the recent boom is truly unprecedented:

US airline pilot hiring by year

 The turbine boom

Dig a little deeper into FAA reports and it’s clear that the current growth cycle is not completely driven by Cessna 172s and Piper Archers. In terms of active airplanes, jets have surged by 37% over the last decade, from 11,793 to 16,126, even while active piston airplanes have dropped slightly.

Looking at hours flown, the split between piston and turbine becomes even more stark. Business jets flew 5.24 million hours in 2022, compared to 3.42 million in 2012, led by Part 135 operators (36% over growth that time). Covid travel restrictions and overall poor airline service have presented something of an open goal for companies like NetJets and WheelsUp, and they seem to be taking advantage.

Part 135 hours by use

These turbine airplanes work hard, too. While jets account for 90% fewer airplanes than pistons, they average three times more hours per year (325 vs. 100).

Hours flown by aircraft type

Turboprops have grown more slowly than jets, but beneath that headline it’s clear that single engine turboprops have arrived. Airplanes like TBMs, PC-12s, and Meridians are slowly replacing King Airs and Conquests; they flew 1.63 million hours 2022, compared to 1.37 million in 2012. In 2022, 55% of GA turboprops were single engine, up from 49% in 2012. Among owner-flown airplanes this is almost certainly higher, since many twin turboprops these days are part of fractional or charter fleets.

In addition to turboprop twins, single engine turboprops are also slowly pushing piston twins into a training niche. This category, led by trusty designs like the Seminole and Cessna 310, flew just 1.43 million hours in 2022, down from 1.77 million hours in 2012.

Is the glass half empty?

Of course there are important details to consider, and those pilots who survived previous downturns may be itching to jump in with a reminder about how quickly trends can reverse. Look closely and the industry does indeed seem to be at an inflection point. For a start, the airline pilot hiring boom has probably peaked, as many regional airlines and investment banks have pointed out recently. Hiring at major US airlines was down almost 25% in January and February 2024 compared to the previous year. Some airlines have even paused hiring completely, including big names like Southwest and FedEx.

But while the headlines are occasionally negative, pilot hiring is hardly weak. Compared to 2018-2019, pilot hiring is still up nearly 100% in early 2024. The reality is that the acute phase of the shortage (driven mostly by Covid) is over, but the chronic phase (driven mostly by long-term demographics) is still very much a factor. In fact, some of the recents struggles have more to do with delayed airplane deliveries, in particular the Boeing 737 MAX, than changes in demand. One look at the long term hiring trend shows that the trend may have plateaued, but at a very high rate.

Airline pilot hiring by month

The more serious concern is that the training boom is hiding weakness in owner-flown GA airplanes, the classic Cessna 182 and Beechcraft Bonanza operators who use light airplanes for a mix of family and business transportation. Once again, the headlines are not great: Beechcraft essentially stopped taking orders for Bonanzas and Barons last year, Cessna shipped just 66 Skylanes last year, and Icon recently filed for bankruptcy.

It’s more than just headlines that support the glass half empty theory; FAA data shows some worrying trends. Original certificate issuances (meaning a new certificate or rating, not a reissue) are way up for Student pilots, from 49,000 in 2014 to over 69,000 in 2023, but active Private pilots are down from 174,883 to 167,711. Measuring “active pilots” is hard, but the trend suggests all those student pilots are not leaving a lasting impact on GA—we’re losing as many Private pilots as we’re gaining. If nothing else, most students are moving right on to a Commercial or ATP certificate, passing through GA as they move into pro pilot jobs. That’s good for the industry while they’re training, but doesn’t make much of a long term impact.

And of course if you want to argue that the glass is completely empty, just look at FAA statistics from the late 1970s and early 1980s: today’s 167,000 active Private pilots pale in comparison to the 357,000 in 1980! 

But that’s an unfair comparison, a bubble that is never coming back. For now we can confidently say that GA is growing and has been for nearly a decade. New people from all walks of life are coming into the aviation industry, and flying is considered cool again, whether it’s bush pilots on YouTube or Tom Cruise on the big screen. Bonanzas and Skylanes may not be flying off the shelves, but Cirrus SR20s and SR22s are: over 600 were delivered in 2023. Sure they’re expensive, but the company has been successful by responding to customer desires and constantly improving their product. They’ve found a market, even at $1 million per airplane.

The cycle may soon turn, but the pessimists would do well to remember what poet Randall Jarrell once wrote: “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”

John Zimmerman
16 replies
  1. Alexander Sack
    Alexander Sack says:

    John, first off, a great article and I like really love the half-full/half-empty analysis. One interesting statistic would be the age of each knowledge test applicant. In other words, how many applicants are young pilots who are working toward a pro pilot job vs. say a retiree looking to explore the skies in their golden years. That divide would be insightful.

    Another half-empty comment: I think the gap between ownership and income has never been higher. I won’t claim that GA was an everyday hobby – it never was. But it was attainable for a lot of pilots who could afford the training. I don’t think that is the case now for the overwhelming majority of pilots post ticket.

    Cirrus has over the years seen the writing on the wall and has been very smart about it: They market themselves just as much as a “lifestyle” brand than an airplane company and it has been a smashing success. More power to them.

    For the rest of us however, I’m not sure what the likes of Textron is going to do (or maybe I do but don’t want to accept it). For example, how long do we think the Skylane is really going to last with those unit numbers? Clearly, the writing is on the wall for the Bonanza, but I think it is for the Skylane too despite the turbo variant being relaunched. There just isn’t a market for a new Skylane (if you can afford a Skylane why wouldn’t you buy an SR22 again? Perhaps the new USB ports Textron is introducing this year? I hear they come on both sides!). I hope I’m wrong.

    I think clubs and partnerships are the last bastions of “ownership” and I would be curious if there are any statistics on the number of new clubs or LLC style partnerships formed.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I think experimental airplanes have picked up some of the slack from the traditional owner models like the 172 or Cherokee. There are over 30,000 experimental airplanes in the US now, and many of them are very capable – think RV-10 or Lancair. While not cheap exactly, they are a much better value than a new Cessna or Piper for a 4-place airplane. I hope the emerging MOSAIC rules increase this segment of GA.

      • Alexander Sack
        Alexander Sack says:

        Yeah, but VANS is Chapter 11 and Lancair is Chap 7ish. Maybe a Sling?

        I too hoped the experimental would “pick up the slack” but I’m just not seeing it. Also, keep in mind, even a build-assist is now easily North of 300k (you might as well buy certified). If you can do a build-partnership, then maybe that is the way. But then there is the issue of insurance with experimentals. Not pretty.

        • Duane Mader
          Duane Mader says:

          Good article & conversation guys.
          Yes, at a time when homebuilts should be booming it’s disconcerting to see the problems with Vans, Lancairs etc. I was sort of saving for a Bushcat, looks safe, fun, affordable but they just went out of business a couple weeks ago!

  2. Bob Thomason
    Bob Thomason says:

    One thing that is really hurting aviation is the GA mechanic shortage coupled with archaic maintenance-related FARs and a legal system that makes mechanics overly cautious. My last couple of annuals have taken a month or more each and today my airplane is entering its third week of Annual and I have yet to get a squawk list. My airplane is managed by SAVVY and we are using an excellent shop at my home base airport. They are short on mechanics and can’t keep up with demand. Due to liability issues, they are also skittish about doing things like lapping valves and instead they just replace cylinders.

    My point is this: for anyone whose airplane is not just a toy, not being able to use it for 10% of the year is a real issue. Not to mention the unnecessary expense and wear-and-tear on the airplane. We need FARs that allow and encourage reliability-centered maintenance – periodic inspections that focus on known weak points of an airplane. The Annual, with its blanket “rip open and search” procedure, is less effective and more time consuming and expensive than necessary. Barriers to aircraft ownership like this are hurting GA growth.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      This is a great point, and another example of how growth can create problems. It’s terrific that so many new people have come into aviation, but as you say the maintenance part of the industry is totally unprepared for it. In addition to the FARs, I think the business model may have to change slightly for some shops.

    • Duane Mader
      Duane Mader says:

      I started in aviation as a mechanic. At first I was skeptical of Savvy but I feel now after following Mike’s articles, I would be less worried about lapping a valve than changing a jug. His company provides a needed service- maintenance management, to owners who don’t need a full time maintenance manager

  3. Tango Charlie
    Tango Charlie says:

    I believe the sharp upward tick of GA travel and new pilot certification beginning in the latter half of 2020 was in large part *because of* COVID. More specifically the authoritarian airline mask mandates, “vaccine” mandates (not a vaccine) and attempted implementation of WEF / WHO led COVID passports.

    Anyone with the means bought a turboprop or jet, and anyone with the desire bought a prop and learned to fly.

    Source: 4 out of 6 student pilots in my ground school circa 2021. The other 2 were kids looking to become commercial pilots.

    My prediction is that some of those people will become complacent, forget how our politicians acted, and wander out of flying. (The downward trend is already showing.) Speaking for myself, I can’t go back. Commercial flying is all but over for me and mine.

  4. Blake Deal
    Blake Deal says:

    I started a flight school and 135 charter business in 1993 and ran it for about 15 years before selling it and then just flying corporate jets and my own planes until I joined a major airline in 2022. I’m 55 so was the second oldest in my airline new hire class. I still regularly fly my 1959 Twin Commander 500 that I’ve owned since 1998. So I have been immersed in GA since 1985 and can very clearly see what is happening. So here it is 1) everyone who used to fly first class before COVID instead of chartering and had a net worth of over $20MM went out and either joined NetJets or Wheels Up or bought a TBM700 or Pilatus, etc. COVID showed them the huge advantages of Business Aviation (which isn’t in my definition of “GA”) and after trying it they decided it was worth the money. A FEW of them actually learned to fly and bought Cirruses or new Bonanzas or Barons, etc…(what I consider really GA) this is a very tiny number. So the vast growth participation in GA is really new entrants as owners, not pilots. 2) the vast majority of piston usage is now flight training. It’s very rare that you meet a “normal” (translation- someone who makes north of $300K a year but not a one percenter with the aforementioned $20MM net worth) who gets interested in learning to fly and does so and then goes out and buys a GA airplane to take trips in and enjoy flying. I’m an FO in the airlines and the average Captain I fly with makes about $350k-$450K a year and only maybe 1 in 20 is involved in GA. Most of them think it’s too expensive and too dangerous.

    The bottom line is the young kids have become convinced that they can get rich in the airlines so they are flocking to the flight schools to chase the dream. I talk to many of them and they are convinced it’ll be a bed of roses. All of us that have seen the industry for decades know better. I went to Embry Riddle’s booth at Sun N Fun last week and asked how much it costs for a kid to go there and get a 4 year degree and all their ratings. The guy said they recommend budgeting between $550,000 and $6000,000!!! Which leads to my next point. The other part to the bottom line is that GA has now separated into two worlds. One where a very small group of extremely wealthy people buy $5MM airplanes with no problem and show up at the local FBO and offer to pay 3x what they were renting the hangar to the guy with the piston twin for (yes my beloved commander is now on the ramp under a Bruce’s custom aircraft cover). The other world is the “normal” working class folks for whom almost all of us GA has moved out of reach financially but we’re hanging on doing as much of our own maintenance on our 50 year old airplanes as we can trying to keep them airworthy or moving into the experimental world. And I can tell you as a pilot who has long NOT been in the experimental world but who now is (owned an Aventura for 3 years and sold it and now currently working on buying a Velocity if we can ever get it flying) it’s a very different world with a very different risk profile.

    Unfortunately my prediction is that GA in the states is starting to look a lot like GA in Europe- something that exists for a tiny group of Uber wealthy people. The core GA fleet is going to age off and there aren’t enough new Cirruses, Diamonds, etc coming into the fleet at over $1MM each to sustain a legacy used/affordable GA fleet flown by middle to upper middle class pilots. We’re still pretty much using the planes made from the 1960’s through the 1980’s… and those birds unfortunately are going away at the rate of about 2-3 per day, and the ones left getting very expensive themselves! I had a friend buy a 1965 Cherokee 180 before COVID – he paid $50,000, and another one bought a 1965 Cherokee 180 in very similar condition after COVID and it was $137,000… -the cost almost tripled in 3 years.

    So yes, sure, give an upbeat report about the sales of business jets and turbine singles if you want to, but to me that’s not really GA. That’s Business Aviation, and it’s a really different animal from the GA I grew up in and have loved all these years. And as for all the flight training… it will wane and wax like the moon for the 30 or so years it has left until the robots take over for the most part, but it’s not now and will not in the future produce many pilots that embrace GA and who rent or buy a piston airplane to fly themselves and their families around in and have adventures and go to Osh Kosh and Sun N Fun like many of us have for our whole adult lives! I see the decline in the fleet and the pilot population and I wish there was a way to turn it around but the cost has just gotten out of almost everyone’s reach.

    • Alexander Sack
      Alexander Sack says:

      Great post. It’s so funny. The other day I met a Captain for one of the legacies who said, and I quote, “I haven’t landed at GA plane in over a decade. It’s too expensive.”

    • Don W.
      Don W. says:

      Pretty much spot on Blake. I soloed in 1973, flying one to three year old airplanes. The oldest airplane in the flying club was a 1966 Cherokee Six (7 years old) which seemed ancient at the time. I figure the current US $ is about 10 cents in 1970 $$s, and that matches pretty closely for most things. In 1973 the cost of a rental Cessna 150 was $11/hr wet, and the instructor was $4/hr. Avgas was 40 to 60 cents a gallon depending on where you bought it and car gas was about 30 cents. Translate that to 2024 $$s and you get $110/hr for the 150, $40/hr for the instructor, and $4 to $6/gallon for avgas. Of course, I was making $2/hr in 1973, and that would be $20/hr today–not bad if you’re a kid still living and eating at home, but pretty slim pickings otherwise. (side note: $20/hr is $40K/year, and I know a high school science teacher my age who makes just a little over that, and she has chemical engineering degree!!)

      So what has changed?? Well… my grandad bought a brand new Mooney 20C in 1966 for $16K, which would be $160K to $200K today. Show me a new certified $200K Mooney, and I’ll bet there would be a line of people ready to buy. Mooney recently went bust (again) trying to sell $1M+ airplanes that were just incremental improvements (Stretch, Turbo, Bigger engine, faster, etc.) of the original Al Mooney designed M20C (they sold exactly 4 the last year of production). It’s really hard (impossible) to build and sell a $200K new airplane today with a $100K engine, $50-$80K avionics package, AND liability insurance for the manufacturer.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the aircraft manufacturers liability insurance alone is now north of $100K (anyone know the current figure?). The thing is, the liability insurance hits every player in the supply chain as well, and multiplies the costs all along the chain. The foundries that cast the cranks, cams, casings, and cylinders etc. have to pay it, so the engine parts cost more. Lycoming and Continental have to pay it again to ship the assembled engine. The petroleum company that blends the avgas has to pay it, and both the distributor and FBO have to pay it again. The avionics manufacturers have to pay it. Then the aircraft manufacturer integrates all those more expensive (insured!) components into an aircraft, and pay a BIG $$ liability policy for each aircraft shipped out the door. I wonder what the total increase in cost is when you add up all those individual liability policies?? Anyone know?

      Meanwhile, the auto manufacturers can sell you a new engine for $5K and a new car for $30K-40K (you can pay more if you want to)… That’s roughly 10x of what it was in the early 1970s :-) — Don

  5. John Flaherty
    John Flaherty says:

    I see this from a somewhat pessimistic point of view, I admit. I think Mr Deal makes a great point: While GA technically is growing, most of it won’t be typical or traditional GA flying for very long.
    You’ll have pilots who have lots of money to drop on a sophisticated, modern airplane; some may even do so recreationally as “relaxation” from commercial flying careers. Most, however, will either be en route to a commercial license, or else be pilots only so long as commercial flights remain a hassle.
    Most people will begin looking hard at finances and commitments within a few years; determine that spending several hundred dollars each month for gas, insurance, hanger rental, and airplane loan…simply makes no sense.
    So long as new airplanes sell for $250K plus and insist on glass cockpits and supposed “luxury” features, GA can’t grow because nobody can afford the cost.
    For GA to truly grow, …we’ll need for the market to provide aircraft which can be bought for $100K or less and have lower insurance and gas rates. Only then can the market grow. If a parent can’t rent and fly an airplane for an afternoon to take their family on a day trip for less than $300, …people will drive instead.

  6. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    Do a Google search. 7K? Airports have been closed since 1990. How many have been built in the last 25 years? Name one. I’ve seen Airport closed, runways closed, flight schools closed. Don’t try and sugar coat it. The numbers speak for themselves.

  7. Thomas P Turner
    Thomas P Turner says:

    It’s the Golden Age of business aviation, flown primarily by professional, full-time two-pilot crews–by definition “general aviation”–and as you say apparently just past peak as the best time in history to become an airline pilot. As a consequence it’s also the glory years of civilian pilot training, also counted as “general aviation” activity. It’s a different story for what most people think of as “general aviation,” which is personal and recreational flying. It would be interesting to see what percentage of pilot certificates are earned in university, community college and airline academy-style training programs as compared to out at the local FBO where the personal/recreational pilot is most likely to train.

    Great article, John.

    • Alexander Sack
      Alexander Sack says:

      @Tom, that’s why I think “age” against knowledge test taken would be illuminating. But I do agree with everyone above that the days of the family GA pilot are dwindling – fast. Cost being the primary factor.

      One day, who knows? “AirVenture” might turn into “DriveVenture”…

  8. Sierra Yankee
    Sierra Yankee says:

    As someone who learned to fly and bought a plane for travel I observationally feel that true GA seems to be in the minority. I typically fly into controlled airspace and I am often only one or one of two owner operators at the FBO despite a ramp full of turbines and jets. I have been fortunate to have been successful enough to buy a new plane and regularly fly, but I am a rare bird. I’m not in the business jet class or the 5 mil for a TBM is worth it world. I still fly a piston. Blessed for sure but there are far less of us these days to keep every manufacturer producing more than trainers and high dollar turbines. I don’t see the trend reversing. Experimental aircraft with all the added risks will become the new GA simply due to the economics of our time.


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