Last week I had the privilege of addressing the Wichita Aero Club. We discussed the usual safety items and then went on to a real strategic issue facing GA. There is a dearth of new pilots, especially those not destined for airline or corporate cockpits. Why should we care – especially those of us who already are enjoying the benefits of personal flight? It affects all of us and the collateral damage may be much greater than some realize.
Everything that GA has become depends upon pilots to purchase and use the services that the infrastructure provides, be that aircraft, fuel, airports, parts, insurance, flight schools, training materials avionics, association membership and advocacy clout. It’s all about numbers. Without pilots, obviously, the number of people buying aircraft goes down dramatically which affects all the other items on the food chain. With significantly fewer units the fixed costs go up – dramatically. That further depresses demand.
Airports become far less busy, as you may have noticed, and it’s hard for businesses to survive just on transient business jets especially in outlying areas. Maintaining the airport becomes too expensive, it closes and the value of business aircraft begins to decline because there are far fewer destinations. Five thousand public use airports become 4,000 etc. Some of this will take longer to have a measurable impact but some of it is already glaringly apparent.
In my speech I briefly addressed cost and complexity which I think are the two major impediments. To revert to the automotive world for a moment, many of the products and service we sell are in the Ferrari/ Maserati class where only a few thousand vehicles are sold annually. Because there is much larger automotive base, it doesn’t matter because the infrastructure stays intact. For business and faster personal transportation class our aircraft need to be affordable by the Acura, Infinity, Mercedes class of owner – essentially upper middle class. Then we can fill in the entry level with LSA and more basic aircraft types.
There are all sorts of reasons why things cost what they do, but I’d like to suggest an X-Prize or something like it for someone to figure out how to produce aircraft in a more affordable range. We’re still building them much the same way they were 40-50 years ago. The engineering schools and NASA seem to prefer tinkering with the aerodynamics or engines. They’re important but economics is going to put GA out of the skies much faster than a few extra knots of airspeed. Many of us in industry, the association world or other aviation businesses tend to our corner because we want to keep the lights on but this is going to require a greater effort by everyone or U.S. GA will begin to resemble Europe.
This is one of the main areas of collaboration for the AOPA Foundation and we’ll be looking into ways that some of the structural challenges can be addressed. It will not be easy, quick or inexpensive to fix, but I think we have to try. It will require some innovative approaches. More on that in the future.
After my Wichita speech plenty of people lamented cost. That IS a key part but it isn’t just cost. It’s complexity and utility. What value is derived from dollars and time spent? Has this gotten better over the years. Our aircraft are better but enough to command the current price differential?
There is plenty of those cursing the darkness but it’s time to light some candles. Your thoughts?