This was a core campaign slogan developed by one of former President Bill Clinton’s advisers, James Carville. The same could apply to general aviation. As many of us have noted, the manufacturers haven’t been selling very many aircraft lately, particularly at the low end. I have a hard time with the so-called "value equation" of many of today’s newly manufactured machines. They’re nice—wish I could afford one—but they are beyond the reach of middle class and upper middle class folk unless they are prepared to make major lifestyle concessions.
This price issue isn’t a new problem. It’s been evolving over the last 30 years as the cost of aircraft has significantly outstripped inflation. Some of the dazzling new products that we saw last week at Oshkosh have equally dazzling price tags. As a result the number sold and production quantity goes down year to year. Economists call it "elastic demand." But the fixed costs remain, and so the price has to go up to cover the expense across fewer units. That doesn’t sound exactly like a robust business model to me! So where is the pony in this room full of manure?
Well, the industry and the FAA have also recognized that this is unsustainable. The first step in a 12-step process is to admit that there’s a problem. AOPA, FAA, and industry partners are actually in discussion. It’s too soon to tell how all this will shake out, but easier modifications and streamlining the process for newly certificated aircraft could lower costs substantially. Part of the problem is what’s called "proportionality." The same certification standards apply to light business jets and to the most basic of aircraft, such as the Piper Archer or Cessna 172, and yet they operate in vastly different flight environments.
As U.S. manufacturing capability starts to move offshore, there is real incentive to get this right and do it quickly! We could all probably agree that building affordable aircraft is as essential to the salvation of GA as growing the pilot population. Most people still aren’t able to fly without aircraft, and the average age of the fleet is approaching 40 years—well beyond the expected airframe lifespan. The old aircraft are not unsafe—the accident stats prove it—but, at some point, the economics of maintaining old aircraft become burdensome.
It’s time for a new paradigm. But the cost equation isn’t just dependent on certification expense; our legal system, creeping featurism, corporate structure, and perhaps manufacturing methods all play a part. It’s complex, and solutions are both needed and never easy.
I’ve had my eye on some really neat airplanes over the years but it’s unaffordable for me now—my wife says we are NOT going to live in a cardboard box. (Hey, that’s only a problem when it rains!)