V/$ = New Pilots & More Safety

April 24, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

airplaneDave Hirschman, AOPA Pilot’s senior editor, and I frequently commiserate on the high cost of flying. For too long the industry has tried to avoid the fact that new piston aircraft are priced above what most of the market can afford. There’s a saying that goes, “It isn’t what you pay, it’s what you get that equals value.”  My observation is that what we pay for new airplanes has increased significantly over the past decades while the transportation and recreation value of aircraft has improved marginally. That leaves us with elastic demand and significantly fewer pilots at higher costs. The business model is on life support, and we wonder why more people don’t want to fly?

Dave will expound more in an article he’s doing for Pilot on the electronic ignition installed on his experimental RV-4. As you might suspect, the Lycoming really likes it. It starts easier, burns less gas in cruise, runs smoother, and can use automotive spark plugs at about one tenth the cost of the approved aviation equivalent. What’s not to like? More reliable than the old mags? There’s a fair chance that they are.

It should be noted that the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate, AOPA, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and others are working feverishly on reforming FAR Part 23 certification as it applies to simple aircraft. All I can say is make all haste because the sales of manufactured light aircraft are almost non-existent and so far, we haven’t figured how to fly without wings. I’ve spoken to many potential pilots who would learn to fly immediately, but they are priced out.


Moving onto safety, 30- and 40-year-old aircraft are safe enough, but some of the new technology affords better equipment. Stuff does wear out and it corrodes or deteriorates. This may trigger some different opinions. A few examples: Airbags are now almost standard in new aircraft—great improvement! Shoulder harnesses have been standard since the mid-70s and really should be on all aircraft. Some of the older ones do not have suitable attach points. Fuel valves are better designed, making it harder to inadvertently move to the “off” position. One of my favorite aircraft, the J-3 Cub, has a fuel tank that sits right behind the engine—very bad in a crash. The new LSA Cub-derivatives move the fuel much farther from the ignition source. Cockpit lighting is far better, and on and on.

Some of this can be retrofitted to older standard aircraft, but the experimental world is way ahead of certificated aircraft in many respects. The previously noted electronic ignition is just one example. Non-TSO’d avionics are another area where I’d like to see some statistics showing how much safer the TSO’d versions are. There are orders of magnitude in cost differential. Why? Any factual basis?

A huge success story is datalink weather in the cockpit. The FAA had little to do with it, and there are all manner of systems. It is supplemental, and the industry has made phenomenal strides to develop and expand the capabilities. Doesn’t mean there isn’t an occasional miscue, but please name something that doesn’t get misused by some humans.

There are other factors including liability, high manufacturing costs, etc., but there may be ways of resolving those as well. Fixed costs are the bane of manufacturing, and when they get too high and management raises prices, that usually depresses demand further. At one point, companies could make money building light airplanes, and many people, not all, could afford them. Seems like we need to climb into the Way-Back machine and figure out how that was done.

What do you think?

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • George

    I completely agree! But how is the business model of the manufacturers succeeding with this set of conditions? It would seem that an experiment by one of the SE GA builders to offer a product at 2/3 of the current list price would be very interesting.

  • Avi Weiss


    Salient points as always.

    You asked how aircraft were made more affordably “way back”, and figured I’d weigh in with my thoughts.

    There are likely several different categories in which things were different back then, all of which likely enabled prices to be more reasonably set. But outside of the usual “cost of living increase” and usual inflationary mechanisms, two items seem to stand out most: bureaucratic creep, and societal perspective.

    Like weight around the mid-section, bureaucratic “weight” has continued to increase, as certification process has become exponentially more costly, for all the usual reasons: from paperwork and required but unnecessary certification tests to the more subtle and secondary effects of inability to more rapidly evolve product models and resultant market stagnation, leading to higher manufacturing costs.

    Societal perspective brings the additional cost burden to bear: Labor cost increases non-commensurate with value provided, large insurance cost increases due to ever-increasing lawsuits filed (and won or settled for large sums) against manufacturers whenever anything happens to an aircraft, regardless of manufacturer liability, and the general waning of viewing general aviation as a meaningful, value-contributing, and adventurous pastime, and more as a nuisance to be removed from the earth.

    While this appears to be a chicken-and-egg problem, a break to the cycle could be had if certification reform drastically reduced time and expense to certification, and manufacturers and insurance companies stood up to frivolous lawsuits and put a damper on “roll-the-bones” litigation. This would allow the industry to more rapidly produce new and improved aircraft with more features for considerably less money, encouraging the “base” of wealthier people to more frequently purchase new aircraft, placing more capable “pre-owned” aircraft out on the market for secondary consumers like flight clubs and shares to be able to use for much lower cost basis.

    But then again, I may as well wish for a date with Heidi Klum…

  • Jim

    Finally you’re getting your head out of the sand. Avi Weiss makes some excellent points.

    I think we need a cheaper fuel source such as automotive gas. This would greatly reduce hourly costs without the need to reduce aircraft cost. Surely there is some way to design an engine that could run automotive gas. It seems a simple solution would be electronic engine management to control ignition timing and fuel management. Why do aircraft engines need to be overhauled at 1500 to 2000 hours? Automotive engines perform much better and surely aircraft engines can too but I suspect its not quite so simple.

    As Mr. Weiss stated, our absurd judicial system is culpable as well as certification costs.

    AOPA ran an ad in AOPA Pilot that I believe was pitching aircraft insurance. The ad pictured several aircraft parts and their prices. To me, it was the epitome of what is wrong with general aviation. One that really stood out to me was a muffler. I don’t recall the price but it was insane. Another is communication equipment. $8-10,000 for a GPS unit? Really? I don’t know the cause of this but it needs to be addressed.

  • john

    I agree something need to be done. $450k for a new 4 place SEL airplane is out of reach for the majority of pilots. I believe the FAA needs to get out of the certification business for small aircraft. Publish a design standards that need to be met. The experimental class aircraft fly in the same airspace as I do and they can do a lot more for a lot less.

    Secondly allow the owners of certified aircraft to put them into the experimental category (the owner’s choice) and follow the same rules as if they purchased an experimental aircraft from a builder.

  • Doyle Frost

    Some well thought out responses to this problem. Now, can we, as the general aviation community, get together and bring common sense and reasoning back into the equation, vs. common avarice and greed on the part of the politicians and manufacturing groups.
    That is the basic problem, as I see it. The manufacturers want as much money, for themselves and their stockholders, regardless of the long term consequences. And the politicians want to ensure the longevity of their positions, so they over regulate the manufacturing firms, (and everything else.)Simply put, they are pricing themselves out of the general aviation fields. And we, the users of all the latest gadgets, especially with the current economy, can no longer afford it.
    We need good common sense brought back into the equation, for all of us, but especially for the future of aviation.

  • Marcus Staloff

    My comment has not to do with the content, which I heartily agree with and which you have expounded in such a lucid manner. You have articulated on a problem of which most are aware on some level but have distilled and clearly identified. That can be a step towards remediation.

    I think that your writing is articulate and well considered but I see a phrase which I suspect may not be used correctly. You say “…orders of magnitude …”. I doubt that the price differential is actually in that category. The phrase, an order of magnitude, is commonly used in physics and engineering to indicate a scale difference of a factor of ten. It comes from the use of scientific notation of large numbers where each order of magnitude is ten times the previous one. If something has a value of hundreds of something then an order of magnitude more means that it is has a value of thousands of something. OrderS of magnitude implies a minimum factor of one hundred or more.

    Sometimes expressions which have specific meaning in physics/engineering are adopted popularly and can be misused. A common example is “quantum jump”. It is popularly meant to indicate a big or significant change. In fact a quantum jump or a quanta is generally a very small quantity based on Plank’s constant.

    All apologies if the price differentials do rise to that level. :-)

    Thanks for your good work at AOPA.

  • http://billymurphy.com Edward Murphy

    Something does need to be done. The only way I can see something happening is if we can get the whole GA community involved. All stakeholders must come together with a prioritized and collaborative agenda. I propose the follow mission statement for the group:

    “The mission of this industry/government initiative group is to collaboratively develop guidelines, and later an action plan, to reduce the total cost of flying for the general aviation community. The goal of this initiative should be to put aircraft ownership within reach for most Americans, while maintaining a reasonable level of safety for the GA community.”

    Others will wordsmith the statement above which is fine. The intent is to focus government, industry and the pilot community on finding acceptable solutions to the high cost of flying and aircraft ownership. Until we have a focused team which includes government participation, we will continue to talk without much being accomplished.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Great comments – all. This is an area that AOPA and the AOPA Foundation have more than casual interest. Things are moving – albeit slowly.

    That’s both good and bad. On the one hand GA is shrinking and so prices continue to rise. One short term fix is in flying clubs and partnership where AOPA has a rapidly growing program. Good.

    My impatience ( and perhaps yours) is not so good when we rush something and get serious unintended consequences. There is a balance and the difficulty is in figuring our exactly where and how hard to push.

    Marcus – regarding the OrderS of magnitude – it should be order – I got a little carried away. Thank you.

  • Keith McMillan

    Thank you Bruce for addressing the cost of aircraft, an issue that affects the pilot (and potential) pilot population, and I feel doesn’t get nearly the attention it should. I’ve felt for quite a while that a more affordable airplane would attract more student pilots (and keep them flying), but most of the work I’ve seen around growing the pilot population has never focused on this.

  • Terry D. Welander

    Mr. Landsberg’s article here misses the cost side specifics of flying older aircraft, which he appears to consider most important. If you want to minimize cost, do not change anything on or in the aircraft. I repeat, if you want to minimize cost, do not change anything on or in the aircraft.

    Any changes generate research for your mechanic and A/I which you must pay for. If cost is number one and front and center, leave the aircraft exactly as is and just fly it. Do exactly what is prescribed by the FARs only for maintenance. Of course some smart review may pay for itself.

    Like doing an engine oil lab analysis at annual inspection. It will give you a good idea how the engine is progressing toward the next major overhaul, if it will make it or if something is showing up which will shorten engine life which you may be able to fix.

    Yes, all those new avionics are enticing. If cost is number one, do not go near or even consider anything new. It will only reduce your flying budget, the number one priority for most pilots.

  • Larry

    I am pleasantly surprised to see AOPA shifting its rhetoric to the subject of costs and their relationship to our shrinking pilot population. The majority of times I posted on AOPA discussion boards expressing the same message conveyed here by Bruce Lansberg, I was promptly shot down. Responses came back opining that costs are nothing but a minor factor, if at all. Much of the blame was dropped upon the laps of flight schools and CFI’s, accusing them of engineering a mass exodus of potentional flyers due to issues ranging from surly instructors to outrageously poor customer service and marketing techniques. Not that such practices are completely non-existent, but pricing is a huge factor that got pushed way down to the bottom during those discussions.

    It is high time for us all to attack this problem honestly and aggressively. Through your article, Bruce, I see important steps in that direction. A popular and useful activity (flying) that was affordably enjoyed by numerous middle-class participants has become out of reach to many of us who were not born with large trust accounts in our names. Flying clubs are certainly a big help when utilized correctly. But when the average price of a new single-engine four-seater is four to five times the purchase price of my home AND STILL CLIMBING, the John Travoltas and Harrison Fords of our society will be the only segment of the population who can afford to earn and maintain a pilot certificate. Toys like advanced glass cockpits look pretty and can fly an entire cross-country right after takeoff to almost the final landing, all while the pilot sits back and “manages” everything. Fun stuff if you can afford it, which a sizable portion of the community obviously cannot.

    Thanks Bruce, nice job!

  • Dan Winkelman

    The irony here is the call for a lower cost of entry while last month’s AOPA Pilot magazine featured an $800+ Cirrus SR22 with the “Vision Inspired” package. Seriously? Let’s be real: it’s a piston single.

    Prior to that issue was a more realistically priced, but homebuilt, Velocity V-Twin. But another month or so prior was another example of the unattainable: the seven-figure Piper Seneca V.

    There are precious few very successful people who can afford such aircraft. Not enough to build an entire industry around. I consider myself reasonably well off, as a successful engineer, but it’ll be a sizable budget stretch to finance a $100k airplane for 20 years.

    The cost of entry absolutely must come back down to earth if we want to see any kind of commercially successful future for GA. The future of living-wage jobs supported by the industry likewise depend on it being reinvigorated.

    The Part 23 overhaul cannot come fast enough. The Light Sport revolution has made successful startups a reality once again. Now we need airplanes within the same price ballpark that are not limited to the puny useful load offered by a 1320lb MGTOW.

  • Dan Winkelman

    Edit: “$800+” should read “$800k+”

  • David Forster

    Thank you for writing this article.

    I believe cost is the single most important issue affecting the health of North American private aviation today. Left alone, an efficient free market is generally pretty good at delivering quality products at reasonable cost, but the combination of tort law and regulation have conspired to encourage low quality and high prices.

    The current certification standards were well meaning in their day, but today’s environment of instant and broad communication, coupled with fear of the aforementioned tort laws has resulted in a market which is self policing to a much greater degree than in the past, and therefore much less in need of burdensome and outdated regulations. We find ourselves today in the perverse situation whereby the very regulations designed to promote a safer aviation environment are contributing to a less safe, declining industry.

    I have seen surprisingly little reporting on the results of the small Aircraft Review Committee’s recommendations for aircraft certification. It would be nice to see more coverage on this from AOPA. In my opinion, initiatives to change our operating environment to reduce cost should be the primary objective of AOPA. If cost/regulation could be significantly reduced and free enterprise allowed to flourish, many of the other issues related to flying activity and the overall pilot population would take care of themselves.

  • Marco

    Great discussion.

    In my opinion, AOPA should in the name of its members spearhead an initiative to bring down the costs of flying and open it up to a broader share of society. This initiative should include a broad group of stakeholders including pilots, aircraft and component manufacturers, FAA and other government bodies, and others. Maybe we can even include some automotive suppliers to spark ideas of which components would be easiliy transferable.

    I would suggest the following general areas for ideas on how to reduce the costs:

    – Take a good hard look at the regulations for Experimental aircraft. There are amazing aircrafts available as kits that cost a 1/3 of comparable manufactured airplanes. Why do I have to bring my own lack of skill into the safety mix by assembling 51% myself to have access to these airplanes?
    – Think about ways we can leverage components and technology developed in the automotive industry. Modern cars have great reliability records and the data that can be collected on automobile components within a year is probably more than could be collected on aviation components over 40 years (e.g. spark plugs).
    – Encourage airplane manufacturers to offer simpler versions of their planes. A yoke-mounted I-Pad can fulfill a lot of the functionality that expensive avionics otherwise provide. If it works in a 1970s 172, why not in a modern plane?
    – With all of these insights propose changes to the regulations and certification requirements for aircraft components and designs. Safety is a priority clearly, but there has to be a more efficient way to achieve this (and reduce bureacratic burden) than the current cumbersome certification requirements.


  • Wally Bailey

    Liability insurance and lawsuits are not the problem. Certification costs aren’t either. Both are easy targets, but the former as an alleged “huge expense” is urban mythology, with liability insurance readily available at a fraction of manufacturing costs. The latter is easily covered with enough sales. Both are business expenses, but neither is killing GA in the US, especially for aircraft that were certificated decades ago. The problem is the US middle class has been losing buying power for over 30 years. The trend is down, but not obvious because pay in dollars is not shrinking, just the value of those dollars compared to what they once commanded. Not being able to afford new cars is coming for today’s youngsters when they are middle-aged. You can eliminate certification and do away with courts, but the average business person in Bangladesh still won’t be able to buy a new C172, much less a Baron or cabin-class twin like the US business owners did in the 60s or 70s. That’s the direction US society and social policy have been and are headed. Where has all the money gone? Somebody is buying all the new personal jets. The top 1% owns 40% of everything, and that fraction is moving higher, and faster. There are consequences for the policies that have led us away from the lifestyle average Americans could afford during the postwar era through the 70s when last Cessna could sell thousands of piston singles and twins to ready US buyers. US manufacturers of piston GA aircraft will have look to Europe and China, where the middle class is growing and healthy, if they are to survive.