Dave 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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