We need more pilots

June 2, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

blogLast 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?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • David Stack

    I often wonder if the aviation market will first have to satisfy the pent up demand from those who are able to afford something in the “Ferrari/ Maserati class” before less expensive options become available for the rest of us. This is not to suggest that anyone is at fault, but so long as there is a viable market for $120,000 LSA’s with the latest electronics it doesn’t make sense to market ready-to-fly $30,000 LSAs, although this price point can be approached today via kits.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks for your response. I’m wondering about that “pent up demand.” It seems to be awfully pent up and we need to repent ( sorry) in a big way to get GA even marginally healthy.


  • Thomas Boyle


    It’s funny, but I’ve been thinking about the same challenge recently.

    As an aside, I do get a little frustrated by people who claim that “LSA was supposed to be cheap, but these things are all $130,000!” – when there are LSA out there at less than half that price ($60k), with performance that would leave a J-3 Cub in the dust. That said, I can get a nice luxury car for $40,000 – how is it possible that a rag-and-tube airplane with basic instruments costs substantially more than that?

    There are a couple of obvious elements. Engines, for one. In LSA the Rotax 912 has a virtual monopoly, and between that and the recent strength of the Euro, the engine alone has cost $20,000. The Jabiru is maybe a few thousand less. On top of that, there’s the propeller, etc. – in fact, the RV-12 powerplant kit sells for just under $27,000. Add the avionics specified for the RV-12 ($13,000) and you’re up to $40,000 – with no airframe yet!

    The full RV-12 kit costs about $60,000, so the entire remainder of the aircraft – everything Vans does for the builder – comes for $20,000. Add the estimated 800 hours of build time at, say, $35/hour for fairly low-skilled labor, or $28,000 in labor, and you have an airframe cost (materials and labor) of about $48,000.

    How do we get to $130,000? There are airframe parachutes in most of the LSAs (add $5,000) and the interiors are often a bit fancier than what’s in the RV-12 (add $5,000). Now the costs are up to $98,000 – call it $100,000. Put a half-decent gross margin on there and you’re at $130,000 right away.

    What can we conclude?

    The “hardware” (engine and avionics) is half the cost of the aircraft. It’s going to be tough to achieve a meaningful reduction in the cost of an aircraft unless the engine and the avionics can be made much less expensive.

    There’s been more progress on the avionics side, and that’s likely to continue. Also, avionics are somewhat under buyer control; basic airspeed/altitude plus a compass, radio and xpdr could probably be done for under $3,000. So I’m going to argue that avionics aren’t the problem; people may WANT pricey avionics, but it’s not an insoluble problem.

    What about cheaper engines? I mean, I can pick up a remanufactured engine for a Honda Accord for about $3,000. Trouble is, those are built in large numbers. Looking at sport-oriented engines isn’t encouraging. A 115hp Honda outboard motor for boating use lists for $13,000. Considering that we need greater reliability and have an engine mount, propeller, etc., to deal with, it looks like it would be hard to get the engine down by more than about $5,000, in almost any scenario involving internal combustion.

    That brings us back to the airframe. Rag-and-tube airframes look simple, but they’re quite labor-intensive – especially if they’re welded (instead of pinned). Composites are very labor-intensive to lay up. Aluminum sheet airframes have a lot of small parts and a ridiculous number of rivets. And installing the controls, seats, interior, electrical system, avionics and engine seems to take a LOT of time. In fact, in trying to address this overall problem it would be interesting to know how much of the labor goes into assembling the “airframe” and how much goes into “installation” and “finishing.”

    However, on airframes I think the opportunities are in 2 areas.

    1. A radically lower-cost way to build the airframe. This is the Big One.
    – A way to join aluminum without rivets might help.
    – Or a structural composite that could be injection-molded.
    – Another option would be to standardize portions of the airframe. All LSA wings have very similar requirements; if someone produced 2 or 3 wing designs in large quantity it might be worthwhile investing in mass production machinery. Aluminum can be formed in various ways at very low unit cost – but the fixed cost is high, so it requires quantity to get the average cost down.
    – Even portions of the fuselage may be amenable to standardization. For example, the cockpit area is complex but in LSAs you have a lot of designs that are 2 seats, side by side, either with a wing overhead and doors, or with a low wing and a tilt canopy. There’s no reason why a variety of niche-application designs shouldn’t use very similar cockpit areas, letting one or two specialty producers churn out cockpits.
    – Building in low-labor-cost countries is already common. However, with shipping and coordination costs, I don’t know how much money it really saves.

    2. Radically lower-cost way to install the hardware. This is truly hard, but standardization could help. Perhaps more radical would be the idea of trying to eliminate cable runs, either by moving to wireless within the aircraft (reliability problems) or by multiplexing signals onto the power cables.

    Where have we gotten to, with all this?

    Old Target – basic Target – full
    Engine package 27,000 22,000 22,000
    Avionics 13,000 3,000 13,000
    Airframe 48,000 15,000 15,000
    Ballistic chute 5,000 0 5,000
    Fancy interior 5,000 0 5,000
    Margin @ 35% 34,500 14,000 21,000

    Total 132,500 54,000 81,000

    Better, but still not cheap, and I’ve assumed a roughly 70% reduction in the cost of the airframe. Still, the “basic” model is now the price of a midsize/large luxury car, and comparable to a quite small sailboat.

    If I also assume a radical cut in the engine cost (half!) we could have this down to $43,000 for the basic model, and about $70,000 for the “fancy” version.

    As you say, the question is – can anybody figure out how to do either, or both?

  • Doug Oakley

    Bruce, I’m going to take a different tack here. Cost is certainly a factor, but it is perceived cost, not actual cost. For example, it cost me the same to purchase my used Grady White 25 ft fishing boat as it did to buy my 172M. It cost the same to store the boat and the plane (hangar vs slip rental). It cost MORE to operate the boat, more to maintain the boat, than the 172. Yet everyone perceives I am wealthy because I own an airplane! (BTW we sold the boat!) How many more people own boats than airplanes?

    A far bigger deterrent to GA is the perceived safety issue. People will jump at the chance to go 50+ miles offshore fishing with me in the Grady White but they refuse to fly. “Those little planes are just too dangerous!” The “mistique” of learning to fly is too great. It simply isn’t that hard and we need to make the public aware of this. Things like “International Learn to Fly Day”, which was grossly under-promoted by AOPA and EAA ,could be key factors to introducing people to flight. But why must we have an event to take someone flying? When was the last time you (or I) took a prospective student pilot up? I would propose a program within AOPA that would reward members through a “point” system for taking a certain number of prospective new pilots flying every year.
    Perhaps it could result in reduced membership costs or maybe a subscription to one of AOPA’s magazines. A simple gold pin or an AOPA shirt, anything.

    And my final point, one I made with Karen Gephardt a few years ago, why do I go to a major regional air show and there is not one single static display of training aircraft? No one with a “Learn to Fly Here” booth signing up potential students? No AOPA presence at all?

    You are absolutely correct. We have impending problems in GA, user fees, airport closings, leaded fuel, and costs, etc. But none are comparable to the decline in the pilot population. Increasing the pilot population MUST be the NO. 1 goal of AOPA or simply put, nothing else matters. AOPA does not need a marketing plan,,,WE need a sales plan. Recruiting pilots should be given the same attention we give to pilot safety. “GA Serves America”? Most of America doesn’t have a clue what “GA” even stands for. They see the “GA” signs at the airport and wonder why the state of Georgia has a parking area at their airport! Harrison Ford’s influence would be much more effective if he were supporting a “Learn to Fly” promotion instead of a “GA Serves America” campaign.

    Sorry if this sounds like criticism or a rant. It is not meant to be so. As someone with a long marketing/sales background and new to “GA”, perhaps I just see things with different eyes.
    Thank you for the opportunity to be heard.
    Fly safe,
    Doug Oakley
    AOPA 05735384
    ASN Volunteer, KSUT

  • Finbar Sheehy


    I agree with, and might slightly re-spin Doug’s points:

    a) The frame of reference matters a lot. People compare airplanes to cars and think they’re expensive. But a full-featured LSA costs about the same as a 30 ft sailboat, and you can buy an X-Air LSA – which appears to be a perfectly fine airplane – for the price of a bass fishing boat. Come on – an airplane or an open bass boat, is that even a choice?

    b) AOPA might want to think about marketing aviation a lot more, and rethink how it is presenting aviation to the public, perhaps inadvertently. Our magazine puts a lot of focus on safety issues. Any non-pilot reading AOPA magazine is more likely come away with the impression that flying is freakishly dangerous, than with the impression that it’s a delightful and fun lifestyle. In the most recent magazine, Tom Haines writes about St. Pat’s day over the Appalachians, commenting “I’m looking along the ridges for places I might land should the faithful old Continental out front decide it has had enough… might just be survivable.” Then Rod Machado, making an excellent point about focus, nevertheless spends a page on how easy it is to, well, die. A page later, John Yodice writes about a court decision related to a planeload of people who… died. Then, in fairness, the magazine has a bunch of more positive articles before we arrive at your SafetyPilot article about a (thankfully) non-fatal runway collision. And, not to leave it at that, we come to Never Again, headlined “Sudden thump, sickening vibration.” As pilots, we’re used to this. But hand a copy of the magazine to a non-pilot and ask them for feedback on their reaction to it. I’m not opposed to promoting safety, but I hope someone in Editorial is giving some thought to how it all comes across – particularly the throwaway comments like Tom Haines’.

    An open bass boat, or an airplane. Hmm…

  • http://gideon.org/andrew/ A. Gideon

    I agree with both of the previous posters that much more can be done to market aviation. I’ve a number of my sons’ friends interested in aviation, but at ~7 years they’re not quite ready for lessons yet *laugh*. In a few years, though, they may be signing up. We should all be doing as much of this as we can.

    I recently met a young pilot that went through a lot of effort to train. It might have gone a lot easier if the local FBO to which he’d written as a youth about the possibility of getting a job where he could learn about aircraft had deigned to respond!

    The point about safety-related articles make above is interesting. I’d hate to lose these, but they’re why I tend not to use aviation magazines as reading material for my boys.

    Addressing the pricing issues is certainly a good idea, but there’s a lot of room for improvement on the marketing side.

    Perhaps AOPA could build a collection of mini-curricula that parents could use for talks w/in childrens’ classes for various ages. For example, what about using photo tour of Northern NJ (where we live) to show the results of glacial etching in a geography class? Or how the movement of air impacts airplanes and gliders for a weather class? The basic E6B is a marvel of mechanical computing; perhaps this would be useful for a math or even basic computing class. There have to be dozens of other possibilities like this, which would offer us chances to enrich the education provided within our schools while also offering a chance for young people to be introduced to the wonders of GA.


  • Brian Howard

    Cost is an issue, but that is not the only issue I see. (Don’t get me wrong, some have trouble affording training; I’m having trouble justifying an airplane; and a few I know have jets.)

    In short, there is no infrastructure – you really have to know someone to even “discover” that being a pilot is even a possibility. In 2005, I made the decision to learn to fly: after calling two different flight schools, I finally hooked up with an instructor. After a year of fighting my schedule, the instructor’s schedule, the weather, mental wrangling over the costs, the family’s “you’re gonna die” feedback – I finally completed the deed in 2006. Since then I’ve been fighting the same battles trying to get an IFR rating (ok, money got tight in 2008). As I have found, without an IFR rating and remaining current, a casual driver can really only use an airplane for flying the pattern and fetching $100 hamburgers. Any real travel by air really begs an IFR rating (at least here in the mid-south).

    To recap: To drive to the local airport to rent an airplane, I will drive past three Harley Davidson dealers and countless car lots selling cars from $10K to $100K or more. Not to mention they teach driving at school and TV is loaded with car commercials. If I do happen to run into someone and get them interested at trying their hand at flying, they will have to figure out where the school is, struggle over the cost, and realize they are about to rent a 30+ year old trainer. And if they do happen to get interested enough to purchase an airplane – well, let’s just say that even for the average among us, an impulse buy of a $50K airplane constructed in the 1970’s is not likely without a divorce.

    Things are not good. Before factoring in the cost in a down economy, flying airplanes is the last thing on most people’s minds – right behind taking the kids to the dentist and just before taking themselves.

    So, how to change things? Not sure I’m qualified to answer that questions as I barely consider myself a pilot (I reserve that term for those getting paid, I’m just a driver). But here goes:

    #1 Get noticed. Putting airplanes in malls is the best idea I’ve heard in years. Need to do more like this – now.

    #2 COST – yes cost is #2 on average. In my estimate, flying costs about as much as smoking. (Although I’m convinced my insurance agent would rather I give up flying and start smoking.) LSA’s might help with this in a few years, but without more pilots I see costs increasing.

    #3 Infrastructure – I live in Little Rock with some really nice flight schools in the area. Nobody knows they exist. Drive 1 hour in any direction – there are few schools to choose from. Hope your schedule works.

    #3B MOST IMPORTANT Transitional Infrastructure – ok, now that you have a new pilot, they need an IFR rating and a little more than a wore out LSA, DA20, C172 or Tomahawk to fly to grandma’s house. (And forget about getting near any good trainer for an extended trip – if it isn’t already booked, it’s in for 100 hour maintenance again.) Some flight schools provide some transitional infrastructure (e.g. C182, DA40, etc.), but most can barely afford the trainer. Flying clubs would be nice, but, well, I though finding a flight school was hard.

    I do enjoy flying and hope to until my money or medical runs out. But I really feel that the next generation will by flying Microsoft Flight simulator – but wait, that project was canceled too!


  • http://stanpace.com stan pace

    Am somewhat new to flying, however my observation as a businessman, is the industry currently “preaches (markets) to the choir”. Am amazed at the masses of population that have no awareness about Sport Pilot program, LSA aircraft etc. I feel there is a lot of people such as myself, that are interested in this type of activity for the experience and hobby verses a form of transportation from point A to B.
    If motorcycles and motor boats had the expense of small aviation, there would be about as many involved with them as SP/GA. Hence if there were as few involved in motorcycles and motorboats as aviation, their cost would be the same expense as avaiation.

    The current paradigm is a business model that is focused on teaching students to particpate in an expensive protocol to train to become pilots to be able to fly planes they can’t afford.
    The current business model has been primarily about two groups. The aircraft manufacturers and the flight instructors. As the focus shift from those two entities and rather to blueprints/protocols “outlets” that enable the masses to simply have the opportunity to enjoy affordable flying in new, safe, fun, neat S-LSA aircraft, the aircraft manufacturers and flight instructors will have the opportunities to thrive, simply because of demand.

    Having a business that markets “effectively”, “enjoyable flying experience and flight training” is not at all the same as having a business focuses on training pilots and selling planes.

    Have discovered my friends and circle of influence have no clue about enjoying the experience of flying. What I see is a tremendous business opportunity for the entity that understands the mass potential market is not at the hangars and airports.