Oshkosh 2033: Who will carry the torch?

August 20th, 2013 by Martin Rottler

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Early August, 2033

The 81st EAA AirVenture fly-in and airshow  ended this past week with continued declines in General Aviation participation from peaks in the 1990s and early 2000s. Attendance this year was not expected to break 200,000 and this year’s flight activity of little more than 2000 aircraft during the week was once again to not high enough to qualify the tower as “The World’s Busiest.” Reflecting the continued reality of declining interest in aviation and airshows, EAA once again kept the once-popular North 40 parking area at the airport closed, consolidating all aircraft parking near show center. In spite of separate efforts by EAA, AOPA, and several other aviation organizations, there seemed to be no coherent solution on the part of any of organizations’ leadership as to how to stop the declining interest in airshows and aviation.

Columbus, Ohio

Mid-August 2013

Mention Oshkosh to your non-aviation inclined friends, and you’ll likely get a “B’GOSH!” out of them. Mention Oshkosh to your aviation friends, and you’ll get a starry-eyed look of airplanes, airshows, and the celebration of all things avgeek.

For the first time in 11 years, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to the premier general aviation celebration a few weeks ago. A mix of work and pleasure, I spent ten days amongst friends, former classmates, coworkers, students, and random strangers brought together by a common love of flying. My AirVenture experience included airshows, meetings, networking, a fantastic College Mixer organized by EAA, and time spent “working the lines,” reaching out to prospective students, alumni, and the general public in the booth organized for my employer. It was a wonderful and tiring experience and very different to see from a professional lens.

One of the areas of focus in my academic research is in analyzing demographic data for pilots. I spend many hours pouring over FAA spreadsheets, industry analyses, and forecasts. As my time at AirVenture reminded me, there’s a lot of basic demographic analysis that can be done by traveling to Oshkosh and seeing who is in attendance. Who are the typical attendees? In nonscientific terms, it boils down to three words: Old White Guys.

EAA’s 2014 Exhibitor application noted the following specific demographic attendance data as a sales pitch for exhibitors:

84% male

2/3 of attendees over the age of 35

50% of attendees have a household income over $100,000/yr (US average: 20% of households meet this number)

What, in this portrait of current AirVenture attendees, strikes today’s millennial (of which I’m included) as an event they’d want to spend their time attending? As members of aviation organizations such as EAA and AOPA, what are we doing to ensure the future of our orgs? Why aren’t we directing the leaders of these organizations to make meaningful actions at bringing more people into the fray? Why are we allowing the huge disconnect between potential aviation fans of all varieties and organizations that aren’t doing anything meaningful or coherent to bring them into the field?

The narration of a demonstration flight during an afternoon airshow  at this year’s AirVenture really brought home this disconnect. The person explaining the airplane being demonstrated said that the goal behind their product was to “open up the world of aviation” to more individuals. The cost of this opening product? $250,000+. How many millenials have a fraction of that to spend on flying? How many middle-aged people in the US have that kind of money? Does this product really do anything to open the market up to new blood? Probably not.

This is a theme and question I will return back to many times over the course of my blog posts for AOPA: What is the future of aviation?

What will AirVenture be in 20 years after the majority of today’s attendees are unable to travel to Oshkosh? Are the days of 500,000+ attendees and 10,000+ airplanes numbered? Will the above fictionalization of 2033 become true?

Most importantly, who is going to drive all those awesome VW Beetles around?

Martin Rottler

Martin Rottler is a lecturer at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies, in Columbus, Ohio and a Partner at First Segment. He is a commercial pilot and certificated flight instructor and has worked in general aviation, the airline industry, and international aviation. An avowed "avgeek" from a very early age, Martin maintains academic and personal interests in aviation education, outreach, flight training, and international aviation. He can be found via Twitter at @martinrottler. The views presented on this blog are Martin's and do not represent those of The Ohio State University, the OSU Center for Aviation Studies, or any other organization.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • http://www.squadron2.com Jeff Mohler

    What I am not seeing in the few aviation events that I have been to with my wife, is any focus on the student pilot…the brand NEW young pilot (and some not so young, of course).

    If you want the younger pilots, you have to make them want to take a large amount of time off work, and spend a lot of $ to get to that venue and back.

    Could a CFI offer his time for free to a student to FLY to an AOPA event, Osh, or AIrV? Sure. But..you gotta meet these people half way. What a great way to cross off some XC training, work, and REAL practical experience.

    Get that pilot AND his student a free registration, free gear from your sponsors and vendors, strike up a special fuel price for the effort of showing up either as the young airman or the CFI that took the time. Give em a special shirt/hat..let em stand out.

    A good amount of the classroom material at the AOPA conference we last attended repeated a lot. have -1- day where the presented material is geared again towards the student pilot..that day is free with an active student logbook and his CFI. Garmin and the other vendors use -that- day to shift their retail focus on the floor to new pilot needs, tools, and education.

    If you’re going to wonder where the young folks are, ask what’s in it for them to come. The challenges are young careers (time off) young incomes (rental, cfi, fuel), and young knowledge (classroom material).

    I could be way off, and that’s ok, but as long as these events cater to the wealthy, able-scheduled pilot, you’ll find that trend you talk about continuing and accelerating over time I think.

  • Dave Hill

    I find that nobody is listening to the average pilot’s journey. It goes something like this: I’ve always loved airplanes or learned about flying at a young age. Started flying but family came along and couldn’t afford it and quit flying. Started making more money and now have the discretionary income to get back into flying or I’ve become a successful business owner and I bought an airplane for my business. The only time in history where there was a massive introduction to aviation was in the training of WWII pilots who’s numbers we are seeing decline more quickly. In comparison, the Baby Boomer generation which has the most members has substantially fewer early introducees to flying. The number of affluent Baby Boomers who are active in aviation is substantially lower than the WWII pilots of the Greatest Generation. Why is everybody trying to fix a problem that is simply an anomaly? Get over it. Pilot numbers are going to go down because we haven’t trained 200,000 military pilots in the last five years. (Heck – military is training even less pilots.) Can we do better? Sure. I suggest we take a step back. We should be building inexpensive light sport aerobatic biplanes and make flying the most fun thing you’ve ever done in your life. Who wants to fly in congested airspace with a drill sargent CFI screaming at you? That’s no fun. What’s so damn important about getting your license? So you can fly your friends and family? Are you crazy? They know you just got your license. Let’s teach flying for the fun of it and include simple aerobatics – loops, rolls, and spins. You’ll be a much better pilot and you’ll eventually get your license but meanwhile you will have had the time of your life and you wont care how much it costs to get a license. People fly for fun, business, and career. We need to take a lesson from Harley Davidson who has made motorcycle riding and ownership a family affair and includes a huge number of women. Stop trying to re-engineer the generations.

  • Justin W

    Don’t forget the Eclipse jet demonstration narration that said it was “just under 3 million dollars”. What a turn off to just about everyone at the show.

  • Jim Klick

    I tend to agree with Dave Hill. Most flight schools are training airline pilot class “system operators”. A glass cockpit in a
    copy of a Cub (with electric trim), should be illegal.
    No one is teaching stick and rudder, fun flying in affordable airplanes.
    Affordable airplane is rapidly becoming an oxymoron. It is too bad that all of the Cessna 150′s and Cherokee 140′s
    cannot be legal for LSA.