Archive for the ‘Trends and analysis’ Category

Welcome to the Pilot Shortage

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Can you see it? We’re going to talk about it.
Image via

For once in the airline world, something has arrived early. This time, however, it’s not-so-good: a long forecasted, sometimes delayed pilot shortage. From the Wall Street Journal to Brett Snyder’s CrankyFlier to BusinessWeek,the news of a significant shortage of qualified applicants to our nation’s regional airlines has captured the attention of the media and business world alike. Great Lakes Airlines has taken the extraordinary step of closing their Minneapolis Essential Air Service base and Republic Airways is parking airplanes. This is an area with which I have spent the past several years immersing myself in heaps of demographic data from the FAA in the form of reports and spreadsheets. With this post, I hope to elaborate on some of the key areas in this conversation all members of the aviation community need to know.



The Pilot Shortage is not a Myth, Despite What ALPA Leadership Says

Yogi Berra once said that half of the game of baseball was 90% mental. While an offhand mistake, there is a comparison to be made to airline unions: more than half of the game of airline unions is 90% politics and messaging. The Air Line Pilots Association has decided  to stake their political message in press releases and a video message from ALPA President Lee Moak. Within the talking points put forth by the pilot union, there are several key insinuations that represent misinterpretations of the market or outright falsehoods:

  • Regional airline pilots are not leaving the United States en masse to go work for companies like Emirates, Cathay Pacific, or Korean Air. A prospective pilot or even a somewhat-established regional pilot does not meet the very high published minimum hour requirements set forth by these companies which include thousands of hours of flight time and/or time in aircraft of 737/A320 size or larger (Korean Air’s mins; Emirates’ mins). Cathay Pacific isn’t even hiring American pilots at this point in time.
  • By the time a pilot meets the minimum hour requirements to fly for these global carriers, they are likely unwilling to uproot their families and daily life to move to Dubai or deal with a 7-14 day on-off commuting schedule. Is $20,000 enough to make you move you and a family halfway around the world?
  • The number of pilots on furlough by ALPA member carriers is greatly eclipsed by the projected hiring amongst legacy carriers. American alone has publicly announced they will be hiring more than the number of pilots ALPA says are on furlough in the next five years. Pilots on furlough face a difficult decision: start at the bottom of another airline, with a reduction of salary and seniority or wait out a callback from their employer.

These mixed messages by ALPA’s national office fall flat compared to the pointed comments of American Eagle’s ALPA leadership, which stated last week after rejecting a concessionary contract offer from American: “[American Eagle's ALPA organization] will be working with the American Eagle pilots to help them find placement with other airlines. ALPA representatives will ask management for their timetable regarding the liquidation of American Eagle.”

The Demographic Picture Looks Like One of My Paintings: Not Pretty

The 2012 US Civil Airmen Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration contain several statistics that show things are going to get tougher for pilot supply and the aviation industry as a whole.

  • The average age of an Air Transport Pilot is 49.9 years old, an increase of .1 years from 2011. This is important, as many of the regional airlines began to transition their younger first officers to ATP holders during this time as it became clear that the certificate in some form would be required for FAR Part 121 operations. It is entirely likely the average age would be higher if it weren’t for these preparations.
  • Slightly more than 62,000 of the 149,100 active Air Transport Pilots in the United States fall between the ages of 50 and 64, which places them within 15 years of the FAA mandated retirement age. Some of these pilots will continue flying in other places, but they won’t be flying for the airlines.
  • There are 81,805 Student Pilots between the ages 0f 16-30 in the United States. While an okay number on the surface, there are several problems when reading between the lines. Analysis shows that somewhere in the area of 30-50% of student pilots won’t finish their Private Pilot certificates. The FAA doesn’t currently have a system in place that designates the number of these pilot certificates that are issued to foreign students who come to the country for flight training alone. Using written exam address data, colleagues at the University of North Dakota estimated that up to 40% of new Commercial Pilot certificates issued in the country were going to these pilots who will take their ratings home when training is done.

The Elephants in the Room (Pilot Pay, the New ATP Rules and Training Costs) Need to Be Addressed

Since the dawn of airline outsourcing after deregulation in 1978, the major airlines have pitted contractors and subcontractors against one another in an effort to reduce costs. Parlance calls this a “whipsaw,” where companies that provide some service, be it regional flying, aircraft cleaning or even aircraft maintenance, try to unsustainably underbid one another for an airline contract. The major airlines like this process because it keeps their costs lower. The employees of these contractors and subcontractors face downward pressure on their wages and benefits to the point where the starting salary for a regional airline first officer becomes $20,000 in their first year (less attention has been placed on ground crew as of late, but workers at Delta’s hub in Detroit were recently whipsawed for the fourth time since the airline merged with Northwest. Those workers that have stuck around between the four handling companies have seen their pay drop 50%). This race to the bottom is unsustainable for line employees and the air travel system as a whole. There’s near consensus that $21,000 a year is not acceptable for new airline pilots. At the same time, regional airline boards and CEOs need to be cognizant of the fact that offering their leadership raises in the area of 200% while asking pilots to take a pay cut is a slap in the face and highly unethical.

A student graduating from a university aviation program will do so with approximately 300 hours in their logbook. Thanks to the new ATP qualification rules, they are not able to begin flying for a regional airline until they earn 1000, 1250 or 1500 hours (depending on the program). This means they will spend an extra 1-3 years flight instructing or doing other forms of flying that don’t necessarily prepare them for professional piloting, thereby losing their honed study and professional skills from their degrees. This leads to increased training times once they do get hired at the airlines, and increased costs. Congressional and regulatory relief from the so called “1500 hour rule” is imperative. My proposal: a reduction of the restricted ATP certificate eligibility to college graduates to 500 hours.

Finally, aviation universities need to take a hard look at their training programs for ways to reduce costs for their students. This needs to be done on the micro (internal) and macro levels of aviation education. I cannot speak for individual programs and ways to save costs internally. On the macro level: Why is a new primary trainer from Cessna, Piper or Cirrus $200,000+? What can we do to reduce the cost of fuel & insurance?

Silo No More, Aviation Industry!

The most important takeaway from this situation is the need for the aviation industry as a whole to enter into a collective conversation about pilot and other aviation professional workforce supply. We can no longer afford to silo ourselves as labor, education, management, GA, and manufacturing. If we do not, the fundamental shift that will come won’t be pretty.

A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I wrote a bit about wrong-airport landings last month after the Dreamlifter made an unscheduled detour to a small civilian airport in Wichita.

They say things happen in threes, so it wasn’t surprising that the faux pas keeps recurring. Next was a Southwest Airlines flight — which really could have ended badly as they put their 737 down on a far shorter runway (3,738 feet) than any I’ve seen a Boeing airliner utilize.

Speaking of landing distance, for most Part 91 pilots, as long as you can stop on the available runway without bending anything, you are good to go from a legal standpoint. Airlines and charter operators, on the other hand, are required to have a significant safety margin on their landing runways. 14 CFR 121.195(b) dictates that a full stop landing be possible within 60 percent of the effective length of the runway. To put that into perspective, John Wayne Airport’s runway 19R is considered to be one of the shortest used by major airlines on a regular basis. That runway is 5,700 feet long, so landing on a 3,700 foot strip — at night, no less — must have been exciting for all concerned.

The third (and hopefully last one) for a while was a Boeing 787 which narrowly managed to avert landing at the wrong field, but only with the help of an alert air traffic controller.

I related the story of my own Wichita experience in order to explain how easily one airport can be mistaken for another. But I can take it a step further: I once witnessed a very memorable wrong-airport landing.

Intruder Alert

It was 2008, and I was in Arizona for an aerobatic contest being held at the Marana Regional Airport (which also happens to be where all those Starships are awaiting their final fate). Ironically, a number of FAA inspectors had been on-site just 24 hours earlier, ramp checking every pilot and aircraft as they arrived for the competition. Too bad they didn’t show up the next day, because they missed quite a show.

At Marana, the aerobatic box is located two miles southeast of the field, and at the time the incident occurred the contest was in full swing. These events require a large contingent of volunteers to operate, so traditionally competitors will help with contest duties when their category is not flying. I was sitting just outside the aerobatic box, judging a combined group of Advanced power and glider pilots when I overheard someone at the chief judge’s table calling out a traffic threat. Despite waivers, NOTAMs, ATIS broadcasts, and other information about the contest’s presence, it’s not unheard of for a non-participating aircraft to wander through the aerobatic box.

The chief judge had just cleared a new competitor into the box, so he immediately called back and told him to return to the holding area and keep an eye out for the encroaching airplane. I scanned the sky and visually acquired a minuscule speck in the air south of the box. I figured it was a small general aviation aircraft of some sort, but as time passed and the tiny dot grew in size, it became apparent that this was no Bonanza or Skyhawk. We all watched in amazement as a Boeing 757 materialized in all its splendor. The landing gear extended and it flew a beautiful descending left turn right through the aerobatic box and dipped below our horizon.

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

“Well that was weird”, I thought. But hey, this was my first time at Marana. Perhaps there was some sort of charter flight coming in, or the airplane needed to divert for a medical emergency or mechanical problem.

The judging line maintains radio contact with the airport’s traffic frequency as well as the contest volunteers at the airport via a separate set of walkie-talkies, so we heard the sound of silence over the CTAF as this happened. I was later told that the Air Force Academy cadets, who had come out from Colorado Springs to compete in various glider categories, were on the runway getting a TG-10C glider (a military version of the Blanik L-13AC) hooked up to a tow plane when it became clear that the 757 planned on using that same piece of pavement. The cadets scrambled, clearing the runway in record time just as the Boeing touched down smoothly on runway 30, oblivious to everything going on around it.

Thanks to the radios, we were able to follow the action from the judging line even though we couldn’t see the airport from our location. It must have been shortly after they turned off onto a taxiway that the flight crew realized something wasn’t right, because the 757 stopped on the taxiway and just sat there. Marana’s airport manager tried to raise them on the airport’s frequency, 123.0 MHz, but had no luck. For what seemed like an eternity, there’s was nothing to hear but the sound of the Boeing’s two engines idling. Were their radios out, we wondered?

Mystery Solved

Then someone suggested trying 123.05, the frequency for nearby Pinal Airpark. It was at that moment everyone realized exactly what had happened. Wikipedia describes Pinal best:

Its main purpose is to act as a “boneyard” for civilian commercial aircraft. Old airplanes are stored there with the hope that the dry desert climate will mitigate any form of corrosion in case the aircraft is pressed into service in the future. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world. Even so, many aircraft which are brought there wind up being scrapped.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Pinal and Marana are eight miles apart and share the same 12/30 runway orientation. The 757 was devoid of passengers and cargo; it was being ferried to Pinal for long-term storage after the Mexican airline which operated it declared bankruptcy. Since Pinal has no instrument approach procedures, the pilots had to make a visual approach into the airfield and simply fixated on Marana once they saw it.

Once the airport manager established radio contact with the crew, he didn’t want to let them move since he was concerned about the weight bearing capacity of the taxiways. However, the pilots gave him their current weight and were allowed to proceed. So they taxied back to runway 30 and just took off, presumably landing at Pinal a couple of minutes later.

That was the last I ever heard about that incident, but I’ve often wondered what happened to the pilots. Was the FAA notified? Was there an investigation? Did the airline know? And because they were in the process of liquidation, would it have mattered anyway? I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.


What makes this incident a little different from the others I discussed above is that it took place in broad daylight instead of at night. You’d think the pilots would have noticed the lack of a boneyard at Marana, but if it was their first time going into Pinal, perhaps it wouldn’t have been missed. When multiple airports exist in the same geographic area, they tend to have similar runway orientations because the prevailing winds are more-or-less the same.

As I was writing this, AVweb posted a story about an Associated Press report on this very subject.

Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn’t include every event. Many aren’t disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren’t publicly available.

The Marana 757 incident is probably one of those which does not appear in the ASRS database. At the very least, it doesn’t appear under the AVQ identifier for Marana Regional Airport. But if the press had found out about it (which they would have in this age of smartphones if there were passengers on board), I’m sure it would have created the same stir we’ve seen with the other incidents.

It might seem that wrong-airport landings are becoming more common, but the statistics show that to be a coincidence. “There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP’s tally. None has resulted in death or injury.”

As a charter pilot, the thing I’m wondering about is whether “commercial aircraft” includes Part 135 flights. Based on the 29,000 figure, I’d assume it does not. Unlike scheduled airlines, charters can and do go to any airport at any time. On larger aircraft, the opspec can literally be global. You’d think this would make a wrong-airport scenario more common, but after several years of flying to little corners of the globe, I think this kind of worldwide operation might lower the odds of wrong-airport landing since the destination is frequently unfamiliar and therefore the crew is already on guard.

Theoretically we should always fly that way. Unfortunately, human nature can make it tough to sustain that healthy sense of skepticism when a long day concludes at an accustomed airfield. Perhaps recognizing that fact is half the battle.

The Future of Aviation

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Most of us have a hard time thinking effectively about the future of something like aviation. The problem is one of both context and chronology. First of all, if we’re personally involved with aviation we almost always think about its future possibilities in terms that are presently understood. We extrapolate from the past and what we now understand, always relating our sense of the future to a narrow perspective of how the present system works.

For example, it’s unlikely that if asked about the aviation industry a decade from now you would factor in the potential effect of a radical global shift in climate . . . or a forecast collapse of the global financial system . . . or picture the beginning of an age of electric airliners. That’s a problem, because aviation – and every other aspect of our lives – exists as a component of a system . . . a very complicated system that includes a host of things like the state of the global climate that can fundamentally change the context, and future, of aviation.

The problem of perspicacity is also related to our larger understanding of where we are in the giant sweep of history. As it happens, we are all living in a period of exponential change unprecedented in human history. Throughout science and technology – and most other sectors – amazing new capabilities are manifesting themselves daily. Furthermore, the time for these new inventions to become commercialized is also decreasing at an exponential rate. They are inserting themselves into our lives at a faster and faster pace.

This means, among other things, that in order to support the exponential increase in invention and discovery there must necessarily be major breakthroughs in our understanding and the technologies that are available for building and operating air transport systems. The exponential curve is not smooth; it is a series of rather dramatic breakthroughs, one following another at an increasingly rapid pace that result in seemingly vertical change.

Just recently, for example, it was announced that a new version of the material graphene has been developed that is 300 times stronger than steel and lighter than current carbon fiber materials. The potential implications of this material clearly could revolutionize the way we build current aircraft. But add that to advances being made in battery technology, superconductivity in polymers, and electric power trains developed for automobiles, among many other things, and suddenly you have the converging of the components for a large electric aircraft – something that is generally discounted by most people in the business today.

So, not only are there many more disruptive factors coming into the aviation space, but the rate of change is accelerating.

Why I Don’t Talk About “General Aviation” Anymore

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Back in the 1950′s, Cessna Aircraft produced this gem… “Wings for Doubting Thomas

This little documentary clearly spelled out the value proposition for Private Aviation 2 generations ago.

I rarely talk about “General Aviation.”

Like most people who read this blog, I’m much more interested in, “Private Aviation.”

You might think quickly that it’s the same, thing, but it’s not. General aviation is broadly defined as as all aviation except for military and airlines. That’s great, but I’m not a, “General Aviation enthusiast.” Frankly I don’t care much about, “General Aviation.” I don’t fly biz jets, cargo, fly much for hire, (Though I have the certificate for, it’s just not a big part of my life these days.) spray crops, perform in air shows, whatever…

While I may aspire to sit in the back of a something with turbines, drinking Cristal… It does not inspire me. I’d rather be up front flying the jet.

Private aviation is the part of civil aviation that does not include flying for hire.”

“In most countries, private flights are always general aviation flights, but the opposite is not true: many general aviation flights (such as banner towing, charter, crop dusting, and others) are commercial in that the pilot is hired and paid. Many private pilots fly for their own enjoyment, or to share the joys and convenience of general aviation with friends and family.”

– Wikipedia

You see “General Aviation,” is doing just fine. Ask anyone running a jet charter business these days. Business is up, folks who choose to afford it are buying jet cards and getting to where they want to go in style, and plenty of people are making a good living helping them get there. I’m fine with all that. “General Aviation,” is not dying. It’s growing.

But “Private Aviation” is the community that inspires me. It’s Private Aviation that’s what we’re really talking about when we fry bacon at Camp Scholler, or eat pancakes at the fly in. The ability to climb into a plane and fly myself and my friends or family someplace is like a magic power.

It’s Private Aviation that we built OpenAirplane to serve.

So you see, I don’t talk much about General Aviation. When I speak to the press about OpenAirplane. I explain that it is a marketplace for Private Aviation. I get asked all the time if OpenAirplane will let them hail a jet like they can hail a cab, or if we can help them charter a flight. My answer is always, “Not yet.” It’s just not the business we’re in right now. There are plenty of smart people working to offer charter for businesses and pleasure. That part of General Aviation is well served. I explain that we are focused on Private Aviation, because that’s where the opportunity lies today to unlock more value than anywhere else right now. General Aviation is a competitive, well served market with a healthy ecosystem. But Private Aviation hasn’t seen much innovation since Cessna commissioned that film. This is strange to me, because GPS, iPads, and composites sure have made it a lot easier. Private Aviation can create entirely new use cases for the over 5,000 airports, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of thousands of certificates in the wallets of  pilots across the country.

Private Aviation has been in decline since the airlines we’re deregulated in 1978. The value proposition of Private Aviation has been evolving ever since. The industry and the community need to both step up to communicate the value proposition for Private Aviation to a new generation of “doubting Thomases,” updating what you see in the old documentary film above to speak to the value proposition we can offer today.

For most of us, the conversation isn’t about General Aviation, it’s about Private Aviation. Let’s call it what it is. I have no time sit back and complain. I believe we can make it better than ever.

The Waddington Effect

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014
Conrad Hal (C.H.) Waddington

C.H. Waddington (1905-1975)

In 1943, a British scientist named Conrad Hal (C.H.) Waddington made a remarkable discovery about aircraft maintenance.  He was a most unlikely person to make this discovery, because he wasn’t an aeronautical engineer or an aircraft mechanic or even a pilot.  Actually, he was a gifted developmental biologist, paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist, philosopher, poet and painter who wasn’t particularly interested in aviation.  But like many other British scientists at that time, his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and he found himself pressed into service with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Waddington wound up reporting to the RAF Coastal Command, heading up a group of fellow scientists in the Coastal Command Operational Research Section.  Its job was to advise the British military on how it could more effectively combat the threat from German submarines.  In that capacity, Waddington and his colleagues developed a series of astonishing recommendations that defied military conventional wisdom of the time.

For example, the bombers used to hunt and kill U-boats were mostly painted black in order to make them difficult to see.  But Waddington’s group ran a series of experiments that proved that bombers painted white were not spotted by the U-boats until they were 20% closer, resulting in a 30% increase in successful sinkings. Waddington’s group also recommended that the depth charges dropped by the bombers be set to explode at a depth of 25 feet instead of 100 feet.  This recommendation—initially resisted strongly by RAF commanders—ultimately resulted in a sevenfold increase in the number of U-boats destroyed.

Consolidated B-24 "Liberator" bomber

Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber

Waddington subsequently turned his attention to the problem of “force readiness” of the bombers.  The Coastal Command’s B-24 “Liberator” bombers were spending an inordinate amount of time in the maintenance shop instead of hunting U-boats.  In July 1943, the two British Liberator squadrons located at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, consisted of 40 aircraft, but at any given time only about 20 were flight-ready.  The other aircraft were down for any number of reasons, but mostly undergoing or awaiting maintenance—either scheduled or unscheduled—or waiting for replacement parts.

At that time, conventional wisdom held that if more preventive maintenance were performed on each aircraft, fewer problems would arise and more incipient problems would be caught and fixed—and thus fleet readiness would surely improve. It turned out that conventional wisdom was wrong. It would take C.H. Waddington and his Operational Research team to prove just how wrong.

Waddington and his team started gathering data about the scheduled and unscheduled maintenance of these aircraft, and began crunching and analyzing the numbers.  When he plotted the number of unscheduled aircraft repairs as a function of flight time, Waddington discovered something both unexpected and significant: The number of unscheduled repairs spiked sharply right after each aircraft underwent its regular 50-hour scheduled maintenance, and then declined steadily over time until the next scheduled 50-hour maintenance, at which time they spiked up once again.

Waddington Effect graph

When Waddington examined the plot of this repair data, he concluded that the scheduled maintenance (in Waddington’s own words) “tends to INCREASE breakdowns, and this can only be because it is doing positive harm by disturbing a relatively satisfactory state of affairs. There is no sign that the rate of breakdowns is starting to increase again after 40-50 flying hours when the aircraft is coming due for its next scheduled maintenance.” In other words, the observed pattern of unscheduled repairs demonstrated that the scheduled preventive maintenance was actually doing more harm than good, and that the 50-hour preventive maintenance interval was inappropriately short.

The solution proposed by Waddington’s team—and ultimately accepted by the RAF commanders over the howls of the maintenance personnel—was to increase the time interval between scheduled maintenance cycles, and to eliminate all preventive maintenance tasks that couldn’t be demonstrably proven to be beneficial. Once these recommendations were implemented, the number of effective flying hours of the RAF Coastal Command bomber fleet increased by 60 percent!

Fast forward two decades to the 1960s, when a pair of gifted scientists who worked for United Airlines—aeronautical engineer Stanley Nowlan and mathematician Howard Heap—independently rediscovered these principles in their pioneering research on optimizing maintenance that revolutionized the way maintenance is done in air transport, military aviation, high-end bizjets and many non-aviation industrial applications.  They were almost certainly unaware of the work of C.H. Waddington and his colleagues in Britain in the 1940s because that work remained classified until 1973, when Waddington’s meticulously-kept diary of his wartime research activities was declassified and published.

Next time, I’ll discuss the fascinating work of Nowlan and Heap on what came to be known as “Reliability Centered Maintenance.” But for now, I will leave you with the major takeaway from Waddington’s research during World War II: Maintenance isn’t an inherently good thing (like exercise); it’s a necessary evil (like surgery). We have to do it from time to time, but we sure don’t want to do more than absolutely necessary to keep our aircraft safe and reliable. Doing more maintenance than necessary actually degrades safety and reliability.

GA Needs a New Story

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

If you’ve ever worked in the White House and near national politics, as I have, you know immediately and intuitively why political leaders pick on GA in general and business jets in particular – because it works. Senators and presidents don’t single out jets as examples of “tax loopholes”, etc., without knowing, with great certainty, that there is nothing that is iconic of fat cats and the 1% as corporate jets. The research and surveys are unambiguous: it’s the big hot button that generates popular negative reaction.

Even young people, competing for jobs with aircraft manufacturers in Wichita, admit that the product that they want to be a part of producing is antithetical to their basic sense of general equity and benefit a very small number of people – but they need a job, please.

There’s more to the story than that, but as long as we let others define who we are, they will continue to magnify the differences between those who own and fly aircraft . . . and the rest of the world.

Few automobile owners, for example, realize that there is no way (unless you own a taxi cab company), that you can directly justify the economics of owning a car. Easily the second most expensive purchase after a home, we continue to buy these vehicles (how many dozen have you owned?), not because they generate more income, but because they allow us to do other things that are economically and socially beneficial.

The same can be said about aircraft. Just as your Chevy gets you to more places (like your job) much faster than walking or taking the bus, airplanes provide the same benefits for individuals and companies that effectively utilize them to increase the efficient use of the available time and leverage their ability (like cars do) to access locations that otherwise would be hard to get to. They increase productivity. They are tools. They allow us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. And the benefits are much broader than for just the individuals riding in the front or back.

Try thinking about what kind of world this would be without aircraft in general and GA in particular. What kind of things wouldn’t work? How many injured people would die? How would the whole system slow down?

That’s a story that needs to be the framework for a great movie . . . and needs to show up on the news (juxtaposed to the story about the airplane crash that producers rush to air) . . . and needs to be explained to young people so that they have a context for assessing the value of private aircraft.

We need an industry-wide campaign that speaks about the benefits of aircraft, in very sophisticated and effective terms, to multiple segments of the larger population, rather than talk inwardly to the aviation community about the gains (primarily economic) that aircraft enable.
This is not necessarily an easy sell, particularly in light of the well-established fact that income disparity is growing larger in this country. But like many other activities that are embedded within much larger trends, the benefits of general aviation are a story waiting to be told. We need to enable the storytellers.

John Petersen is a former naval aviator, a professional futurist and the chairman of The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.

It’s Time to Change Our Image (part 2)

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

The perception disparity between aviators and the rest of our society is serious business. To start with, it’s serious for our business, because all of the things mentioned last month have largely eliminated the opportunity to easily engender the joy and wonder of aviation in young people – and right now, at least, we need people who like airplanes to pilot them. In its great wisdom, our government has built fences around even small airports which completely eliminates the ability of kids to hang around the places and learn about flying and airplanes. (I always thought there was a bit of irony in the commendable programs out there to give airplane rides to kids . . . who then are kept locked out of airports and away from airplanes by the government.)

And if you fight your way through the fence, you should bring a wad of bills. Ask the first person you meet on the street about what they think about flying small airplanes. A hundred bucks says that they respond: it’s hard and expensive to learn how to fly, it’s dangerous (you could kill yourself), and to own an airplane really costs a lot.
We in the airplane business really need to work on all of this. Our future is tied up in our being able to change this general perspective. In some kind of systematic, strategic way, the industry must come together around a set of common images, messages and communications that begin to offset the almost universally corrosive image we have with the public at large. Understand that this is not about slogans on lapel pins that are handed out at aviation conventions to the already converted.

This is about changing our image with the outside world.

This issue needs to be engaged at two levels:

• We need to work on the current image. We’re not talking about a magic act here – companies and industries do this all of the time. It’s about coming up with a new, very carefully considered concept that can be translated into easy-to-understand words and graphics that quickly and effectively offset the commonly perceived problems. Well placed, the new ideas begin to show up in movies, articles, on TV, in computer games . . . and, in time, people begin to see GA flying in quite a different way.

• We also need to change airplanes and flying. Our industry needs to come up with innovative solutions that give lie to the common perceptions. We should take away the noise (electric airplanes}, make flying easier (people friendly software on top of fly-by-wire systems), eliminate our pollution (new propulsion systems), find ways to make learning to fly affordable (computer games that teach the skills and count towards license requirements), and figure out how kids can play inside of the fence (find a homeland security leader who isn’t myopic). There are numerous ways that these things can be done and already some initiatives, like the Lindbergh Foundation’s Aviation Green Alliance, which provides a place where the industry’s environmental leaders can work on common problems, are beginning to sprout up.

We really should have been hard engaged in this repositioning when things were good and there was a lot of money around – but we didn’t. Now, we don’t have any alternative. I think the future of general aviation is at stake. We need to remake ourselves . . . soon.

The Big Three Rules For Conflict Resolution

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

As aviation enthusiasts we can be sure with a very high degree of confidence that we will have disagreements with non-aviation enthusiasts from time to time. Maybe the issue will be user fees. Perhaps it will be about funding of an airport project. It might even be about safety, often in the aftermath of a high profile accident or incident that has shaken the non-aviation enthusiast to the bone. Whatever the case, conflict will come our way. It’s a given. We know it will happen. The only questions revolve around when and what the specific topic of concern will be.

So let’s take that knowledge and get ourselves ready. Like it or not, when the discussion gets going every aviation enthusiast who speaks up, jots a line on a social media site, or writes a letter to the editor of their local paper is going to become a target. Perhaps of greater concern is the likelihood that they’ll be perceived as the official spokesperson for all of aviation.

Few if any of us are prepared to take on that role with any confidence.

There are a few key points to keep in mind during times of concern that have the potential to turn into confrontations. They’re pertinent to a discussion of aviation issues, but they’re just as valid when you’re in the workplace when conflicts arise, or at home when spousal differences of opinion occur. Let’s go ahead and call these points what they are; the Big Three Rules For Conflict Resolution.

1. Be respectful. We all learned this one on the playground as kids, but when tempers flare it can be forgotten in the blink of an eye. Always be respectful of your counterpart. Their fears may seem baseless to you, but they’re real points of concern for others. So take their worries seriously. Acknowledge them. That doesn’t mean you have to agree or accept their concerns as valid, but your willingness to at least admit the other person’s concerns are legitimate and understandable can become the first step to diffusing those fears and replacing the knee-jerk response of non-aviation enthusiasts with more thoughtful and well reasoned reactions.

2. Listen. We often assume we know the position of people who have taken a position that’s not in line with ours. Often that assumption is wrong. Be sure to take the time to listen, even encourage the other person to express their concerns. You may find that your argument in favor of the point you felt most central to the issue isn’t even something the other guy is thinking about at all. The best way to understand the other person’s perspective is to listen, learn what they’re worried about, or afraid of, and work productively with those issues rather than the ones you assumed were the most important.

3. Choose your words carefully. Your initial response can set the tone for the discussion as it moves forward. You can make points and begin the process of bringing your opponent over to your side, or you can drive a wedge between the two parties by saying the wrong thing. For example, when a non-aviation enthusiast rails against the reliability of aircraft engines after reading about a crash caused by a stall, don’t blurt out, “Oh that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” While it may seem a less than insightful position from your standpoint, the non-aviation enthusiast is reacting to the news from their own specific frame of reference. Those who don’t fly think of a stall as a mechanical issue having to do with the engine. Pilots know it as an aerodynamic event having to do with the airfoils on the aircraft.

Try something more diplomatic for a first response, such as, “In aviation the term, “stall” has a completely different meaning than it does in the automotive industry. If you’d like I can explain the difference. That might help you understand what happened a bit more clearly.”

Because our perspective on aviation and the aerospace industry is likely to be very different from that of our friends, co-workers, and neighbors, we are uniquely positioned to make others feel more comfortable and accepting about aviation – or build a wall between us that will be difficult to tear down again in the future. The choice is ours. Personally, I prefer to use the Big Three Rules For Conflict Resolution. I just don’t have the bone structure to carry off a fat lip or a black eye well, and I’d rather make friends than enemies any day. How about you?

“Moneyball” for General Aviation

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Flight time is the secret sauce to success.

It’s like getting runs on base.

I wrote that headline because, “Sabermetrics for Flight Schools, Flying Clubs, and Anyone Who Wants to Make A Buck In Aviation,” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

I find the movie “Moneyball” inspiring. It’s a movie as much about business as it is about baseball. Anyone managing an aviation business can find inspiration here too. Its how the business model of OpenAirplane came to be.

“It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them.”

– Peter Brand in “Moneyball”

The book, and the movie are the story of how the Oakland A’s, a team out spent and out gunned by it’s competitors, finished 1st in the American League West with a record of 103 wins and 59 losses, despite losing three free agents to larger market teams. They built a championship team like, “an island of misfit toys,” using sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics is the term for the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity. So let’s look at how this discipline, which demystified the voodoo of the business of baseball, can be applied to the business of aviation.

Jason Blair, former Executive Director at NAFI, has spent a lot of time researching what makes flight operations tick. He offers up what he’s learned in his seminar for industry folks called, “Skills for Flight Training and Aircraft Rental Operators to Increase Profitability.” Using one of the handy spreadsheets Jason has been gracious enough to publish can be enlightening, (sometimes scary) and very useful.

Modeling profitability of rental aircraft yields our industry’s version of sabermetrics. It’s flight time. More specifically, its flight hours flown on an airframe, or utilization that makes or breaks the business. Like the focus on getting on base make a baseball team a winner, optimizing the business on number of flight hours flown by each airframe is the secret sauce to success in flying business.

To grossly oversimplify this…

Fly more hours = make more money.
The cost of getting the airplane doesn’t matter near as much.

Utilization is the single biggest influencer on price and profitability for airplanes. It’s this single metric that has the biggest impact on the business. The effect of utilization is significantly more influential than the effect of the acquisition cost of the airplane.

For example, let’s model utilization vs. cost…

If we decrease the hours flown by 25%, the rate for profitable rental increases by 17.3%. If we increase the hours flown by 25% the rate for a profitable rental falls by 9.4%.


If we decrease the acquisition cost of the airplane by 25% the rate for a profitable rate drops by 3.7%. If we increase the acquisition cost by 25%, the required rental rate also only bounces up by the same percentage.

This example shows the asymmetrical influence flying more hours per year has on profitability and affordability of the airplane.

Flight hours flown per year really is the single most influential metric on the profitability of the business that you can manage. This is why we built OpenAirplane from the ground up to do one thing at scale, which is to drive up the number of flight hours and drive better utilization of the fleet.

Operators who optimizes their business to create more flying hours will win.


It’s Time To Change Our Image (part 1)

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Let me try this on you: I’d guess that most people – obviously not including you, since you’re reading this magazine – have a generally negative view of aircraft and flying.


Think about it: the closest most people get to airplanes is riding the airlines to go visit someone . . . and we know what kind of experience that is. Apart from those who are scared to death that the flight is the last bit of transportation they’ll ever take in this life and that what’s left of their body after the crash will never be found, I’ve never heard any of the people in the back of the bus carrying on about how cool it was to get irradiated and frisked by the TSA and then crammed into knee-knocking seats that are so tight that you can’t get into your pocket to get the money out to pay for the “food” that they want to sell you.
It gets worse, of course if they have ever been stuck on the ramp for multiple hours with the lavatories overflowing for reasons the company chose not to tell them about. The whole experience is pretty de-humanizing.

The other times when most people get near an aircraft is when one flies overhead. Although you and I probably look up and admire the machine, there are a whole lot of folks who just hear the noise and don’t think that they should have to. Some see the plane (or the contrails) and think of the pollution that is coming out of the exhaust of the engines and how aviation is contributing toward the destruction of the planet and the opportunities for their kids. (They’re generally wrong, by the way, about the relative contribution that aviation – particularly GA – contributes to the total air pollution, but for this discussion, that is moot.)

Then there’s the general attitude that just about everyone has about business aviation. I was impressed when talking to a senior executive of a Wichita-area airframe company recently about the kids coming out of college who were looking for jobs with his company. They desperately wanted to get a job with this jet manufacturer but when asked what they thought about the product that they might be working on, the almost universal reaction was that private jets were for “fat cats” and that they polluted and made too much noise.

There’s a reason why Barack Obama picks on business aviation when he’s trying to make a point about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. I used to be in politics. I can tell you with great certainty that the political guys in the White House have very good polling data that says that private jets are the go-to, symbolic hot button to use if you want to get an immediate, predictable response from the public about the inequity of it all.

If you like airplanes and flying like I do, then all of this hurts a bit. You feel sad that these folks don’t appreciate the beauty, the productivity, the freedom and even the spiritual nature of driving a plane through the sun striped, strato-cu clouds or marveling at the light art painted across the surface of the planet during a CAVU, twilight approach to someplace like LAX.

This perception disparity is serious business. I’ll talk about that next month.