Within the context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA. In addition to technological changes, which we covered last month here, the following weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.
The economics of GA are rapidly shifting – toward China. Many well-known brands (Cirrus, Glastar, Continental et. al.) are already owned by Chinese companies and almost every jet manufacturer is doing some kind of joint venture with Chinese manufacturers and sales organizations. Many of these companies are owned by the government of China and as they gather the knowledge and intellectual property associated with building and selling GA aircraft the manufacturing will move away from the more expensive U.S. base and the ability of American companies to compete will rapidly decrease. The present industry is moving offshore.
The unprecedented initiatives by the U.S. government to counter “terrorism” in the last decade are cutting off the natural ways in which young people historically became interested in and familiar with aviation. The fences around almost all airports guarantee that no youngsters can sit on the grass watching touch-and-goes or wander or into a hangar and strike up a relationship with an airplane owner. This is effectively cutting off one of the largest historical sources of pilots and eliminating the possible budding interest in aviation that the present community has been based upon.
At the same time, social culture is changing and flying an airplane is not as interesting and exciting as it was to earlier generations. Time magazine, for example, has claimed that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have replaced the car culture of the past, allowing teens to connect with each other without needing a car. The same could be said for the perceived value of an aircraft.
There are a number of other contributing forces, but you get the idea. Big change is in the works that is going to reconfigure how airplanes work and the relationship of pilots to them. It is inevitable.
What to do
We’re essentially behind the power curve. Increased efforts to revive the familiar past will necessarily fail as the embedded driving forces inexorably reconfigure both the rules and playing field. What we must do is innovate our way into a new era that allows American companies to invent the next variant of personal air transportation. We must redefine what airplanes and pilots are. This is the only solution – invent a new future.
As it happens, the pieces are available to begin to do that. Predictably the solution revolves around some of the key aspects of the present system: image of flying, cost of entry (expense and effort associated with training), cost of aircraft, interface with the government, etc.
If GA is not to become a bunch of old guys flying old airplanes then we must reposition general aviation in such a way that it appeals to younger generations. Here is a plan.
- Begin by building a coherent vision for the next era. Take a systematic look at the trends in place, both positive and negative, and then build an integrated and plausible picture of what we would prefer a new future to look like. The vision would particularly include a considered notion of how general aviation could augment the lives of young people in a new way that was consistent with the current trends that inform their lives. This will take time and concerted effort.
- Identify what needs to happen to enable the new vision to emerge. Include issues related to: appeal and perceived value, barriers to entry, cost of operation, new technologies, interface with the US government, ability to change, etc.
- Develop a new positioning for U.S. general aviation. Work with appropriate professionals to discover the best, next image for GA – something that particularly appeals to the market of prospective pilots/owners.
- Generate buy-in by the present U.S. aviation community. Sell the new approach to the major stakeholders within the GA community. Develop high level buy-in.
- Cluster resources around required key capabilities or issues that must be addressed. Constitute interest groups around necessary areas of effort. Work with funding sources like NASA to funnel development resources to high impact and leverage areas.
- Find and encourage incentives. Work with government agencies to develop incentives focused on solutions for key capabilities or issues.
- Generate early successes. Emphasize areas of effort that will produce rapid, positive results.
- Undertake a campaign to reposition GA in the minds of new prospects. Develop a major communications campaign aimed at changing the minds of target Americans about the value, accessibility and benefit of GA.
Make no mistake about it, this is a big deal. It is nothing less than an industry/ community-wide effort to remake general aviation, both internally and in the minds of Americans. It would cost a lot of time and money but it would be worth it.
This is about redirecting the future into a direction that is different from where it is now headed. It’s possible to do, in fact, many large corporations and industries have reinvented themselves in the past. So, now is the time for GA to invent its next life. The longer we wait, the harder, more expensive and less likely it will become.