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The Pilot Community October 12, 2012

Posted by Jason in Writing.
Tags: ,

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first.

Whether you rent or own, unless you are a professional pilot (working with either a commercial or ATP certificate), flying is little more than an expensive hobby.

Many individuals and aviation-related organizations in the U.S. (AOPA, EAA, and GAMA to name the big three) have bemoaned the pilot population decline since 1980, and have periodically raised the issue to find out what is keeping pilots out of the sky.  Cost always appears at or near the top of the list, and many people speculate as to whether that is the true cause, and if so, what drives the costs so high in the first place.  From AOPA’s own student pilot survey:

Flying is expensive.  It costs a lot to rent or purchase an aircraft, obtain a student certificate, hire an instructor, purchase insurance, and finally pass a checkride for a private pilot certificate – allowing you to continue to rent or maintain your aircraft and fly when time, money, and weather combine in perfect harmony.  Many factors have conspired to raise the costs over the years: fuel, aircraft prices, insurance premiums, and maintenance and storage fees.  There are ways to make it cheaper, just as there are ways to spend whatever disposable income you have (and then some) on anything.

The initial training cost is indeed significant; a person of average ability is wise to budget around $10,000 to obtain a private certificate in the U.S.  Aside from this, purchasing an aircraft – analogous to an RV, a motorcycle, or a boat – has risen out of reach of many Americans.  Many pilots hold to the used aircraft market as being one possible solution – and it is.  But consider the product that the industry as a whole is offering compared to the alternatives.  Few other modern industries depend on secondary markets as a basis for acquiring new buyers.  From cars to computers, when people spend, they want the best possible, next new thing (or as close to it as their budgets allow).

But the general aviation manufacturers have shifted away from 30-year-old demographics, and GAMA’s own statistics tell the story:

In 1980, the industry made $2.5 billion from shipping nearly 12,000 aircraft, with about 10 piston engines for every one jet turbine.  The revenue from turbines was about double that from pistons: $1.7 billion compared to $800 million.

Today, total revenue of $8.5 billion is derived almost exclusively from turbines – $8 billion, or about 96%.  The actual production numbers are just as interesting: just 1,300 aircraft were sold last year, roughly evenly split between pistons and turbines.  Think about this – about 600 individual products earned the various manufacturers an average of nearly $14 million apiece – on par with what many defense contractors earn from the U.S. government.  That’s tough competition for the private pilot budget.

So, if flying is so expensive, why do it in the first place?

This is only difficult to answer if one tries to justify flying on an economic basis.  Like any other hobby, there are a thousand reasons to fly, but you won’t find “cost-effectiveness” among them.  Here are a few from the same AOPA survey:

To put it simply, flying is FUN!  Objectively, there are as many reasons to undertake ANY hobby:

  • Provides an alternative to your regular work
  • Boosts creativity, innovative thinking, and inspiration in all aspects of life
  • Provides either solitude or family time
  • Lets you explore your own talents, another community, or other parts of the world

If flying is just one of thousands of ways to occupy one’s non-working time, then it is clear that the cost will be a big factor.  Indeed, costs do keep many people out of the flying community, but the pilot population is not declining in a vacuum.  Organizations across the country have been grappling with the same problem for just as many years:

  • Churches
  • Labor Unions
  • Professional Associations
  • Scouting
  • Veterans Associations
  • Social and Service Clubs
  • Golf and Country Clubs

Everyone has been discussing the “problem of declining membership”…but very little has been expressed about what exactly the “problem” is.  Unfortunately, like the first half of this article, it has as much to do with money as anything else.  If money were no object, and people simply were disinterested for other reasons, flying would just be another arcane hobby like antique cars or role-playing games.

Instead, with money at stake and flying being such a heavily regulated activity, organizations like AOPA drive political decisions.  Make no mistake, these organizations represent true stakeholders in local and national decisions.  Professional groups and their representatives, be they attorneys, doctors, engineers, scientists, union leaders, or even baseball players lobby and testify whenever pertinent issues are on the table.

But you won’t often see the local stamp collecting club on the Senate floor.  Or the photography club, or the skiers, or the comic book fans.  No, you will see the ones who, for whatever reason, need the support of the federal government to continue their activities.  Pilots’ individual hobbies depend heavily on government support.

Aviation needs infrastructure.  Runways, radar, control towers, radio transmitters…and all the regulations that govern them.  Without a visible constituency, these things go away.  That is why more pilots are needed…or are they?

What if there were only, say, 100,000 recreational pilots in the U.S.?  That may not be such a stretch.  According to this article, there are only 200,000 “active pilots” today.  When we look at “personal” certificates (private, sport, recreational, and “other”) compared to “professional” (commercial and ATP) we see the following trends since 1960:

Note that the “personal” and “professional” categories are my own.  But for this discussion, we’re concerned with those pilots that choose to fly for pleasure.  Surely, there will be some crossover, but the trends are clear: those who fly professionally have steadily increased in number while the other class has declined.

Returning to the what-if question: what if there were only 100,000 pilots flying for fun?  Would they lack political influence?  What alternatives might they have to pursue their hobby with less government support?

Consider some of the memberships of some other professional and recreational organizations:

  • American Bar Association: 400,000
  • American Medical Association: 215,000
  • IEEE: 200,000 (U.S.)
  • American Psychological Association: 137,000
  • National Society of Professional Engineers: 35,000
  • American Radio Relay League: 158,000
  • Family Motor Coach Association: 85,000
  • American Motorcyclist Association: 235,000

Considering these groups’ political influence, it’s reasonable to conclude that cutting the pilot population in half would not automatically curtail flying.  However, it would surely look different than it does today.

As pilots, we need to stop worrying about whether it’s too expensive (it is) or why (pick any reason).  We should also not be worrying about the numbers in our ranks, just for the sake of counting ourselves in a bigger group.  We should seek to attract others just as we would promote any hobby: if you are predisposed to mental and physical challenges and want to do something fun with your time and money, flying is a great hobby!

In its current state, flying is a fairly exclusive club, but not as exclusive as many people would like to believe.  It is accessible, even though it can surely be made more so with a loosening of the federal regulations for aircraft manufacture and certification.  Perhaps it will be a resurgence of grass runways, perhaps an extension of the sport pilot certificate to include 4-seat aircraft, or perhaps simply a dismantling of the federal oversight of private travel, as is done with road transport.  Individual states handle licensing all the time, with federal oversight where necessary for commercial and interstate travel.  It works.












1. Jim Hausch - January 10, 2013

Good article. Well thought through.

Jason - January 10, 2013

Thanks for the feedback! It will be interesting to see how the industry goes, and which people will watch while the others make it happen.

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