Tough times ahead for general aviation?

 - May 31, 2007, 9:41 AM

The light-airplane segment of the general aviation industry is showing evidence of contracting, but it is too early to determine whether this is a trend that will continue or whether the segment will turn around. General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) statistics for the first quarter show that deliveries of piston-powered airplanes dropped 7.7 percent over the first quarter of last year. Student starts, which show the number of new medical certificates issued to people who might be planning to obtain a private pilot certificate, are down, too. The latest FAA figures show that student starts dropped to an annual rate of 84,866 in 2006 from 101,279 in 1995, the last year that this number exceeded 100,000. Avgas deliveries have reached historical lows, and avgas prices have reached historical highs (not adjusted for inflation).

Looking at the GAMA numbers for piston-airplane deliveries from the first quarter of last year through the same period this year, it is interesting to note that most increases in deliveries were from manufacturers of new-design airplanes such as Columbia Aircraft, Diamond Aircraft and Liberty Aerospace. The decline in deliveries by Cirrus is an exception. In almost every case of a decline (except for Cirrus), the airplanes are upgraded versions of long-time sellers such as those from Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Piper.

Again, it might be too early to determine if this is a developing trend, but if so, this is a significant milestone in general aviation history. The makers of the new-design light airplanes got into the business because they felt that old-style airplanes did not appeal to today’s airplane buyer, who might own a luxury car and have greater expectations of the styling of something that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even Mooney delivered fewer airplanes in the first quarter, possibly indicating that buyers might consider freshness–as well as performance–a key attribute of their airplane.

Cessna Aircraft experienced the most dramatic drop in deliveries–54 airplanes–in the first quarter of this year versus the first quarter of last year. At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh last year and this year’s Sun ’n’ Fun show, the company showed off what could be the progenitor of a new line of piston singles, the so-called Next-Generation Piston, a sleek-looking cantilever high-wing (strutless) design.

While Cessna has not revealed any specifications of the airplane, the company continues to evaluate how pilots respond to the possibility that Cessna might develop a new single-engine line. At a Sun ’n’ Fun interview, Cessna chairman, president and CEO Jack Pelton admitted that aesthetics is as much a part of the design formula as performance. “There’s a new group of buyers who are not happy with the status quo,” he said.

What Does the Future Hold?
The big question that now faces the aviation industry is whether the general aviation segment will grow or stagnate. The prospect of user fees and more taxes on already pricier fuel does not bode well for general aviation. The Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) summary of retail aviation gasoline deliveries illustrates that piston airplane pilots are flying far less than they used to, perhaps because of steadily rising fuel costs. Despite the FAA’s optimistic annual forecasts indicating that general aviation activity is relatively stable, the numbers in this chart show a precipitous decline since the early 1980s.

In 1983, according to the EIA, the distributors of aviation fuel delivered an average of 418,500 gallons of avgas per day in the U.S. In 1995, the last year in which avgas deliveries averaged more than 200,000 gallons per day, that number dropped by almost half, to 212,300 gallons. Last year daily avgas deliveries averaged 88,600 gallons, and the numbers for this year don’t look much better.

The FAA’s own numbers have a large margin for error because the agency bases its estimates of avgas consumed on surveys of flying activity, so there is no solid foundation for the numbers the agency uses. For example, in the forecast released earlier this year, the FAA said that general aviation consumed 333 million gallons of avgas in 2000, yet the EIA numbers show that 60.5 million gallons were delivered that year. In 2006, the FAA number drops to 262 million gallons; the EIA number is 32.3 million gallons. Clearly, there is a discrepancy–one that remains unexplained–between the EIA and FAA numbers.

What is clear from both sets of data, however, is that general aviation piston aircraft flying is declining. The loss of three general aviation piston aircraft lines–Socata’s TB piston aircraft are built only to order now, and Tiger Aircraft and Symphony Aircraft are out of business–does not bode well for general aviation. Add user fees to the mix, and the 7.7-percent drop in deliveries of piston airplanes during the first quarter might just be an indication that the fragile light aircraft industry is under stress.