Can general aviation reverse its decline?

 - March 1, 2011, 3:30 AM

There are varying perspectives on whether general aviation (GA) is declining or poised for a renaissance generated by new interest in light sport aircraft (LSA) and avionics technology. When attending the annual EAA AirVenture extravaganza in Oshkosh, Wis., for example, it is always interesting to see the contrast between those who complain about the cost of flying and those who embrace every new development.

The way this plays out is that attendees at the annual "Meet the Administrator" forum held by the current FAA Administrator sound off bitterly about over-regulation and rising costs of operation. Yet walk a quarter mile or so to the exhibition halls and you'll see 10-deep crowds surrounding the avionics vendors and manufacturers of the latest handheld GPS that come with optional approach plate updates costing hundreds of dollars a year, and people are pulling out their wallets and buying these expensive products, many of which cost the equivalent of 10 to 20 hours of flight time.

While the numbers do point to a smaller GA market, there are bright shoots. Rod Hightower, the new president of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), said, "I'm optimistic that there always will be people who want to pursue flight and aviation both in terms of a sport and as hobbyist and for business."

Hightower attended an EAA Young Eagles meeting, where pilots took children for free airplane rides to encourage future aviation interest, and was pleasantly surprised when a 45-year-old man stood up at the meeting and explained how the Young Eagles program had stimulated his interest. He was able to take a ride, too, and 18 months later was a pilot and six months after that bought his first airplane. Hightower said that this person wasn't concerned about cost, but was able to learn to fly because his kids were through college. "He had the time and money to pursue his passion," he said. "I'm sure there are many more of them out there."

While cost is an issue, Hightower isn't sure that it is an overwhelming problem. "In terms of real dollars, it's no more expensive today than when we were flying in the 1970s," he said. "It's about tradeoffs. It's my belief that if you want to find a way, you can afford it."

Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), is worried about the expense of flying. "The cost of aircraft and flying is a serious concern," he said, "but there's not a lot of ways we can control that." What he is more worried about is that product liability insurance costs are once again contributing appreciably to the overall cost of flying. The aviation industry was able to help legislators enact the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, limiting product liability to the first 18 years of an aircraft's or partπs lifetime, but lawyers are finding ways to prosecute lawsuits anyway. "We were able to change laws in the past," he said, "and we might have to look at that again."

Hightower doesn't like to focus on the declining numbers of new student pilots, but rather on the low completion rate of new pilots, most of whom don't make it to the licensing stage. The EAA is working on plans for improving the completion rate and will reveal them shortly, he said. "We have a lot of levers to pull, more so than any other organization. I think that EAA in the past might not have been using those levers as much as we should."

AOPA has also examined the new pilot issue and released results of a detailed study of the issues facing prospective new pilots at last year's AOPA Summit. "One of the things is to better understand how to help people successfully get through training," said AOPA's Fuller. "It's appalling that 80 percent of those who become student pilots don't move through to become a private pilot."

The research suggests ways to look at how training is done and how it can be improved. "The survey has given us some important insights," he said. One is that training organizations need to know that todayπs student pilots enjoy professional training and they want to interact with professional instructors using aircraft that are equipped with modern technology. The students see simulators as a good value proposition, he explained, useful for training effectively at a lower cost. The survey produced many ideas that AOPA is going to share with the industry, he said, "ways to improve the whole approach to training."

There is no question that something needs to be done. According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the number of active pilots dropped to 594,285 in 2009. In 1981, according to the AOPA, there were 827,000 active pilots. "The numbers of incoming student pilots are even more alarming, with a decline from 200,000 to 73,000 in the same time frame," AOPA noted.

Looking at the age breakdown of the 594,285 pilots, there is a significant bulge in numbers between age 35 and 65. Most private pilots are within that age range, while commercial pilots trend a little younger. The lowest numbers are during the teenage years. In the sport-pilot category, many pilots are found in the higher age levels, probably reflecting the lack of a regulatory requirement for these pilots to hold a medical certificate.

Aircraft and Activity Numbers

Production of GA aircraft dropped significantly during the recession. In 2009 only 1,587 aircraft were shipped, according to GAMA statistics, down from 3,029 in 2008 and a record 3,279 in 2007 (since a high of almost 18,000 aircraft in 1978). The total number for 2010 remains low.

While overall billings haven't dropped as much, note that piston aircraft shipments are way down. The last time piston shipments were at the current levels was 1996 and 1997. And piston-powered aircraft remain the point-of-entry for new pilots. (These numbers do not include LSA.)

Activity levels are also a concern. Since 1981, avgas consumption has declined by half, from more than 11 million barrels in 1981 to 5.2 million barrels in 2009. The FAA was scheduled to release its 2009 estimate of hours flown in mid-February, so the numbers weren't available for this article. The agency estimates that from 1981 to 2008 piston-engine airplane hours flown dropped from more than 34 million per year to slightly more than 15 million. Maybe airplanes have become more efficient since 1981 or maybe the FAA's estimates, which are based on surveys of operators, are not so accurate. But the drop in avgas consumption clearly indicates a much lower level of GA activity during recent years.

Airport Pressures

From house-locked Santa Monica Airport in southern California to Naples, Fla., local communities are attempting to enact their own noise restrictions. Naples locals have been trying for years to ban Stage 2 jets, and Santa Monica-area residents and the city itself (which owns the airport) have wanted to prevent Category C and D jets (approach speeds of 121 knots or more) from using the airport. Airports that take federal funds can't erect such limits, but this doesn't stop the local communities from trying.

While it's axiomatic that pilots consistently point out that the airports were there long before the houses, that isn't always the case. The houses surrounding Santa Monica Airport, some within 300 feet of the runway end, were built for workers at the Douglas Aircraft plant, who built more than 10,000 C-47s/DC-3s and other airplanes. Many of the local residents have owned their houses for decades, long before jets started using the airport, and they believe they have some rights.

Airport-owning communities that take federal funds canπt discriminate against airport users, Hightower noted, "but airports and pilots need to have a better relationship with the community and community leaders." Ultimately, he added, "it's always nice to have airports owned by passionate aviators."

Community relations are important, but not always necessarily beneficial. Santa Monica Airport, for example, sits on the border with the city of Los Angeles. The homeowners–residents of Los Angeles–who complain about jet engine exhaust fumes and particulate emissions downwind of the east end of the runway, have little appreciation for the economic benefits of an airport that belongs to Santa Monica.

Sugar Land Regional Airport, owned by the city of Sugar Land, Texas, has taken a proactive approach to community relations, and the result is a comfortable relationship and a growing airport serving the business aviation and light aircraft communities. A few years ago, airport manager Phil Savko and his team created the "airport academy," a six-week training program for Sugar Land citizens. Applicants must show that they are not only interested in learning about their airport but are also involved in the community, so they can share their learning with other citizens. "They become our ambassadors," Savko said.

Despite efforts like these, the number of public-use airports in the U.S. continues to decline. At the end of 2009, there were 5,317 public-use airports, down from 5,718 in 2000. Private-use airports, however, have grown, to 14,298 in 2009 from 13,964 in 2000.

Europe has fewer than half as many airports with paved runways as the U.S. (2,241 versus 5,128).

Safety Issues

Noise isn't the only problem for GA airports; Santa Monica residents and the city share a concern about a jet over-running during takeoff or landing and crashing into homes.

Safety problems are a significant factor in the decline of GA, according to Bob Miller, publisher of the monthly "Over the Airwaves" newsletter and owner of Bob Miller Flight Training in Buffalo, N.Y. "To put it in perspective," he said, "learning to fly isn't like learning to play golf. We still suffer about 300 fatal accidents a year, 80 percent of which are attributable to pilot error, because the teacher failed to teach. Well over 75 percent [of those pilot error accidents] can be traced back to faulty instruction."

According to the GAMA Statistical Databook, the total number of GA fatal accidents dropped to 273 in 2009, down from 345 in 2000. The accident rate per 100,000 flight hours, which is based on FAA flight-time estimates, has remained fairly steady during the past decade at about 1.25.

Miller, who started his flight school to support his claims about how better training can help improve GA's accident rate and that a professionally run school with modern airplanes will attract a growing clientele, believes that FAA flight-training regulations are too liberal.

Miller would prefer that private pilots be required to fly at least 60 hours to earn their certificate, instead of the current 40 hours, because of all the knowledge that pilots need to acquire. He would also like to see the FAA require instrument flight instructors to log experience flying in actual weather before being allowed to teach, and that instructors gain more experience before teaching new pilots.

However, he recognizes that FAA rule changes take a long time and cost a fortune, money that the agency is unlikely to allocate. And in any case, organizations like AOPA will work hard to block any such rule changes, he said. The better way is for flight schools to teach pilots to proficiency, not just to the minimum standards. All pilots should undergo annual flight reviews with high-quality instructors. And insurance companies should promote these ideas, just as the insurance industry helped drive corporate aviation (business jets and turboprops) accident rates to historic lows via stringent recurrent training requirements. "We're trying to build a desire to become better pilots," he said. "This will save your life."

Miller sees AOPA as being more concerned with growth in membership than issues such as safety. AOPA president Fuller points out that AOPA and its Air Safety Foundation have a keen focus on safety. "[They] continue to make sure these aircraft are operated safely," Fuller said. "Safety is always going to be a concern and something we focus on."

The Light Sport Market

In 2004, the FAA issued an extraordinary new rule that ushered in what many expected to be a new era of cheap and simple aircraft, the light sport aircraft (LSA) regulations. While the new rules allowed manufacturers to design and build new two-seat aircraft with limited top speeds and maximum weights without having to meet the onerous Part 23 regulations, the development of the LSA market has disappointed many people whose expectations might have been too high.

Some LSAs sell for more than $100,000, and it is still not easy to find an LSA to rent at local airports. The absence of any requirement for LSA pilots to hold a medical certificate was initially thought to be a huge boon to the LSA market, but older pilots haven't switched to LSAs in droves, at least not yet.

"To put things in perspective, this is a six-year-old infant industry," said Dan Johnson, president and chairman of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association and publisher of the light-sport-focused Web site. In the six years since the first LSA was approved, manufacturers have certified through an ASTM industry standards certification program 114 new LSA models.

The total number of LSAs delivered thus far is about 2,500 (including gliders, weight-shift aircraft, powered parachutes and others), with about 2,000 of those fixed-wing airplanes. That doesn't seem like a lot of aircraft, but critics need to know that the LSA industry had to stand up quickly, writing self-certification standards, designing and testing airplanes, creating distribution networks, devising maintenance processes and so on. "That's a lot to do in six years," Johnson said. "The LSA community has done incredibly well." The LSA safety record is fairly good, and although the FAA has assessed about 30 LSA manufacturers and found some flaws, overall the system is working.

LSA use at flight schools is accelerating, Johnson said, especially now that production of Cessna's SkyCatcher LSA is ramping up. Part of the reason that LSAs aren't widespread at local flight schools is because many of the manufacturers' names are unfamiliar to the school operators. But that is changing. At less than half the price of a new Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior and with fuel burns of around four gallons per hour, LSAs have a clear advantage. "LSAs have logged thousands of hours in the flight school environment," Johnson said. "These are shiny new airplanes with sophisticated panels. Students look at well worn GA airplanes and the LSA and say, 'I want to fly that.' That effect has a beneficial action on new pilots."

LSAs–at least those powered by Rotax and Jabiru engines–have another advantage: they can burn autogas, even gas with 10 percent ethanol. (The SkyCatcher uses an avgas-burning Continental engine.) "That further lowers the cost of operation," Johnson said, and eliminates the problem of the potential phase-out of 100LL avgas.

Many critics of LSAs hail from the ranks of traditional Beech, Cessna and Piper pilots and swear they would never fly what they consider a flimsy airplane not powered by a Continental or Lycoming engine. "[LSAs are] not right for everybody," Johnson conceded. "But it's time to give up your typewriter and have a look at a computer. Thereπs a whole new world out there. These things are out there, they're not going away, and over time they're going to solve lots of problems."

The singular advantage of the ASTM certification system is that the standard can be changed quickly when necessary, unlike the years needed for changing FAA regulations. "It's that fast, that responsive, and that's what's expected out of the computer world," he said. "When [critics] realize what the advantages are, they will begin to accept them more and more. At least go look at one and go demo one. There's not availability everywhere, [manufacturers] haven't built enough, but it's getting there."