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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The slow decline of General Aviation in America.

Numbers do not lie and the harsh reality is that general aviation in the United States is on the decline.  There are many reasons for this ranging from high fuel prices to the stratospheric cost of new planes.  Many boogeymen have been identified but, in fact, there is not one lone culprit but a litany of sometimes seemingly unrelated ones.

Among the things that have an impact on new aircraft sales are interest rates, fuel prices, product liability costs, labor costs, the small scale of production, tax codes and the regulatory environment.  Oddly enough the sale of new general aviation aircraft is not as dependent on the overall health of the economy as one might think (as you will see later).

Another major issue is the cost and commitment of learning to fly.  All of these factors have an impact on the cost of obtaining a private pilot certificate and, when combined with an “instant gratification” oriented society, it becomes increasingly difficult to get new flying students through the door.  It is no small task to get someone to commit up to $10,000 and several months of their time to the endeavor.

In addition, the expensive light planes currently in production are in competition with substantially cheaper used planes.  The history of new light plane production holds some pretty cold math as noted in these data points.  Here is the history of modern light plane manufactoring at a glance:

In 1965 American aircraft companies sold 15,768 new private planes.  Despite a recession the number actually climbed to 17,811 new planes sold in 1978 (thus my earlier point that general aviation is not as directly linked to the overall economic picture as commercial aviation).  By 1980 the number had drifted down to 11,871 new aircraft sales and by 1981 it was only 9,457.  Then sales really started to plunge and by 1982 they had dropped by over half to only 4,266 new planes sold.  In 1986 Cessna Aircraft stopped making piston engine light planes.  By 1994 it only 928 new planes were sold in all the United States (this includes corporate aircraft).  There was a slight uptick and in 2009 when sales reached 1,587 but by 2010 sales were in decline again with only 1,334 new plane sales (a 16% drop).

In addition, most pilots attending flying schools today are working toward flying as a career.  There are less and less private pilot candidates as the cost and regulation continue to rise.  Increasing equipment requirements along with tighter security is both driving up costs and soaking much of the fun out of sport aviation.  Insurance is getting higher and many aircraft owners have elected to drop it.

Insurance has an impact on sales of new planes too.  In 1962 product liability was $52 per plane but by $1972 it had risen to $2,111 per unit.  Those were 1972 dollars.  That is $11,591 today.  Between that, low production volume (no economy of scale) high labor costs and a dwindling pool of potential buyers (pilots) the per-unit cost on a shiney new 2012 Cessna 172 tops $300,000.  Despite an impressive instrument suite and many enhancements it is still a Cessna-172.  This all colludes to hurt general aviation and helps us understand why only 19,893 new private pilot certificates were issues by the FAA in 2009 and that number dropped to 14,977 in 2010 (-25%). 

As the old guard of private pilots in their Luscombes and Piper Cubs begins to gentrify and as the rising cost forces more and more private pilots out of the arena we see a dwindling in our ranks.  Now the latest Cessna (The 162) is made in China.  Pilots are a largely patriotic bunch and the wisdom of this move (or lack thereof) will bear out in time.  General aviation is far from dead in America but unless we can invigorate a new generation of general aviation enthusiasts GA may be in a slow graveyard spiral toward the sunset.  Nowhere in this history of humankind have people known the kind of freedom allowed the private pilot.  The ability to jump in your own plane, point the nose where you like and just GO!  It will be a sad day and the end on one of the greatest eras in world history when the last private pilot heads west.

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