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General aviation proves its value
March 2, 2011
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  • By Matt Thurber

    General aviation is an extraordinary industry with a terrible appellation. How is it that the industry spawned by the heroic efforts of the Wright brothers, the industry that gave birth to the jewel of the U.S.’s industrial might – the aerospace industry – and the industry that includes the magic of teaching anyone interested how to fly, goes by the generic-sounding term “general aviation?”

    And why is there so much hand wringing about “saving” general aviation (GA)? Multiple efforts have been launched by various organizations trying to “save” GA. There is and Bob Miller, who operates a flight school in Buffalo, N.Y., and publishes the “Over The Airwaves” safety newsletter, has long fretted about GA’s poor safety record and how the lack of quality training is holding GA back. The Experimental Aircraft Association¹s Young Eagles program has introduced more than 1.6 million children to aviation via a ride in a light airplane in an effort to spark interest in aviation. Sporty’s Pilot Shop helps with the next step, offering a free logbook and free online access to its pilot training course for Young Eagles fliers. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which developed the GA Serves America Web site, supports a variety of programs, including lobbying the government, a network of volunteer airport supporters, safety courses from the Air Safety Institute and a Pilots and Teachers Handbook to help teachers show how GA relates to secondary school subjects such as math, science, physics, history and technology. NBAA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) jointly run the No Plane, No Gain campaign, which “is designed to educate the public on the importance of business aviation to our country and its communities, companies and citizens.”

    The official definition of GA is all of aviation except military and scheduled airlines. While this special report focuses primarily on the parts of GA that include flight training, development of new pilots and generally piston-engine aircraft, the entire GA industry is interconnected and critical to the future of aviation and aerospace.

    Before we look at some numbers, here is why GA is important:

    Unlike almost every other country, the U.S. has been building its GA infrastructure from day one, when the Wright Flyer first took a 12-second flight on Dec. 17, 1903. GA infrastructure is everything needed for a healthy industry to prosper, including aircraft manufacturing, airports, pilots, mechanics, FBOs (another weird GA moniker, but that¹s another story), charter operators, suppliers and even the FAA.

    If it weren’t for GA’s infrastructure, the U.S. would not be the powerhouse that it is in aerospace exports. The past 108 years of building that infrastructure have led directly to the rise of airlines, the space industry, the growth of business jets, a huge network of charter operators, thousands of airports – each with its own service provider (FBO) – a relatively reasonable regulatory climate and a country where the average citizen who can afford the cost can learn to fly at a conveniently located airport.

    Despite new restrictions on foreign pilots learning to fly in the U.S., there remains a keen interest in flight training in the U.S. by non-citizens, primarily because of the lower cost of flying but also because of the relative freedom in the U.S. It is still possible, for example, to fly from New York to Los Angeles in a light airplane without talking once on a radio or seeking permission from anyone or having to file a flight plan with government authorities. For Americans who fly in light airplanes, the freedom to fly is like the freedom to drive; no one can tell you that you can’t drive to the supermarket and no one can tell you that you can’t fly to Grandma’s house for the weekend, provided, of course, that you meet licensing and airworthiness requirements (and can afford the ever-increasing cost).

    Recently modernizing countries such as China and India seem to be figuring out why their aerospace industries are so far behind the rest of the world, but in many other places, including the Middle East and even many European countries, so many restrictions against GA have resulted in not only hobbled GA industries but weak aviation industries overall. The problem is that because the leaders of these countries don’t recognize the benefits of GA infrastructure, they have attempted to build their aviation infrastructures from the top down. These countries might have strong airline components, for example, but take a look at who flies their airplanes: mostly expatriates from countries that have stronger GA infrastructures such as the U.S., some European countries, Canada and other western countries. That is exactly why your Emirates flight to Dubai or Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong is staffed by non-native pilots.

    Yet change is coming. China’s leaders seem to grasp that the reason the country has no GA infrastructure is a result of the many restrictions that keep GA business from flourishing. Chief among these are restrictions on civilian use of airspace. The concept of a middle-class Chinese citizen taking the family Cessna out for a 700-yuan hamburger apparently seems foreign. And there is a notable lack of small airports where interested citizens could learn to fly or hang out and watch small airplanes take off and land. The Chinese military has kept a tight rein on airspace, such that airlines stick to carefully carved-out routes and business jets require days of notice for permission to operate. This is no way to build a GA infrastructure, and there have been signs that China’s government is loosening controls on Chinese airspace to allow aerial commerce to occur in a smoother fashion.

    Why GA?

    Why is GA so important, especially for countries that have yet to develop a GA infrastructure?

    “General aviation is in a lot of ways the feedstock of the entire aviation industry,” said Ed Bolen, NBAA president and CEO. “If you look at the airlines, flight departments, air traffic controllers at major airports and major airports themselves, you can draw direct lines from general aviation forward.”

    Even major airports in the U.S. owe their beginnings to GA. “If you look at Chicago O¹Hare [ORD],” he said, “which is arguably the world’s busiest airport, that started as a general aviation airport in the middle of an orchard. ORD was Orchard Airpark and it turned into the world’s busiest airport. From general aviation beginnings an entire industry has been built. It ought to be understood that pilot starts, entry-level maintenance jobs, air traffic controller jobs, airports, that’s all really the foundation that the aviation industry is built on.”

    Bolen pointed out a factor that lies at the heart of why so many countries have shortages of native-born pilots: dwindling supplies of military-trained pilots. In the U.S., the majority of newly hired airline pilots learn to fly in GA aircraft, and about 80 percent of new-hire airline pilots come from GA backgrounds, according to Kit Darby of Aviation Consulting. That number used to be reversed, with the greater portion having military flying careers before joining the airlines, but there are far fewer military pilots available nowadays, and airlines must find pilots somewhere. Other countries have tackled this problem by building ab initio pilot training programs, many of which are based in the U.S., but U.S. airlines have yet to adopt such programs, most likely because GA is supplying all the pilots that airlines need, at least for now.

    GA is also an important supplement to airlines, supplying lift in locations that airlines don’t serve or serve lightly and helping lubricate the wheels of business activity. Airlines primarily serve 70 aviation hubs, according to the NBAA/GAMA No Plane, No Gain Web site, and more than 30 U.S. communities lost airline service during the past year. In economic terms, business aviation contributes more than $150 billion to annual U.S. economic output and 1.2 million jobs.

    Nothing demonstrated GA’s capabilities like the Haiti earthquake last year. GA aircraft were first on the scene and delivered tons of relief supplies and personnel. One of the nominees for the National Aeronautic Association’s 2010 Robert J. Collier trophy is “General Aviation: Saving Thousands of Lives in Haiti.” In addition, at last year’s NBAA Convention the hundreds in the business aviation community who contributed to the Haiti relief effort were honored with NBAA’s Al Ueltschi Award for Humanitarian Leadership. More than 1,200 GA aircraft are used in Part 135 aeromedical operations, and these fly more than half a million hours a year.

    Craig Fuller, AOPA president and CEO, added that GA “creates a lot of mobility for business purposes and moving cargo. Companies located in less urban areas near general aviation airports rely upon these aircraft. With the airlines reducing the number of cities they serve, the significance of the general aviation fleet is going to be more important.”

    Another way that GA contributes is innovation, according to Fuller. Many developments in satellite navigation, for example, stem from GA avionics that are far more sophisticated than is the technology found in current airline cockpits.

    “I also think [GA] is a gateway for people interested in aerospace and aviation,” he said. GA serves as an entry point for not only new pilots but people who go on to careers in aviation and aerospace, he noted.

    OEMs Are Infrastructure

    A key part of the GA infrastructure in the U.S. is the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that build many of the GA aircraft sold around the world. According to GAMA, during 2009, for the first time, billings for exported GA aircraft exceeded 50 percent of total billings. The number of shipments exported was 46 percent of the total.

    The U.S. has a large fleet of active aircraft, according to GAMA numbers. The latest figures are for 2008 and include a total of 228,664 aircraft. This breaks down as follows (note that these numbers may change as the FAA works through cleaning up its registry files under new reregistration rules):

    Active aircraft U.S.

    Total 228,664

    Piston: 163,013

    Turboprop: 8,906

    Jet: 11,042

    Rotorcraft: 9,876

    Glider: 1,914

    Lighter-than-air: 3,738

    Experimental: 23,364

    Light sport: 6,811

    These relatively large numbers of GA aircraft and the thousands of airports that support GA operations in the U.S. are the result of the past 108 years of infrastructure development. Add to that the freedom afforded by the U.S. regulatory climate and a country where there are few restrictions on the activities that people can enjoy, and the climate for a strong GA industry endures. And again, that’s why so many people come to the U.S. to learn to fly. Not just for the cost savings, but for the much more welcoming climate for GA aficionados and for those interested in developing skills needed for professional pilot careers.

    Pilot Shortage?

    While the subject of shortages of pilots has come up repeatedly over the years, it is interesting that one of the companies to express concern on this subject is Boeing. Boeing, in fact, is a tremendous supporter of GA, having purchased two key companies in the GA market in recent years, flight data and trip planning provider Jeppesen and Aviall, the huge parts distribution company. Jeppesen also focuses on flight training products and is adopting Web and smartphone/tablet delivery mechanisms popular with the new crop of future pilots.

    Boeing, obviously, has a vested interest in making sure there are enough pilots to fly its airplanes. Last year, as part of its annual market outlook, Boeing¹s crew assessment forecast noted a need for 466,650 pilots and 595,500 maintenance personnel over the next 20 years. And this is just to fly and maintain projected demand for new and replacement airline aircraft. According to Boeing, ≥Airlines will need an average of 23,300 new pilots and 30,000 new maintenance personnel per year from 2010 to 2029. The assessment doesn¹t take into account the needs of general aviation. But given the high number of new airline pilots that come from the ranks of GA training schools, the overall need for the worldwide aviation industry will be far greater. Here is how Boeing breaks down the worldwide need for pilots and mechanics during the next 20 years:

    Airline personnel requirements

    Country Pilots Maintenance personnel

    Asia-Pacific 180,600 222,000

    China 70,600 90,400

    N. America 97,350 137,000

    Europe 94,800 122,000

    Africa 13,200 15,000

    Middle East 32,700 44,500

    Latin America 37,000 44,000

    CIS 11,000 14,000

    Matt Thurber2011-03-01false