General Aviation Won’t Find Future Pilots in Rear View Mirror

By Scott Spangler on May 15th, 2008

Pilots are a population in decline. We are getting old and resting our wings, and it saddens me no end to watch the industry trawl yesterday’s fishing grounds for tomorrow’s pilots, most of whom have moved on to places unknown.

CB008207 It’s almost as though general aviation is motoring toward the future with its eyes firmly focused on the rear view mirror. As good as it was, the 20th century is over, and it’s never coming back. Information rules in the 21st century, and what the GA does not know about its potential customers has always been its undoing.

In times past and present pilots don’t really exist until they have a student pilot certificate. This gets them into the FAA system, the only industry-wide source of population numbers. But here’s the rub: students don’t need a certificate until they solo.  Until they acquire that piece of paper they’ve been invisible customers for six days, six months, or six years.

In the 21st century, making the count with a medical certificate is pretty much worthless information. Yes, it counts “active” pilots, but it misses those who don’t need medicals, sport pilots and those who fly balloons and gliders. Right now all GA knows is that the FAA issued these pilots a certificate, and that’s it.

What GA doesn’t know is the information that would enable the GA equivalent of Amazon or Netflix to recommend products and services tailored to individual interests. It doesn’t know what brought pilots to aviation, what kind of flying they do, what kind they would like to do, and how well the industry has been serving their needs.

Equally important is knowing how many customers left–and why–before getting their medical and seeing their way through to solo. And how many quit–and why–before taking their checkride.

Let’s face it, this century has replaced the dream of unlimited resources and growth with the reality of finite resources of all kinds. No industry–no business–can afford to alienate customers. They avoid it by learning everything they can about those they serve. If GA is going to have a future, it must do the same.

I can hear the chorus wailing now: This is impossible!

Hardly. If Amazon, Netflix, my Toyota service department, and the cigar shop can track my buddy’s favorite smokes, GA can do it. What may be impossible is the necessary cooperation and coordination among industry competitors obsessively focused on getting a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.

A Pilot Information Cooperative might be a good place to start. Those who contribute information about GA’s customers have access to it. The PIC’s inaugural members should be those who have first contact with prospective pilots, like AOPA’s Project Pilot and EAA’s Young Eagles. Getting flight schools (through NATA) and CFIs (through NAFI) on board is critical because they make GA’s first impression on newcomers.

There’s no denying that there are myriad details to address to make a PIC work, but in the 21st century, one need not look far to find a master of information technology and a customer relationship management guru willing to help save an industry.

And, yes, it would cost money. But over the past several decades how much has GA spent on past fishing trips like Be A Pilot, Learn to Fly,  and all those that came before? At least this investment would offer better chances of catching–and keeping–new members of the pilot population. –Scott Spangler

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6 Responses to “General Aviation Won’t Find Future Pilots in Rear View Mirror”

  1. Jeffrey Sigmon Says:

    With the cost of flight training sky rocketing, I believe most airlines will be forced to stop trawling and start dredging for pilots.

    Something has to be done.

  2. david comeau Says:

    Degeneration of our general aviation interests in world wide has cause for great concern. Will we in North America understand consequences of sitting by and doing nothing.
    There is at least one expanding nation with global foresight. They are having pilots trained here in Canada in unprecedented numbers. Sure our lazyness, lack of interest and diluted ambitions may have played heavily in the demise of what was once a fourishing industry.

  3. Hope & Cynicism for EAA’s Learn-to-Fly Day - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] Curious about its whereabouts, Google took me to its website not long ago, just before the first press release arrived in my inbox. What I learned about International Learn-to-Fly Day did not neutralize my cynicism, but it did give me a ray of hope that disparity between the acquisition investment and results would be small because they are not looking in the rearview mirror. […]

  4. Hope & Cynicism for EAA’s Learn-to-Fly Day | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    […] Curious about its whereabouts, Google took me to its website not long ago, just before the first press release arrived in my inbox. What I learned about International Learn-to-Fly Day did not neutralize my cynicism, but it did give me a ray of hope that disparity between the acquisition investment and results would be small because they are not looking in the rearview mirror. […]

  5. Becoming a Pilot: Is it a Relevant Choice? - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] knows how many quit before they got their student certificate, typically just before solo. (See General Aviation Won’t Find Future Pilots in Rear View Mirror.) An anecdotal presolo dropout guesstimation is 50 to 80 percent, so adding that  to the […]

  6. Dead Air Says:

    I have been flying for 32 years.
    In the 70s, I thought $27.00 per hour for a new C-150 with instructor was a lot of money.
    Today they want $175.00 per hour for a 2 seater single with an instructor.
    Where I live, it takes about 60 hours to train a Private Pilot….$10,675 by the time your done.
    Only the rich kids are learning to fly but not going on to be ATPs and instructors.
    Most students are middle age and just learning to fly for fun.

    My airport had about 625 planes based there in 1980 and now hovers a little over 100…if that. I even see planes rotting in their flat tires. Planes that have not moved in years and years.

    There has been an 86% increase in training cost and 100% increase in fuel prices in my county.

    Wages have not really met any of those percentile increases for anyone in the middle class. They are only going down right now.

    There are not too many smart kids that I know who want to spend $100,000 (plus interest)for a degree and flying rating just to come out on the street and make less than minimum wages in Chicago or East coast to be a flight instructor.
    Kids are becoming accountants and business pro’s.

    After years of flying, I was hired by a well known regional airline at under $19,000 a year.
    And that is what the wages were frozen at for at least a year.
    At the time, they hired kids with 600hrs total time to fly CRJs. They did not work out.

    I think what you will see in the future will be foreign pilots taking american pilot jobs.
    They get trained fairly well and will fly for food and live in numbers in a box.

    The product liability problelms of the 1980s are now taking its toll.

    I wonder if there will be an aviation economic crash like what happened to housing on the horizon?

    Well, it’s just my opinion.

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