The General Aviation Manufacturers Association annual Statistical Databook & Industry Outlook is like a late Christmas present that puts all other gifts or lumps of coal into a broader context. The first edition, published in 1973, ran just 22 pages. Recently released, this year’s edition fills 80 pages with data from 2010.
As a body of work, GAMA provides the more reliable and easy-to-access trove of aircraft, fleet, and pilot population data in general aviation today. Cumulatively, it provides annual US units shipped since 1946, categorized active fleet numbers to 1969, hours flown by type to 1961, certificates held to 1964, pilot population forecasts, and much more. Take to time to look back, and you’ll see that things could be worse. Much worse.
Everyone whose been in aviation for more than a few days knows it is an activity of ups and downs, literally and figuratively. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) With the rest of the economy, we’re in a down cycle right now, and US manufacturers added just 1,334 new aircraft to the GA fleet in 2010, down 215 (or 13.3 percent) from 2009, which was down 6 percent from this decade’s peak, 3,279 new aircraft in 2007, all while cheap airline flights have begun to disappear.
Consider this: Manufacturers built 35,000 new GA aircraft in 1946. In 1947 they made 19,406, a 55 percent drop. In 1949, they dropped another 55 percent, to 8,557. To reinforce the learning experience, they endured 52 percent decrease in 1949, delivering 3,632 new airplanes. That’s a 90 percent drop in just three years, so maybe things today aren’t so bad.
New aircraft next peaked in 1978, at 17,811, with a 30 percent decline in 1980 (down to 11,877), a 20 percent drop the following year (down to 9,457), and a 55 percent decrease (to 4,266) in 1982. A 37 percent decline in 1983 (to 2,691) reinforced that learning experience in 1983.
There was another reason 1983 was a transcendent year for all in aviation. That year the once dominant number of units (the orange profile) and what we paid for them (the gray line) met and parted ways. Is it an unlikely coincidence that this occurred during the era of Ronald Reagan, which introduced “trickle-down” theories and gave rise to today’s corporate culture?
Without a doubt, making airplanes today is more expensive for many reasons, some related to technology and others driven by our legal system, which rewards efforts to shift personal responsibility to those with “deeper pockets.” Equally important, perhaps, is that the shareholders, the investors, became more important than customers.
In broad and general terms, during the Reagan era it seems that the priority for corporate management was delivering a larger return to the Wall St. crowd than pricing a product to ensure a fair deal and, thus, sustainable business. What other logic explains the rapid and growing divide between gray and orange?
When we whine about the cost of aviation today, we should look at the graph and the distance between units and billing. And we should ask ourselves how we can restrain, let alone reverse it? Or should we—or do we—want to change it in the first place? –Scott Spangler