Business & ATPs Becoming GA’s Leaders

By Scott Spangler on May 5th, 2009

Ever since I can remember personal flying has always represented the lion’s share of the general aviation fleet and hours flown, measured by the FAA’s annual GA and Part 135 survey. The most current data is for 2007, well before the economy reached full meltdown, and it suggests trends that are puzzling in their contradictions: a growing fleet of personal-use aircraft that is flying less and a shrinking business fleet that’s flying more.  

JetWhine_Tiedown1 We’re talking mostly about piston airplanes, the majority of them single-engine. When the FAA sends its annual survey forms to US aircraft owners, they check the box that best describes the airplane’s primary use. Between 1996 and 2007, the number who checked “personal” grew by 25 percent, from 113.4 K to 152.5 K. It reached this level in a few giant steps:  115 K in 1997, 124.3 K in 1998, 124.3 K in 1998, and 147.1 K in 1999. From there it meandered down to its current level.

Over the same period, the flight hours in the personal category fell 4 percent, from 9.03 million in 1996 to 8.68 million in 2007. The biggest change again occurs between 1998 and 1999, when personal hours jumped from 9.78 million to 11.07 million, peaked at 11.47 million in 2000, and then started a gradual decline. By themselves, the hours don’t look bad–until you divide them by the growing personal fleet. This shows a 40 percent decline in a fairly straight line. In 1996, the 113.4 K airplanes each flew 79.69 hours. In 2007, 152.5 K aircraft each flew 56.89 hours.

JetWhine_Business Generically, flying you can write off as a tax deduction (or get reimbursed for from your employer) counts as business flying. Over this 10-year span this fleet shrank 22 percent, almost as much as the personal fleet grew. Again, 1998-99 was the pivotal transition, when this fleet went from 32.6 K to 24.5 K. By themselves, business hours fell 5 percent, from 3.26 million in 1996 to 3.09 million in 2007, but the per aircraft total increased, from 106 to 124 hours a year.

This suggests that as the baby-boomer pilots retire and sell their airplanes, flying for fun will take a back seat to transportation. Combine this with the declining pilot population, and life isn’t looking good for those looking to sell new or used airplanes.  As a whole, the GA fleet grew 16 percent over this decade, and the overall pilot population shrank 5.41 percent.

JetWhine_PrivateWhat’s really interesting about the pilot population is that the number of private and commercial pilots have fallen 20 and 12 percent respectively, but ATPs have increased 11 percent. And there’s been a 14-percent increase in the number of CFIs. (Obviously, not all of them are teaching, given the declining student start, but they’re keeping their tickets current.)

Starting at 254 K in 1996, the number of active private pilots dipped to 247.22 K in 1998 and peaked at 258.74 K in 1999, and then started the straight-line slide to 211 K in 2007. The number of instructional hours flown mirrors this trend, peaking at 5.79 million hours in 1999. (What was it about 1999 that led to this significant jump in general aviation?)  On the recreational side the only bright spot is sport pilot, which increased 1415 percent from 134 in the ticket’s inaugural year of 2005 to 2,031 in 2007.

JetWhine_Airline PilotAs aviation seems to be shifting from pleasure to business, not to mention the specter of NextGen costs and fees, the composition of the pilot population is, perhaps, growing more important than its overall total. In 1996, private pilots outnumbered ATPs 2 to 1. Add commercial pilots, and those who can fly for hire balance evenly with those who cannot. In 2007, ATPs represented a quarter of the pilot population, with commercial pilots claiming another 20 percent of the total. Private pilots are now the minority at 35 percent.

You can draw your own conclusions about the affect these shifts will have on the future of general aviation. But one thing seems clear: it will never again be what it was. What’s your take on it? — Scott Spangler

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One Response to “Business & ATPs Becoming GA’s Leaders”

  1. Ron Says:

    My take on it is pretty clear: we’re turning into Europe, where ‘security’, ‘user fees’, and regulation result in a pilot population which is increasingly small, affluent, and unwelcome.

    And as for The Rest of Us? We might as well be living in the days before Kitty Hawk, when the dream of practical personal flight was no less accessible than it will be in the future.

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