Rightsizing Aviation: Doing Less With More

By Scott Spangler on April 14th, 2010

For the past week or so a number of us have been engaged in an ongoing discussion on flight training, inspired by Pro Pilot Training Evolving to Industry Needs, about the forthcoming end Danny Webster’s program.

united_logo This discussion has focused on training methods and evaluation, with a little bit of business thrown in for good measure. Looking at it with a wide angle lens, encompassing other aviation developments, such as the potential merger between United Airlines and US Airways, it is clear that aviation is rightsizing itself.

usairways_logo Aviation is a legacy industry in transition, moving from the analog era typified by radar-based ATC, to the NextGen world of performance-based navigation derived digitally from above. Shrinking consumer demand is exacerbating aviation’s evolution, so it is now doing less with more. This is a situation no industry can sustain, so not everyone will survive the transition.

For a number of reasons, rightsizing faces every aspect of American life, from entitlement programs like social security, which, for the first time, is collecting less money than it pays out, to all forms of transportation. The predominate change agent is the changing needs of the largest demographic lump of professional consumers in history: Baby Boomers. We, too, are in transition, but unlike smart aviation businesses, none of us will survive.

DMFS Logo All of this really came into focus several days ago when I was interviewing the president of the Des Moines Flying Service, John Lowe. His father-in-law, Howard Gregory, bought the business in 1939 when he was a student at Drake University. Mr. Gregory, now 91, has come to work every day since then, and he’ll return when he recuperates from a recent surgical procedure.

Mr. Lowe walked me through the company history, which started with the Piper dealership Mr. Gregory got from William T. Piper himself in 1939. Before World War II they sold a lot of airplanes, taught a lot of people to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and did related commercial work, like spraying the crops in the surrounding Iowa farmland with a J-3.

After the war they sold more airplanes, had a steady enrollment of 200 or more students, almost all of them on the GI Bill, and corporate aircraft and charter operations added to the revenue that came from fuel sales. And then things changed. Training started its decline when the GI Bill went away and airline deregulation made charter seem extravagant. Rather than trying to revive these aspects of the business, DMFS let them go and invested in those with a future, aircraft sale, service, and parts.

The avionics department is the best example of rightsizing. It used to have six techs, Mr. Lowe said, but there are four now, because avionics repair is a thing of the past. Today replace one box with another and FedEx the bad one to the manufacturer for repair.

What the future holds he couldn’t say, but regardless of what that future is, DMFS would always have an avionics department of some size to serve customers because “things break.” And that seems to me an excellent prognosis for the aviation industry from one end of its economic food chain to the other. – Scott Spangler

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