Pilot Population & Demographic Stability

By Scott Spangler on March 20th, 2013

Most pilots know that the test of an airplane’s dynamic stability is to trim for a specific hands-off speed, increase or decrease pitch to a faster or slower speed, then let go of the stick and measure the time it takes to resume the hands-off speed. It’s my contention that seeking its demographic stability is what the U.S population has been doing since 1980, when it peaked at 827,000 active aviators. That also happens to be the year that the last Baby Boomers, born in 1964, became old enough to solo.

Working in round numbers, the first of 76 million Baby Boomers were born in 1946. They were old enough to get a private certificate in 1963. I wasn’t able to find the number of active pilots that year, but it probably wasn’t much more than 1964’s 431,000. Certainly, we Boomers aren’t the sole source of the rapidly increasing population, but as were in other facets of the American demographic landscape, we were the dominant variable.

As we came of age, the pilot population blossomed like flowers in spring. By 1969, when Boomers ranged in age from 23 to 5, there were 720,000 pilots. Over the next decade the population climbed in five-figure steps to its peak in 1980, when they ranged from 36 to 16. The decline that started then is, most likely, the retirement of pilots of the Greatest Generation, born between 1901 and 1924, and the so-called Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945.

And now it’s our turn. Until 2005, given a point or two fluctuation, Boomers accounted for more than half of the pilot population. That changed in 2006, when the first Boomers turned 60. After our self-inflicted economic melt-down, the Boomer’s representation fell to 43 percent of all pilots. In 2011, it was 40 percent. With 8,000 of us turning 60 every day, and the uncertain financial world in which we one day hope to retire, I expect this trend will continue with increasing speed.

Where the pilot population will find its demographic stability is anyone’s guess. Looking at the succeeding generations and their financial futures and opportunities, my guess is 300,000 or less.

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, numbers roughly 45 million, and in 2011 they represented 27 percent of the total pilot population. Generation Y, also known at the Millennials, born from 1980 on, number more than 70 million. Many of then are still coming of pilot age, and in 2011 they represented 23 percent of the population.

Today, members of Gen X range in age from 47 to 33. Given their midlife demands on time and money, I can’t see them as a significant resource pool because economic uncertainties and political unpredictability is more captivating than investing six months and $10,000 to become a private pilot. Members of Gen Y are 32 to almost old enough to solo. Like Gen X, they grew up in the digital age, and flying, while cool, is not immediately mastered like the portal to the virtual world they carry with them everywhere.

Ever growing income inequality is a more critical factor. If it was an airplane, it would dynamically unstable. Instead of returning to the previous level, it diverges from it, ending with a plunge to earth unless the pilot regains control. What happens here remains to be seen, but the signs now aren’t good because we haven’t responded well to the stick-shaking, global airframe shudder warning of the economic meltdown.

What happens next depends on us as aviators and an industry. Given today’s demographic opportunities, returning to what was seems a delusional fantasy. The pool of newcomers is small, less interested, and trying to survive daily life in a different world. Rather than trying to recapture this fantasy, we should be uniting to preserve what we have by supporting those still flying and encouraging and nurturing interested newcomers.

When it comes to the cost of flying, with a smaller population it’s only going to get more expensive. For those who fly for fun and personal business, the only solutions here seem to be sharing the costs through fractional ownership, partnerships, and flying clubs. And we need to reverse the divergent danger of income inequality. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Private Jet travel is more convenient and affordable than most people realize.

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17 Responses to “Pilot Population & Demographic Stability”

  1. Ron S Says:

    The costs are keeping younger would be pilots from flying. Coincidentally, I attended an AOPA seminar the other night in Northbrook IL. At 48 years of age, I was one of the young guys in the room. I’d guess 250 people in attendance and less than a handful of women as well.

  2. John Zimmerman Says:

    Interesting article Scott (as usual). One piece here I found intriguing–the numbers you share suggest that some of the Boomers started flying fairly young (under 30). As you write, that’s not happening today.

    So in addition to the demographics, it seems like those that do learn to fly do it later in life. Bad combination.

  3. Robert Buckley Says:

    Having grown up with flying I am one of the baby boomer pilots. Over the years the cost acceleration of flying an owned airplane has far outpaced income growth. If I did not have a business use for my aircraft now, I would find the expense inexcusable when I think of what I could do to help family with collage, health or other needs that come up. I have introduced flying to many who loved it. Yet when they looked into the costs of training and general aircraft use they backed away. They still love flying as long as it is on me.

  4. George R. Guthrie Says:

    I was born in 1943 and had an airplane single engine land license since 1967 but because as many pilots my age I have controled high blood pressuer the FAA will no longer give me a medical certificate. This is elimiting many of my generation from flying. Most of us have no higher chance of a heart attack than stressed out executives in his mid 30’s. So if guys like me who have scheduled check-up’s with our Cardiologist could be allowed to have our Med certificates back we would love to fly.

  5. Melvin Freedman Says:

    Great artical, But you left out the reason for the decrease and biggest reason for the demise of the pvt pilot,(old guys).Yes, the 3rd class med.All you av writers dance around that,like it was poison. Of course your editor dosen’t want to upset the faa.The last writer, and a very knowfledgeable guy told the truth in the early 70’s, and was gone in the next issue. See if you can sleuth that out.

  6. Larry S Says:

    Scott … you’ve hit the aviation ‘nail’ on the head with your demographic analysis.

    One only has to go to the Light Sport Expo at Sebring to note that most of the attendees are boomers and not Gen X or Y types. They want to continue flying, see issues with the third class medical and trying to use Light Sport as their vehicle. Then the economic reality of light sport airplane prices vs performance limitations kicks in. This is why so few total LSA’s are sold. Used airplane prices — likewise — reflect this problem. Airpark property — likewise — isn’t selling for the same reason. One area after another in aviation is negatively impacted by the declining demographics you present.

    Unless and until the FAA gets off of its you-know-what on the passage of the AOPA / EAA Third Class Medical Exemption petition, the boomer pilots will continue to fall off the far end and insufficient numbers of replacement pilots are coming on board.

    Keeping what we already have is the fastest and ONLY way to keep aviation alive with active pilot numbers sufficient to keep the avation infrastructure alive.

  7. benteardog Says:

    get rid of the 3rd class medical and watch private avaition bloom!

  8. Melvin Freedman Says:

    Geo,same fr me almost(1930,started flying in 69) Hey who is going to pay fr the waivers, the faa and the ama love it. The truth is all about the 3rd class med. Pvt guys sit their and say nothing.

  9. Scott Spangler Says:

    Ultimately, the challenges posed by any form of medical certification affect each generation as it ages, so in this examination of the changing demographics of pilot population, it really isn’t a factor, just something all pilots can “look forward to” as they get older.

    Robert expanded on the financial and economic challenges facing all generations. Everything costs more, not just flying, and those who cannot fly in furtherance with the job have to decide between it and feeding the family, insuring its healthcare, and launching their offspring with a good education, and still save something so we might retire before we expire.

    John, I agree that the current generation is getting info flying much later than we boomers did. I can see several reasons for this. First, boomers are just one generation removed from the excitement engendered by the like of Lindbergh, Earhart, and the golden era of aviation and the World War II aerial exploits of our parents.

    Second is the necessary commitment of time and money and their inability to pay for more pressing needs, like a college education. Colleges costs have grown even more quickly than those of flying, and the amount of debt that students and their parents collects in the process puts new graduates in a very deep hole at the start of their careers…if they can find a job.

  10. Melvin Freedman Says:

    Scott, your lost. Age is a weak argument. So is money.

  11. Len Assante Says:

    Scott:
    Neat stuff as usual. And I’d just like to say KUDOS for mentioning the best way to reduce costs -sharing them with others! An airplane owned by an individual sits in the hangar 99% of the time, so one person is paying ALL those fixed and recurring costs for an asset they RARELY use. Why not spread the cost of ownership out among 6 or 8 pilots, still fly all you want, and not worry about the hassles of ownership at all? That’s what managed shared ownership brings to the table. If costs were 1/8 of what they are today, I bet MANY people would get into aviation, including younger people who have some, but not alot, of disposable income. With shared ownership, you can get into a brand-new well-equipped LSA for around $20k and pay a monthly fee of $200 that covers everything except your gas. No hourly fees and YOU OWN IT! (Not rental, not a club, not an old worn out plane.)
    We think the LSA/Sport Pilot/DL medical is the way to start new people out -reduced training, no medical, cool new iPad generation friendly electronics, nice shiny new planes to appeal to a less affluent younger crowd. Add an improved social element to the airport and the no-hassle life afforded by the monthly fee, and you are in a pretty good situation to grow aviation and reduce economies of scale. Time to think WAY outside the box or Scott’s 300k will seem optimistic in a few years. How about 1,000,000? That’s a number I can relate to!!
    Don’t think it can be done? Just watch us! (Google “Aviation Access” and you will find us. I will not sully Scott’s blog with too much promotion.)

  12. Neil Cosentino Says:

    The Satellite View

    20th century: business, commerce and personal mobility
    Trains then the Automobiles The Interstate system

    21st century: business, commerce and personal mobility
    Automobiles/Interstate Aircraft Global Airports The SKYWay

    We know the problems – thanks for solutions.
    One solution is a NASA sponsored competition for a very low cost bare bones electric powered two seat tandem, motor glider primary pilot trainer aircraft …. under $30,000.
    Attend Sun N Fun there will be three seminars on this project…

  13. Dave Says:

    To think that changing the medical requirements will somehow save general aviation is quite shortsighted. It would provide temporary aid, but like any other business you have to target younger demographics so that you have a customer for the next 50 years, and not just another 10.

    Cost, real and perceived, is what is really killing GA. Many people THINK flying is too expensive so they don’t even bother looking. Some of those people could likely afford it, but they never even look. The rest of us simply cannot afford it for a number of reasons.

    I already had $20k in student loans from my bachelors, and will probably come close to doubling that for my masters. Then I am supposed to add another $10k for a hobby when I can hardly find a job?

    Money is not the only problem, but medical changes would likely only create a relatively short term fix.

  14. melvin Freedman Says:

    You all may have valid answers, but,I don’t care if the airlines run out of pilots or the 141 schoola close. Nobody really cares if a a few pvt pilots who are the luckiest people in the world They experienced flight and won.

  15. melvin freedman Says:

    hey people, you my have vaild points. and you all spent lots of $ to learn to fly, but america dosen’t care. We are just a few

  16. Drake Ferruzzi Says:

    I am a member of Generation Y, born in 1991 and I can say personally that all of your fears looking down on the younger demographic can be confirmed from myself looking up. I currently am about to complete my bachelors in engineering here in NC and in addition have held a private license since 2009. I have held a passion for aviation for over a decade however the true problem, even for those few that share my passion at my age, is the economic ability to become a pilot. Currently to be hired for any 121 carrier to my understanding, a pilot must possess 1500 hours to get in the right seat of a CRJ, only to make 25K a year. To pursue this career option which I hope to do in time, will require an additional 30K of investment, only to make (maybe) half of what I can make walking out the door as a first year engineer.
    This is the true crux of the industry, low payoffs for a large investment. The shortage is looming and it will be coming to the regionals first and foremost. As the average age of commercial pilots only rises, I can only speculate on what airlines will do to find qualified pilots. Many other foreign airlines have moved to ab-initio however I do not see that in the future for their US counterparts. Thus the question remains how to pursue a career in commercial aviation? The pipelines are drying up, pay will have to be raised as the investment cost only raises.
    As for the GA pilot side I would say it is slightly better. I do have a few friends who are private pilots as well, however they are few and far in between. In addition I would wager only ~10% want to move to a commercial career in aviation. Thus we will all see where aviation will move in the next 20 years, it will be interesting where the next generation of pilots comes from!
    -Drake

  17. Melvin Freedman Says:

    Drake, you see the situation very clearly. I just wanted to fly as a 12yrold in 1941.Raised my hand fr the AF Oct50(Korenwar) was able to get my first ride in an aeronca on base. I just wanted to fly. Opportunity fr fly lessons came in apr 1968,38yrs old. It was and still is The best thing I ever did. I did not think of it as transportation or fr making a career out of it. Just wanted to fly, & So.Nev. was the perfect place. Unfortunately I don’t think America FAA will allow you that pleasure anymore

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