Friends, Forecasts & the Future of Aviation

By Scott Spangler on September 3rd, 2013

Most of my friends and acquaintances are, in some way or another, involved with aviation. Talking with them over the past months, the future of aviation seems to be the discourse destination of choice. On the whole, their outlook on aviation’s future isn’t good.

As might be expected, this consensus can lead to a semi-permanent state of depression. The best antidote I’ve so far found is Nate Silver’s excellent book, The Signal and The Noise: Why so many predictions fail—but some don’t. An infinitely complex subject, accuracy begins with the forecaster’s predictive personality, either a hedgehog or a fox.

These classifications were described by Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology and political science at UC-Berkeley who named them after the main characters in a story by Leo Tolstoy. To summarize their differences, the fox knows many little things from different sources, the hedgehog knows “one big thing.”

Most of my friends and acquaintances are, it seems, hedgehogs, that Silver accurately described as “Type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas.” A few, and I include myself in this category, are foxes, those who “believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem.”

All-in individuals, aviation’s hedgehogs predict doom for aviation’s future, especially GA, citing everything from the decades-long decline in the pilot population, the price of airplanes and fuel, and the time and effort it takes to become a pilot whether it is for pleasure or a profession. On these metrics, I agree that aviation will never return to its former glory of the 20th century, but the probability that it will cease to exist is unlikely.

Changes in demographic factors, led by shrinking median income and attention spans, easily account for the decline in the pilot population. But passion is an almost immeasurable factor, and for those whom aviation is their one true passion, they will make the sacrifices necessary to fly. If you want to know who these people are, walk up and down the lines of homebuilt airplanes at EAA AirVenture.

Also in this group are the aviators in the North 40, owners and pilots of store-bought airplanes. A straw poll of the people I met there revealed that they fly not only for fun, but in furtherance of their business, indications that they have the income—and tax deductions—to sustain flight. Related to this group are the business-only aircraft that serve corporations worldwide.

Drawing on a number of different economic, technology, and social indicators, the probability that commercial aviation will continue its 20th century ways seems increasingly slim. In less time than most people think, the number of pilots in a commercial cockpit will decline in number and then leave it all together for a command and control center.

The technology is there. As discussions of recent accidents have shown, pilots today are more into system management than sticks and rudders. With the new ATP requirements for first officers, and the shrinking pool of applicants, to meet the requirements, airlines must either pony up and pay for pilot training, or find a way to reduce the number of pilots in the cockpit.

Given the employment practices MBAs have pursued over the past three or so decades, and given the advances in technology, the latter solution seems more probable than the former. Supporting this are the growing number of university aviation programs that are creating drone degree programs. And there are 25 applicants from 25 states vying to become one of a half-dozen FAA approved drone test sites. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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7 Responses to “Friends, Forecasts & the Future of Aviation”

  1. Tom Aniello Says:

    Great post, Rob! This is a subject that is near and dear to me. Not just because I make my living in GA, but because I have had a lifelong personal frustration with not being able to participate in aviation in the way I would like.

    I agree with you that technology and basic business principles will solve the challenges that face commercial aviation. My concern is for those who desire to pursue an aviation lifestyle, but are somehow constrained from pursuing that passion beyond just watching an airshow from the ground.

    Money and time are certainly major factors in the decline of the pilot population. A multitude of other recreational choices that provide a thrill at a lower cost and with a shallow learning curve are also contributing factors.

    So the question is, how do we provide ways for people who have a passion for aviation to access it in more ways, more easily, and at lower price points? I believe the solution lies in a combination of community, bundling, and customer service.

    Community — we need to create a place where people can go at any time, any day of the week, in any weather, and be able to do something to scratch their aviation itch. Like a country club, but not in a pretentious way. It must offer activities for the entire family, and be a place where the family can spend an hour or an entire day.

    Bundling — So what do we have for people to do as part of this aviation community? Very few people can afford to fly all day. How about bringing together all of the diverse aviation related hobbies under one roof? Whether somebody comes in with 50 cents or 50 thousand dollars, there should be something they can do: build and fly kites, fly sailplanes, build and fly RC models, help someone with their homebuilt, wash planes, design a plane, have a burger with friends, compete in a paper airplane contest, take an aerobatic lesson, rent an aircraft, learn aerodynamics, listen to a guest lecturer…the ideas are endless, and many can be done at very little expense.

    Customer Service — I have met very few jerks in my 30 years in the aviation industry. It is a rare place where people are universally friendly and unpretentious. However, go to any GA airport and try to figure out how to get started. It’s hard, and it’s not just because of the useless TSA fences that sends the message to “Keep Out”. We are so friendly and welcoming that we just let visitors wander around without asking the simple question, “How can I help you today?” We fail to welcome and give guidance to the very people that we spend so much effort trying to get out to the airport.

    The general aviation community has much to offer people of all ages. It is an extremely rewarding and healthy lifestyle. We need to get ourselves organized and make it easy for people to join our tribe and stay engaged for a lifetime. I am not ready to throw in the GA towel yet, and I hope there are others who still believe in the dream.

  2. Joe Says:

    My predictions (not sure i’m a fox or a hedgehog – feels like i’m a little of both……)
    1. You will NEVER see airliners or Cargo transports pilotless. The pilot may not do any stick and rudder, but he or she will most certainly have a good view and a comfy seat to monitor and manage systems in concert with central command. But i do believe that single pilot ops will start showing up in the next 10 years. I’ve always wondered why the airliners most susceptible to pilots losing their skills – longer haul intercontinental and international flights, don’t have simulator systems that allow the plane to be on autopilot while the pilots fly approaches and practice emergencies on the sim? Seems like a win/win to me……how boring is a 9 hour flight LAX to FRA???
    2. GA is going to experience a renewal. An all JetA fleet (turbo diesels hybrids, turboprops), along with a growing and sizable all electric fleet for training, aerobatics and all short duration, field close activities, along with decades overdue revisions to PART 23, plus accelerating technology advancements, will usher in a new age of affordable flying, whether its for fun, adventure, or utility. All the technology exists today to reduce costs and complexity by 50% or more. The model T changed forever how people thought about owning a car, and its going to happen with GA, but not necessarily in owning, but in how personal flight will become more accessible to a much larger slice of the population. Its easy to imagine an all composite 182 sized diesel electric hybrid that weighs 30% less, burns 6 GPH, flys at 200 KTS for 4 hours in pressurized, quiet comfort at FL240 and stalls at 25 KTS. The avionics are 100% glass and triple redundant because they are apps that run on three iPad 7s dropped into hard wired cradles in the dash. You can fly direct almost anywhere within 500 miles easier, faster and cheaper than the airlines, in privacy and comfort impossible to deliver on CattleCall Airlines.
    Aerobatic clubs will become extremely popular – the adreline junkie crowd is going to keep growing, especially in the higher economic groups, and the only thing better than a thrilling activity is one that is also complex and challenging to master. With electric basic aerobats that cost a few bucks to operate per hour, The Aerobatic clubs will be the skate park for grown ups, and because all the planes will have chutes that can be remotely deployed by controller/safety guards, fatalities will be rare. And electric trainers will change everything, by making the hours needed for proficient piloting training more fun and and exciting than ever. Instructors will largely work from the ground after students solo so they can handle multiple students at a time, keeping the labor costs down as well, and sims will be a big part of the curriculum also.

    Don’t get down – get busy working with the visionaries out there to create the future. ITs all possible!

  3. Dietrich Fecht Says:

    I can support 100 % what Tom Aniello says in excellent words. What he says is proven working by 100s of flying- and aero-clubs in Europe and other parts of the world.

  4. Tom Aniello Says:

    Scott, I apologize for mistakenly giving credit for the original post to Rob Mark. I just now looked at the byline and saw you wrote it. Still a great piece! Tell Rob to get crackin’! ;-)

  5. Robert Mark Says:


    I agree with Scott … the commercial side of the flying biz will work itself out. Right now, there’s simply too much debt for too little ROI on their money for young pilots I fear.

    If the airlines don’t step up to the plate soon and realize they need to invest in their future cockpit employees somehow, then I guess they’ll simply shut down eh?

    Your other suggestions are good ones. One never-ending problem though is that too many pilots out there flying today are wishing and hoping that someone else gets busy and solves the flying problem.

    I meet quite a few who don’t seem to have any idea how little effort it might take on their part to encourage a comrade to take a demo flying lesson to see what they might be missing. Or talk to a kid who is interested in flying as a career.

    Then there are the airport managers who I believe are in the same boat. They don’t currently see a role for themselves in protecting the future of general aviation. Without little airplanes to teach folks how to fly big airplanes, a next generation of airport managers won’t have jobs either.

    In a sense we’re preaching to the choir here I know, but imagine if airport managers put up signs next to the ones that say keep out that say, “But you can still come in and experience flying at our airport. Call me at 847-644-1575 and I’ll tell you how.”

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s time to get everyone together for a conference … FAA, GAMA, AOPA, NATA, ALPA, AAAE, FSF, RAA and anyone else with even the most remote stake in aviation to look at the problem and figure out some next steps.

    The only caveat would be that no one can stand up and say “We don’t have the money for that right now.”

  6. jim denike Says:

    quoting Mark Twain, “the rumors of my demise have been highly exaggerated” could well be applied to GA.
    Notwithstanding all the whining, the expense of getting the basic tickets isn’t all that bad. In 1973, I could rent a Cherokee 140 for $17/hour wet and as an instructor I earned $8/hour when I flew. Adjusting for inflation, the house I could have bought for $30,000 is now selling for $300,000 and the car I did buy for $3k is now selling for $30K.
    Ergo, a tenfold price increase is not that far out of line for cost of aircraft rental. The big increase has been in the number of hours required to achieve the basic licenses. The 40 hour FAA minimum (35 hour for Part 141 schools) is a joke. Either our starved CFIs have been forced to milk the average Joe coming in the door or the industry has lost the ability to properly teach. Considering the advantages of computer simulation developed since the ’70’s, I suspect it’s near criminal not to have a person take his PPL at 55 hours max and below 50 hours as a median.
    It’s high time instructors were given the pay and recognition due the high risks – burnout included – that go with the job. Performance pay incentives based on success per hour of instruction might shift the advantage to the customer for a change.
    Methinks this is the perfect time for a young person to plan an aviation career. Just like in investing, the Theory of Contrary Opinion should be telling all potential candidates that when nearly everyone is one side of the story, you want to bet on the other. I still feel bad for discouraging some young pilot aspirants who couldn’t see all the negativity I was seeing in the time period when first Eastern and then PanAm folded up shop. Had they listened to my bad advice, they would have missed the hiring opportunities of the century.
    If you love to fly, bite the bullet, do it and wait for the good times to come again. They are out there and coming sooner than we all think.

  7. melvin Freedman Says:

    Hey, how about a 150 fr $12an hr and the instr got $8.00. By the way, I don’t really care if the airlines run out of pilots, its just a big old game with part 141 schools. I am fr the lone cfi who is able to teach one student and able have an acft at a reasonable price. Selling that commercial stuff is just a game. If you have the passion to learn to fly, and do it, you’ll never regret it.

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