Changing Aviation Interest & Participation

By Scott Spangler on November 10th, 2014

This past week the mailman delivered a reason to think about my unknown but rapidly approaching expiration date. Thanking me for my four decade membership tenure, EAA offered me a three-figure rebate if I bought a four-figure lifetime membership.

The numbers didn’t work out to my benefit. Weeks away from the conclusion of the first year of my seventh decade of repetitive breathing, I’ll count myself lucky if I’m still breathing 20 years from now. If that happens, family history suggests that something other than aviation will probably capture my daily interest.

And I’m okay with that. Thinking about it further, my aviation interest, which began in 1958 when I was 5, motivated me to participate, which I started in 1976 by earning my private ticket. Since then my participation, subject to more pressing priorities, has been less than continuous, but I’m thankful for every hour in my logbook.

As much as I’d like to add more entries in that log, to have at least one more adventure that involves a stick and rudder, I accept that this possibility diminishes with each day I breathe. And I’m okay with that, too. Preparing for my final days has taken precedence, but my interest in aviation, as it has since I was 5, will sustain me.

Of greater concern is the interest and participation of the generations that follow, and how aviation as an industry will adapt to their demographic nuances. If EAA’s rebate offer is any example, it will not fare well because the baby boomers in charge are making generation-centric decisions that are disconnected from the generations that are succeeding us.

Aviation as we know it today was created by what I think of as the Lindbergh Generation. Born in the 1920s, when aviation was a new and exciting adventure overflowing with promise and opportunity, their aviation icon was Lindbergh. After they won World War II, they pursued and lived their aviation dreams, and gave life to us, the boomers.

The pilot population and aircraft production peaked in the late 1970s and fell off a cliff in the 1980s. Yes, there were other factors involved, but one I have not heard discussed was the age of the Lindbergh Generation. Retirement was at their chronological doorstep, and having grown up during the  Depression, they understood the choices facing them.

One generation removed from Lindbergh, we Baby Boomers grew up during an exciting era in aerospace, and for many of us, Mercury astronauts were our childhood icons. Casting aside the delusions that 60 is the new 50, consider this: The baby boom began in 1946; it ended in 1964; and in 2014 those first boomers starting attending their 50th high school reunions.

Our kids are two generations removed from the worldwide aviation appeal of the Lindbergh era and one generation away from the nationwide appeal of the race to the moon. More importantly, they were born in an era when technology, not aviation, was the exciting new adventure. For them, one of its appealing  aspects is the ability to customize an “experience.”

Everything is a niche activity today, and that includes aviation. What interests each niche holds depends on how quickly and economically the members of Gen X, Y and, especially, the Millennial Generation, can embrace and master the fundamentals. In aviation, the winners here are simulators and, perhaps, drones, but not personal aviation as we know it.

Further defining today’s aviation niche is the economic shift that excludes too many participants. It began in the 1980s, when people bought into supply-side economics. All but a handful are still waiting for the promised rewards to trickle their way. As a result, the younger generations face the same economics choices that challenge retirees on fixed incomes.

There are no quick and easy solutions, but there are things we can do. First, we boomers must accept that aviation as we knew it is gone, and it will never regain its past glories. Next, we must seek out interested members of succeeding generations and sustain with our interest and, if among the lucky few, our participation.

Finally, we must accept that the cost of flying will only increase as the number of participants shrinks as this niche searches for equilibrium. Just as we must accept that supply side economics benefits the few rather than the many, we must realize that complaining about the cost of flying will not make it cheaper. The only solution seems to be supporting an economic policy, and the people who help make that happen, that will make flying affordable to almost anyone who wants to participate. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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