Can Airports Help Revive the Aviation Industry?

By Robert Mark on May 4th, 2015

Can Airports Help Revive the Aviation Industry?

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I knew we had a lot of landing areas here in the United States … but 19,315 according to the FAA? Wow. That number is of course broken down into traditional airports, heliports, seaplane bases.

No matter what you call them or what they look like, they all have one thing in common. They represent a place where airplanes, helicopters and seaplanes come home to roost from time to time.

Some of those airports represent much more of an opportunity to me than simply as landing areas though.

The aviation industry is still suffering from an economic recession of sorts.

In the early 1980s, we produced 15,000 piston aircraft. Last year we produced 1,328. In the 1990s we had over 700,000 pilots on the FAA register. Today that numbers in the high 500,000s.

learntofly1Student pilot starts are down from the old days too with nearly 7 in 10 students quitting long before they ever earn a pilot certificate. Aircraft maintenance technician numbers have been flat since 1990, which equates to zero growth. Worst of all, 75% of the AMTs today are over the age of 50.

As an industry, our ship has been taking on water for sometime despite a number of conscientious initiatives to increase the pilot, mechanic and airplane supply, most of which haven’t moved the needle much.

If we don’t figure out a way to start bringing new blood into the industry soon, there won’t be enough people to fly the airplanes we build, or fix them, or service them at those thousands of U.S. airports.

The question is how to fix the problem we all know about, but that many people still seem to believe is someone else’s problem?

Rather than another national initiative, what if we focused our triage efforts locally … at our neighborhood airport? When people think of learning to fly, they go to the airport. If they want to buy a plane they often visit the airport first. When they need one fixed, or they want a hangar, they head to the airport.

This is where I think airport managers can help. Traditionally, they focus on keeping the airport alive with solid pavement, newly mown grass and runway lights that work … all very necessary tasks. But marketing the industry is not something airport people normally think about.

Arpt Looking SouthBut what if airport managers started thinking a bit more about marketing, I think they might just transform their airport into a local industry beacon of sorts, one that encourages people to learn to fly, or become involved in any of a half dozen other careers within the industry?

I’m not asking airport managers to fix the industry’s personnel woes all alone, just help coordinate local efforts with the airport tenants whose companies need the boost as much as the industry. Imagine organizing a couple of career days, or a Young Eagles Rally or two to stimulate interest.

What about an airport Facebook page or a blog to tell the local community about the value of the airport, one that regularly posts photos or stories gathered from airport tenants? Before you know it we might even convince the community around our airports to ignore those 8-foot barbed wire fences and stop in for a visit.

I think airport managers are up to the challenge of coordinating the local marketing efforts for our industry. We’ll talk more about the actual tactics in another episode too.

And for those naysayers who are already saying that will never work … tell me what you’d suggest instead because I haven’t seen much working lately.

If we don’t all start realizing that fixing what ails our industry is everyone’s concern … flight schools, FBOs, flying clubs, maintenance and avionics shops, trust me … we may one day find that the airport managers who are still around may have a lot fewer airports to watch over.

I’m Rob Mark. See you next time.

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4 Responses to “Can Airports Help Revive the Aviation Industry?”

  1. Brett Says:

    Rob,

    I truly appreciate your thoughts and comments on how Airport Managers can help promote the airport in the local community. I believe most airport managers do attempt to do what they can with what funds are available, with what staffing resources are available, and what our governing entities will allow us to undertake. After all it is in our best interest to promote all the good airports provide to the local community, being that most airport neighbors find airport noise to be a nuisance, and some airports have to compete for general funds to sustain operations. I have spoken about this for years, all of our efforts seem to be band-aids for the real problem: aircraft manufacturing and the purchase prices of an aircraft is too expensive. Everybody sighs when I tell them this; a standard four-seat aircraft (certified) should sell out-the-door around $70,000 and not $350,000. Who can afford $350,000? Really!! I cant, nor can the average American Citizen. This is why aircraft sales are dwindling and airports are dying. If the middle class could afford the purchase of a brand new aircraft, airports and flying related jobs would thrive. There wouldnt be an issue with filling mechanic or pilot positions. Aircraft manufacturing would thrive because the average American could make the decision of whether to buy and aircraft or a boat/time share/luxury automobile/(insert discretionary purchase here). The majority of our efforts should be aimed at legislation and incentives to drive the manufacturing costs down. Bring down the purchase price of an aircraft, every other cost will be driven lower.

  2. Pekka B. Says:

    I agree with you Rob. I didn’t know that the most of AMTs are over fifty. Hopefully we get more passionate young people to cover that soon!

  3. Tom C Says:

    Rob, Your comments and vision are of intense interest to me. They are great. Ever since 2008 when I flew coast to coast stopping at small airports, I’ve realized how poorly GA presents itself to the pilot and public almost everywhere. And I think your idea about Airport Mgt. taking a role in reversing the trend is valid. But, I seriously doubt that even a small percentage of the managers have the time, training or budget to be successful marketers to the degree that we need. Don’t get me wrong, if they can organize Young Eagles or career days, more power to them. And to Brett’s response, reducing costs would be great for everyone, bar none. But it’s not going to happen. For example, in a stunning moment of reverse capitalism, the price of fuel dropped from $6/gallon to $4/gallon, would that be a catalyst that bring people flocking? Hmmm. So if we can’t realistically cut the costs, we have to boost ourselves elsewhere. Today, I don’t think we have a strong value proposition to offer prospective, newly certificated, active, inactive or other participants.

    I think we have lost our value proposition. We can’t articulate in a national conversation the reasons why it’s great to fly and what you do with your privileges until you retire. The $100 hamburger is actually hurting us. Who in their right mind would enter a sport where the time/money investment nets you an expensive lunch?

    I believe we have to create incentives to flying. More specifically, we need to recognize the unique adventure flying offers, unique skills developed by pilots and, to battle the cost beast, help for the significant expenses. I call it all “Reasons to Go”. It’s a large scale marketing plan that identifies and offers the grand adventures enabled by flying, recognition of the status you have legally achieved to be a pilot (we are special!) and volume discounts for all kinds of services.

    I have twice spoken directly to AOPA’s Mark Baker about the role that AOPA can play. And I believe they are interested. I see AOPA as the leaders of this plan because they have two important ingredients: The website and the membership card many of us carry in our wallets. The website is the place where you find out about the incentives and the membership card is how you access the participating vendors and retailers. And AOPA are at the right level to be the thought leaders. It’s also where your airport managers can join in and make a difference. AOPA can create big incentive packages that help create the big adventure packages and discounts. But for most flyers, it will be more localized trips and adventures. Airport Managers can follow AOPA’s lead and create local to regional transactional opportunities. For example, I live in the Pacific Northwest. We have exotic islands to visit, a giant rainforest environment, wine country, lakes, streams and I could go on. They all have the airports you mentioned in your column. Wouldn’t it make sense for the airport manager in Everett, Wa.KPAE (where the B747, B777, B787 are built and visible to the public) to contact the airport manager in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho and talk about reciprocal offers they can create to send traffic to one another. The best part is, so far we haven’t spent a penny on this program. It’s all creativity and phone calls. If you’re with me so far, now take these incentive packages back to the conversation with the prospective student, inactive pilot or even active pilot and start talking about where he/she can take that flying machine and what value they will receive.
    My plan is to keep pointing AOPA in that direction. The most recent edition of AOPA pilot just arrived and lo and behold, Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief is soliciting ideas to help reverse the shrining pilot population. Gotta go. Thanks for listening.

  4. Jordan Says:

    Some great thoughts here on the future of the aviation industry. I do hope there’ll be incentive for more young people to get into it. Thanks for sharing your insight!

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