We have a major problem brewing in the GA aviation sector: we are going to run out of planes.
Through the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s, aircraft manufacturers pumped out thousands of aircraft that the general aviation flying public bought and flew for personal and business activities. These weren’t big jet aircraft that corporations used as time machines to do more business, they were two to six seat planes the average pilot with a private pilot certificate or even the added instrument rating could fly with family, friends, and business partners to the thousands of airports around the country. These airports haven’t gone away, but the planes are going away.
Each year these aircraft get older and more of them get scrapped for any number of reasons ranging from engines passing beyond recommended overhaul times that cost more to overhaul or replace than the aircraft total value, accidents and incidents making aircraft unrecoverable, or owners passing away and leaving aircraft to estates that sit degrading in a forgotten hangar somewhere until they are no longer worth returning to service.
One solution that the GA industry has employed to keep the “average guy flying is overhauling and refurbishing aircraft. Overhauling, rebuilding, and refurbishing aircraft is nothing new, although there are current efforts in the aviation industry by many big players that might lead you to think it is. It is really just a new marketing effort wrapped around an old practice of keeping our old aircraft flying.
Just refurbishing a few old ones isn’t going to be a long term solution, it is just a temporary stop-gap. The reality is that at some point, there is a practical, and cost effective, life limit on older aircraft. And for aircraft that are 30, 40, or 50 years old, that time is starting to arrive.
As these aircraft are weeded out of our system, we hit another hiccup in the supply chain of aircraft equipment. In the mid-1980’s manufacturers experienced increasing liability claims on products produced over time, essentially allowing unlimited liability limits for aircraft manufacturers. The concern was further exasperated when many manufacturers found that their insurance liability underwriters stopped offering them product liability insurance. The result? Most of them stopped producing aircraft.
This suspension of production of essential aircraft continued for a decade until liability limits on manufacturers were changed to 18 years in the 1994 General Aviation Revitalization Act.
This decade lapse in production rates leaves us with a very large gap in the used aircraft market that will be felt when GA owners go seeking aircraft from the used market that are affordable, but don’t want to resort to aircraft that are 60 or 70 years old in the upcoming years.
Add to this gap in the market the fact that when production did restart for some manufacturers in the mid ‘90’s, it was at a much reduced rate. The “used aircraft market” that has developed from aircraft produced from the ‘90’s and 2000’s is a significantly reduced total number of aircraft than existed from previous decades. It would the equivalent of Ford or GM going from producing a million cars a year to 100,000 and telling the general public, sorry, we can only provide 10% of the cars everyone used to buy. It is a market constriction of available equipment.
Cost is a major factor in this discussion. With production rates down, the cost per aircraft is up. Henry Ford figured this out a long time ago, more and efficient production in higher numbers lowers the cost per product completed. There has been no Henry Ford of GA aircraft yet.
There were hopes in recent years that LSA aircraft would be the solution, but prices per aircraft climbed, major efforts like the Cessna Skycatcher failed, and numerous smaller manufacturers either failed to produce the numbers of flat out failed as companies.
Traditional manufacturers have continued limited productions of aircraft such as the Cessna 172 and Piper Archer, but most of these are acquired by providers of flight training and are now only produced on a order-ahead basis. Manufacturers have avoided producing aircraft for which no order is already accepted. These aircraft are not entering the GA personal flyer market in any really effective numbers. It is also worth noting that many manufacturers are just gone from the market place.
There are modern aircraft being built, and they are fantastic! Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond and Piper are notably building extremely capable aircraft such as the Corvalis, SR22T, DA52, and Malibu family of aircraft. But most of these are commanding (and deservedly) prices well above $600,000. This puts them out of the purchase range of the average buyer. These aircraft are the BMWs and Ferraris of the GA market; we need the aircraft equivalent of the Ford Escort.
Even if we consider the total numbers of aircraft such as the Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, Mooney, and Piper along with a few other that enter the system now, it is at a rate that is anemic compared to the decades of the ‘60’s and ‘70s.
Enter the well-intentioned efforts those that are re-imagining old aircraft with new engines, updated modern avionics, fresh interiors, and spiffy new paint jobs.
Our industry has lauded these efforts and promoted them in all of the major aviation publications without consideration for how limited the numbers of these really are, or the fact that even a fresh refurb will still fade in a few years. How many times can we really do this to older aircraft before they actually reach the end of their life cycle, or the cost effectiveness of bringing back to life one more Cessna 152, Piper Cherokee, or Beechcraft Bonanza from the 1970’s? Eventually the math becomes prohibitive.
This is a needed effort, don’t get me wrong. Primarily because we have no other options right now. Something is better than nothing, but I consider it a stop-gap until, and if, we can come up with a better long term solution.
The flow of aircraft available to the GA buyer and operator is something that is going to affect the entire aviation community. Fewer aircraft being operated at the GA level means less business for FBOs that sell fuel, less business for maintenance providers, and dare I say it, less overall need for many of the airports that are only used by GA aircraft around the country. If these things stop being needed, they will go away, further reducing our aviation infrastructure. I know this may seem like an overly dire prediction, but the math may prove this out in the long run.
We can cobble together a few refurbed or refreshed aircraft for a while, but at some point we are also going to run out of aircraft that are good candidates for refurb. We will also wear out even these newly freshened ones. To keep GA from contracting or, dare I say, in order to grow it, at some point we are going to need to produce aircraft in larger numbers again.
Some of the hurdles that manufacturers have faced are changing. Liability limits changed in the ‘90’s, and we are now seeing changes in what avionics can be put in GA aircraft and an effort to make certification efforts easier with the FAR Part 23 rewrite. As these dynamics change, I am hopeful that we will find an industrious and forward looking company or patron take the leap of faith for our industry and make the GA aircraft of the future.
We may need a Henry Ford of General Aviation to again flood our industry with affordable, effective, and safe GA aircraft so we don’t have to keep piecing together old equipment.