Is the General Aviation Industry Finally on an Upswing?

Over the past three decades, there’s been a steady decline in the number of U.S. pilots. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), there were 827,000 active, certificated pilots in 1980. By 2011, that number had dropped to just 617,000. During that same 30-year period, production of single-engine planes dropped from 14,000 per year to fewer than 700.

But for the past three years, AOPA has made understanding this declining trend and reversing it a top priority. AOPA actions include developing a network of flying clubs, and speaking out in Washington to help keep the rising cost and complexity of aviation under control.

Thankfully, 2013 numbers are indicating a positive upswing, based on data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s (GAMA) 2013 General Aviation Statistical Databook & 2014 Industry Outlook.

Here’s a look at what’s been causing the pilot and production decline, and good news from GAMA’s 2013/2014 aviation industry report.

What’s been causing the decline?

According to a Washington Post article posted February 9 titled, “Small aviation businesses say pilot shortage could drive industry into the ground,” there are a variety of factors that have contributed to the decline in pilots and production over the past decades, including rising fuel prices and heightened flying restrictions following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

One reason is that the recent economic downturn has left fewer people with discretionary income. Others place much of the blame on federal regulators, whom they accuse of making it too difficult for pilots to obtain and renew their licenses, which in turn hurts small aviation businesses and the aviation industry as a whole.

Many commercial pilots come from the GA pilot pool, and the global airline industry will need almost a half million new commercial airline pilots over the next 20 years, according to the Boeing Pilot and Technical Market Outlook for 2013-2032.

Good news from GAMA’s 2013/2014 industry report

Here are some positive numbers from GAMA’s annual statistical databook.

Airplane shipments and billings – In 2013, airplane shipments increased by 4.3 percent to 2,256 airplane deliveries, and billings increased 24 percent to $23.4 billion across all airplane types. This is the second-highest industry billing number ever recorded-the industry’s peak billings occurred in 2008 at $24.8 billion.

Business jets – After slowing the past four years, the business jet market stabilized in 2013. There were 678 business jets delivered in 2013, up from 672 in 2012. Several new models and increasing demand helped stabilize the market and increase deliveries.

North American market share rose to 52.4 percent from 49.7 percent in 2012. Europe’s market share declined, however, from 20.8 percent in 2012 to 15.6 percent in 2013. Customer deliveries included 11.9 percent to customers in the Asia-Pacific region, 11.1 percent to Latin America, and 9.0 percent to the Middle East and Africa.

Turboprops – Turbo-propeller plane shipments also grew in 2013, increasing to 645 shipments from 584 shipments in 2012, a 10.4 percent increase. Shipments of agricultural turboprops, which GAMA began tracking in 2011, remained strong. Traditional single- and twin-engine turboprop shipments provided year-over-year increases in unit deliveries. North American customers took 57.1 percent of turboprop airplane deliveries in 2013, up from 48.6 percent in 2012. The Asia Pacific region took the second-largest market share at 14 percent, followed by Latin American at 13.2 percent. European customers took delivery of 10.5 percent, and the Middle East and Africa accounted for 5.3 percent.

Turbine helicopters – The turbine helicopter segment provided positive delivery performance in 2013 based on analysis of equivalent companies from 2012. GAMA identified 782 turbine helicopter shipments in 2013, which is an increase of 9.2 percent compared to the prior year for the same reporting companies. In this year’s databook, GAMA has expanded the available historical data about helicopter shipments with select information from 1999 through 2013.

Piston airplane and helicopter deliveries – Feedback from airplane and helicopter manufacturers indicates that global demand from flight schools is contributing to year-over-year growth. Piston airplane deliveries totaled 933 shipments in 2013, up from 908 shipments in 2012, a 2.8 percent increase. North America ordered 52.8 percent of piston engine airplanes, Europe 17.2 percent, followed by the Asia-Pacific region at 15.1 percent, Latin America at 10 percent, and the Middle East and Africa at 5 percent of shipments. In 2013, the general aviation industry delivered 335 piston-powered helicopters, which was a slight increase from the 328 units delivered in 2012.

Turbine operators – According to JETNET, LLC, the fractional fleet of turbine operators fell to 869 aircraft in 2013, decreasing each year since 2008, the year it peaked at 1,094 aircraft. There were 4,365 fractional owners in 2013, which is also down compared to five years ago, when there were 5,179 owners. The worldwide turbine airplane fleet included 33,861 airplanes in 2013 and an additional 19,509 turbine helicopters.

Pilot population falling – The active U.S. pilot population continues to fall. The private pilot population has declined since the early 1980s, when it peaked at 357,479 pilots, and in recent years has lost between 5,000 and 10,000 active pilots each year. There were only 180,214 private pilots at the end of 2013, and a total of 599,086 total active pilots in the U.S. in 2013. One bright spot: 40,621, or 6.78 percent, were female-the highest ratio of female aviators on record.

Signs safety is improving – A welcome decrease: The FAA’s preliminary data about general aviation safety shows there were approximately 216 fatal accidents during the year, a double-digit decline in the number of fatal general aviation accidents during 2013. While data is preliminary, the FAA’s goal of reducing the GA fatal accident rate to one fatal accident per 100,000 hours flown may be possible to achieve by 2018.

GAMA also includes GA safety data developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for 2006 through 2012. EASA statistics from 2012 also show a decline in the total number of accidents and the number of fatal accidents.

References:

http://www.aopa.org/Community-and-Events/Center-to-Advance-the-Pilot-Community

http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/on-small-business/small-aviation-businesses-say-pilot-shortage-could-drive-industry-into-the-ground/2014/02/08/2422cadc-8f5c-11e3-b46a-5a3d0d2130da_story.html