What killed general aviation for the masses?

Paul Bertorelli has written a thought provoking post for the AVwebinsider blog about the general aviation recession and how Wonder Bread is to blame for it. In case you do not see the connection between the two, Paul’s point is simple: Wonder Bread was invented as a mass produced version of bread that ultimately did to the local bakery shop what China (along with technology and productivity gains) has done to the consumer electronics and many other industries for that matter. In other words, a far cheaper product that could be mass produced became available and this product gutted the competition (along with everyone’s wages).

Paul then noted that in general aviation, there was a time when a “small contractor, a garage owner or a school teacher” could actually own and fly an airplane (I can attest to this as my father used to fly as a hobby into the early 1980s). During that time, the middle class also had more disposable income but today this class of owner and buyer is largely priced out of the market due to stagnant wages and escalating aircraft costs. In fact, Paul pointed out that:

When I got active in flying again in 1975, the local Cessna Pilot Center rented a 172 for $16 an hour, wet. Run that through an inflation calculator and it’s the equivalent of $63 today. Now it may be possible to find a 172 somewhere near that rate, but it’s more likely to be $135 to $150. Paradoxically, the flightschool or FBO may barely make money even at that rate.

One reason for this is the high cost of new aircraft. In 1975, a Cessna 172M cost about $25,000 or $98,000 in today’s dollars. Yet a new Skyhawk costs two and half times that or about $270,000. The LSA market has chopped the high peak price off certified aircraft, but at $130,000 typically, they’re hardly cheap. Rental rates are in the $100 range, wet.

Paul then commented that while its easy to blame the aircraft industry, he has been to plenty of airplane factories and he can’t see how they could “achieve efficiencies sufficient to lower prices substantially while remaining in business.” Paul’s partial solution (besides somehow addressing the trends impacting the economy as a whole) is to have multi-member partnerships. In other words, its cheaper for four pilots to own and operate an aircraft than one pilot.

Since Paul’s post as already attracted a large number of comments from readers about the costs of owning and operating aircraft, we would also love to hear your opinions as to how general aviation can once again be made affordable to greater numbers of would-be pilots.


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