General Aviation Continues to Fly

by Alan Klapmeier

To the charge that I am an "airplane nut" how do I plead? Guilty, your honor.

As with most of us, and all of Jim's guest bloggers, our choices and passions give us a particular view on issues. For me these issues include not just aviation, but also the relationships between productivity and the economy (more later), the economy and business, and business and integrity.

I can't remember a time when I was not interested in aviation. I have spent most of my life educating myself about, building and flying airplanes. My office is full of airplane models and my bookshelves are filled with aviation books (with a particular tilt towards Spitfires and the Battle of Britain). I travel by personal aircraft, whether for business or pleasure, averaging over 500 hours of flying per year. Yes, I live and breathe aviation--it is one of my passions.

Do you remember the dreams of flying, and the feeling of freedom that you had as a child, and the ability to look out over the landscape and know what's beyond the horizon? I think there is something inherent in all of us that drives us to desire freedom. Flying is a manifestation of that desire.

But of course flying is more than just a dream.

So let's start with this question: Why don't more people fly? Sure, they may not find it as consuming as I do, but I believe that many would find it valuable, given the opportunity to experience it the way I do. Unlike some in aviation, I'm okay with people learning to fly and participating in this industry only because they need to travel, not because it is their passion. Besides, that's an easier economic justification than trying to quantify joy, and I expect that those who enter into flying for economic reasons will ultimately fall in love with it anyway.

There are many reasons to learn to fly. However, today I will focus on the value of flying for transportation rather than the enjoyment of flying. It's not that enjoyment is any less compelling; it's just that it requires a better writer than I to properly communicate the joy of flying. For your consideration let me suggest the writings of Richard Bach or Lane Wallace.

As a practical point, flying can be a solution to the problem of transportation.

I suspect that one of the reasons more people don't make more use of general aviation is that they don't understand what it is like today. For example, Friday afternoon I was chipping ice in northern Minnesota (a brief warm spell had caused just enough of the snow to melt to create a layer of ice on driveways, roofs and in front of the barn). Unfortunately, this meant I was several hours late in leaving for a trip. I needed to be in Maine to participate in a presentation on Saturday. The flexibility provided by my small airplane meant that the flight didn't leave without me that morning as originally scheduled. I didn't lose my bags along the way. I didn't have to spend day and night driving after missing the flight. And most importantly--I didn't miss the meeting.

It took me just under four hours to fly from northern Minnesota to Portland, ME, that afternoon. Portland to D.C. on Sunday night was three hours. Late Tuesday night, with the flexibility of staying two hours past my original deadline, we flew to Savannah. Melbourne, FL, was another two hours Wednesday morning. A quick flight over and back to Bartow that afternoon, and an evening flight from Melbourne to Venice, FL, to meet my wife at her sister's house concluded a day of travel that would not have been possible by any other form of transportation. Today we came back to Duluth, MN, after one stop for fuel. Total time in the air was just over seven hours. House-to-house could not have been done faster by airline even though I was "only" flying my Cirrus with headwinds for half the trip.

From just a transportation point of view, general aviation trips like this example represent tremendous flexibility and efficiency.

In today's hectic world, flexible transportation is ever more important. GA aircraft allow you to get more places to get more done. It also makes it easier to bring the extra people that may be necessary to get more out of a meeting at virtually no increased cost. Getting more done with less (the definition of improving productivity) is one of the key ingredients to improving your economic situation.

General aviation is an economic engine. For many reasons, that engine is relatively misunderstood and often misjudged. Most industries took a beating through this recent recession. Not many took the economic beating and were so widely criticized as GA. Real estate has suffered by any metric. The boating industry has been devastated. But neither has been held up as an example of corporate and individual excess like general aviation.

This past Tuesday, the General Aviation Manufacturer Association (GAMA), an industry trade group, announced the 2010 aircraft shipments. In spite of the recession, the numbers are still impressive. Just over 2,000 new aircraft were delivered world wide with a value of $19.7 billion. The U.S. value was $7.9 billion with over 61% being exported. That means jobs and positive balance of trade impact.

Pretty good numbers, but they still do not compare well with 2007, for example. In 2007 the industry delivered over 4,000 airplanes worth $21.8 billion. Several segments of the industry showed disproportionate losses from 2007 to 2010. For example, single-engine piston aircraft deliveries fell from 2097 to 679--a drop of 66%!

But these are only first-level economics--the direct sales numbers. Behind these are what economists would call the "multiplier effect" numbers. These are true for any industry. A customer buys a product. A business hires someone to make the product. Then the employee uses his income (the customer money) to buy a car. He is the new customer that pays someone else's salary. Basic economics, but a truly powerful concept.

I believe that with general aviation there is an expanded multiplier effect since the use of the product can so greatly leverage productivity. In a world of digging ditches with shovels, airplanes are the equivalent of a CAT 390 excavator (yeah, 198,000 pounds!).

The most precious of our scarce resources is time. We only have a certain number of years on this earth. General aviation is one way to leverage that time. It is the multiplier.

In Jim's book Free Flight (shown on the column to the right), he describes a future for aviation that is bright. This future is based on new technology that makes flying easier and more comfortable and more reliable and safer and....

So how are we doing towards achieving those goals? I think pretty well.

As one of the entrepreneurs described in the book, I'm often asked about Jim's description of the future general aviation. While we haven't seen the volume yet, the air taxi industry is still in its infancy, and the FAA's and NASA's goal for a new air traffic control system (called NextGen) is still in the planning phase, I believe we are clearly on the path to that future. One of Jim's earlier guest bloggers was Bruce Holmes, also part of the book, who can detail for you the continued efforts towards a smarter, more productive air transportation system.

It is not quite the same path we envisioned 15 years ago, but the same destination is still in sight.

Much of the technology we were talking about then is now common equipment. Of course, GPS drives the navigation systems, displayed on large screens for clear presentation to the pilot.  Aircraft traffic, weather, airspace borders, and your flight path are all easily displayed and easily understood by the pilot.  For a simple analogy think about the difference between watching a weather forecast on TV vs. listening to a description on the radio.

In today's modern GA aircraft what we have is a transportation tool that delivers higher performance with lower workload. The performance/workload improvement is true from small training aircraft up to the most sophisticated business jets.

While some people may disagree with me, new general aviation airplanes are easier to fly.

What has not changed is the requirement for the pilot to exercise proper judgment. There are some weather systems you cannot fly through. There some things an airplane cannot do. And of course, any uncontrolled contact with the ground will not have a happy ending.

But what we do have, as described in Jim's book, is an emerging set of technologies and tools that will make GA more accessible and a better value. The industry is still trying to implement the tools. The industry is still trying to reduce barriers to entry. The industry is still trying to educate the public about the positive (essential?) economic impact of general aviation. That is the bright future of Free Flight. 

And then, everyone will love aviation and live happily ever after.

So, again, guilty as charged.

Alan Klapmeier is founder of Cirrus Design Corp co-founder and CEO of Kestrel Aircraft.