Special Report

The State of General Aviation

June 1, 2005

Seeking answers among conflicting signals

Flying over early summer's lush green hills and valleys and viewing the world from our aerial perch, we may feel insulated from the vagaries of the stock market, the status of the federal budget deficit, the whims of the aviation security agencies, and the health of the general aviation industry. But we're not. Truth be told those influences and more impact our flying in innumerable ways.

If the stock market sneezes (and you'd think it has allergies these days) every manufacturer expects the worst. Several general aviation manufacturers have teetered on the brink of bankruptcy because of economic uncertainties. Numerous seemingly viable models have been left orphans because investors were uncertain the market would rebound. Yet other manufacturers can't build enough airplanes, can't find enough employees, and can't pump out new models fast enough to meet demand — frustrating customers.

Some say the FAA is bloated with capacity and old technology. Yet manufacturers attempting to certify airplanes can't seem to get assistance when they need it because of supposed understaffing. Members of Congress and staff at the FAA seem to be suggesting that user fees might just be the solution. AOPA and others believe there are better ways to solve funding issues. Airports, the lifeblood of aviation, are under fire everywhere.

Meanwhile, the aviation accident rate has declined to record-low levels and stunning avionics technology is revolutionizing our cockpits in ways that we only dreamed of a decade ago. Will datalink weather, whole-airplane parachutes, and new air-bag options further improve general aviation safety?

What's with these very-light jets — a flash in the pan or a paradigm shift? At the other end of the scale, the new FAA Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft initiative promises new options for those who want to experience flight at little more than treetop level.

Given these conflicting messages and changing times, just what is the state of general aviation?

To find out, we sent our experienced team of editors out to get answers to some of these questions and more. Through dozens of interviews with executives at general aviation companies, members of Congress, the FAA administrator, and pilots everywhere, we attempt to bring some sense to what's happening around us. We hope you find this special report interesting and useful as you contemplate your place in this fragile community we call general aviation. — Thomas B. Haines