New pilots key to future of aviation

February 17, 2011

As government and industry leaders discussed how to meet future challenges through innovation at the FAA Aviation Forecast Conference Feb. 15 and 16, AOPA zeroed in on a human factor: What’s aviation without pilots?

The FAA released its 20-year forecast during the conference, projecting slow growth of general aviation flight hours through 2031. During a breakout session on GA, AOPA Director of Flight Training Initiatives Jennifer Storm outlined AOPA’s plans to help ensure a brighter future. Storm explained how the association is building on findings from a 2010 study of the flight training experience to address high student pilot attrition rates and grow the ranks of pilots.

While the FAA predicted during the conference that commercial air traffic will more than double in the next 20 years, the outlook for GA was more conservative: The FAA Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2011-2031 predicted that GA hours flown will increase from 24.1 million in 2010 to 37.8 million in 2031, an average annual growth rate of 2.2 percent a year. It predicted that fixed-wing piston aircraft hours flown will grow at a rate of 0.7 percent per year. The fixed-wing piston aircraft fleet was predicted to grow at a rate of only 0.2 percent per year.

General Aviation Manufacturers Association Vice President of Operations Jens Hennig moderated the panel that included Storm; Rolland Vincent, president of Rolland Vincent Associates LLC; Mike Chase, president of Chase & Associates; and Peg Krecker of Tetra Tech. The group discussed flight training, forecasts for the new and pre-owned business aircraft markets, and how the new aircraft re-registration rule will impact the annual General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey.

The FAA issued about 15,000 private pilot certificates in 2010, 64 percent fewer than in 1990, Storm noted. Because the 70- to 80-percent dropout rate is a key factor in that decline AOPA launched the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative, a long-term, industry-wide effort designed to focus on helping those who have already started training to earn a certificate.

The association’s Let's Go Flying program is still building awareness of learning to fly and serving as a resource for prospective pilots, and now this initiative complements Flight Training magazine and its website in serving the student pilot audience. To kick off the initiative, AOPA hired an independent research firm to get a deeper, more objective view of the flight training experience: what students expect and whether or not the industry is meeting those expectations. Storm shared an overview of the results of the study; the full report is available on AOPA Online.

Armed with information about where the industry falls short of student expectations, AOPA’s next steps include regional meetings with flight training providers, a scholarship program that will launch in the summer, and new online tools to help support student pilots that will go live in the fall. Schedules and other details will be posted on the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative Web page as they are available.