AOPA President Phil Boyer this morning disputed the FAA's forecasted decline in the number of student pilots. Speaking before the 10th FAA General Aviation Forecast Conference in Wichita, Kansas, Boyer said students would actually increase some 16 to 20 percent over the next five years. He said that bad numbers from the FAA, which were based on bad assumptions and system errors, could drag the GA industry down. [See also: Boyer's presentation (MSIE 4.0 or higher).]
"Student starts are the key to the general aviation industry," said Phil Boyer. "Everything is driven by the number of students. That number is the leading indicator for everything from fuel sales to new and used aircraft sales.
"Business leaders make decisions based on the student number forecast," Boyer continued. "If the FAA is wrongly pessimistic about the future, it can negatively affect industry decisions. A wrong forecast will hinder, not help, the general aviation industry's economic recovery."
The FAA foresees declines in the number of new student pilots continuing through 2005 before beginning a slow turnaround. AOPA said the FAA's analysis was faulty.
"The FAA pilot population forecast is based on erroneous assumptions," said Tim Pennington, AOPA manager of statistics and analytics. "After extensive review of the data, we determined that the total number of student certificates held has been understated for the last two years." AOPA has estimated that the FAA underreported the number of student pilots by some 13 percent.
The underreporting was due, in part, to a system change implemented in late 1999. A switch to an electronic-based reporting system, plus a change in reporting responsibilities within FAA offices, generated a large number of "orphan" records. These orphan records were student pilots who didn't get counted.
And the FAA apparently projected this inaccurate data into the future, forecasting a continuing decline in student pilot numbers.
But when the orphan records are counted, the number of students actually increased marginally in 2000 and 2001. Using accurate historical numbers, AOPA projected that there will be 96,000 student pilots in 2002 (instead of the FAA forecast of 83,000). And by 2006, AOPA projected there will be 104,000 student pilots, while the FAA predicted only 250 would be added to the total.
"Accurate projection of the number of student pilots is the most important, because that in turn drives everything else," Boyer said. "For the health of the general aviation industry, we must get these numbers right."