The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association today disputed the FAA's forecasted decline in the number of student pilots. AOPA contends student pilots will increase some 16 to 20 percent in the next five years. Speaking before the 10th FAA General Aviation Forecast Conference in Wichita, Kansas, AOPA President Phil Boyer said that the FAA's projections were based on bad assumptions and internal system errors.
"Student pilots are the key to the general aviation industry," Boyer said. "Everything is driven by the number of students. That number is the leading indicator for everything from hours flown to new and used aircraft sales.
"Business leaders make decisions based on the student number forecast," Boyer continued. "If the FAA thinks the future is bleak, the industry may not make the investments that would help GA grow."
The FAA predicts that the number of student pilots will decline by 4.5 percent in 2002 and by an additional 1.2 percent in 2003 and projects that the number of students in the year 2013 will be less than the number recorded in 2000.
Yet the FAA also predicts that the total number of pilots will actually increase during the forecast period. "How in the world can you get an increase in private, commercial, and ATPs without new students coming into the system?" Boyer asked. History shows that when there is a decline in the number of student pilots, there is a corresponding decline in the number of private and commercial certificates held, he said.
But Boyer said that the FAA has historically been wrong when projecting the number of student pilots, and this year's dismal forecast will prove to be wrong as well. "According to our analysis, the FAA underestimated the number of students for 2002 by more than 13 percent and missed the mark for 2006 by 20 percent." In the first three months of 2002 alone, there have been more new students start pilot training than in the first quarter of last year.
"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's estimated that the FAA underreported the total 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 most important, because that in turn drives everything else," Boyer said. "For heaven's sake, let's get it right!"
The 380,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. Some two thirds of all U.S. pilots are AOPA members.
[See also: A PowerPoint presentation is available online.]