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GA industry experts offer upbeat assessment at AOPA Expo 2002 general sessionGA industry experts offer upbeat assessment at AOPA Expo 2002 general session

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Phil Boyer, Drew Steketee, Alan Klapmeier, Paula Derks, and Russ Meyer

General aviation is in better shape today than anyone could have imagined in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, according to four top industry leaders. Drew Steketee, president of Be A Pilot, Cirrus Design president Alan Klapmeier, Paula Derks, president of the Aircraft Electronics Association, and Russ Meyer, chairman and chief executive officer of the Cessna Aircraft Company, joined AOPA President Phil Boyer on the stage for the second general session of AOPA Expo 2002, and offered a generally optimistic assessment of where the industry is 409 days after the September 11 attacks.

Drew Steketee told the standing-room-only crowd that despite the attacks of last September, more people are taking flight training than a year ago. They have disproved a gloomy GA forecast by the FAA this past spring. The total number of student pilots has already reached a level the FAA said would not occur until the year 2012.

A large part of that is due to the Be A Pilot program, which offers $49 introductory flights at hundreds of flight schools across the United States and Canada. Be A Pilot's Web site and print and television advertising have generated thousands of requests for the introductory flight certificates, and two thirds of those who take the introductory flight go on to begin flight training.

"We face problems, but we also have tremendous opportunities," Cirrus Design's Alan Klapmeier told the gathering. He spoke enthusiastically about general aviation, and its potential for growth. He told the audience that each pilot can help GA tremendously, simply by taking friends and neighbors up and introducing them to the thrill of flying.

"Aviation is a life-changing experience," said Klapmeier, "and one of the hardest things for us to do is make our non-flying friends understand. One of the concerns I hear most often is 'what if we get lost?' With GPS and moving maps, now I can point to the little plane on the screen and say, 'See that? That's us. We're not lost.' And they say 'I can do that!' That's what we've got to do...get more people to say 'I can do that!'"

Paula Derks of the Aircraft Electronics Association backed Klapmeier's assertion that advances in avionics are making the GA cockpit more and more accessible. "More and more, avionics manufacturers are able to offer technology to GA pilots that previously had only been available in airliners and high-end corporate aircraft," Derks told the assembled pilots.

Russ Meyer of Cessna concluded the morning, saying he sees the light at the end of the tunnel for the current economic hard times. He said Cessna expects sales to improve in 2004, thanks largely to its business jets, including the recently announced CJ-3 and Mustang. According to Meyer, the recent surge in small jets, such as Cessna's Mustang, the Eclipse E-500, and the just-announced Adam A-700, is helping to generate interest and a create a new market for aircraft manufacturers.

The four made clear that while the tough times may not be over yet, things are not nearly as dire as many feared right after the September 11 attacks. All four emphasized that there are strong reasons to be optimistic about the future of general aviation.

With some 387,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest civil aviation organization, working to protect the interests of general aviation. Nearly two thirds of all U.S. pilots are members of AOPA.

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