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From the editor: Face-to-face versus Zooming

Private aviation bounces back

Back in the ancient, shrouded mists of time—say, 20 years ago—when computer technology went mainstream and smartphones came on the scene, an idea gained traction. It asserted that new communications software would obviate the need for vital person-to-person contact.

By extension, that meant less flying, especially for business purposes. Why buy or fly an airplane—especially a turbine—to meet business and other contacts face to face, when early iterations of what would evolve into today’s Skype, Zoom, Teams, or Webex would suffice? Teleconferencing could crush private aviation.

A test of that theory came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, there was a lot of Zooming and Skyping in the interest of safe distancing. But did sales plunge, and did tumbleweeds cover runways?

In March 2020, the answer to both those questions was “yes.” It was early in the pandemic, there were restrictions, the mood was tense and confused, and vaccines were a long way off. Working from home became the new normal. Airline flights dropped 90 percent below 2019 levels, as did general aviation IFR flying—a rough proxy for private and corporate turbine flying.

“But then general aviation flying bounced back, rising to 80 percent of 2019 levels by the summer of 2020,” said industry analyst Brian Foley. “But airline flying lagged, reaching only 50 percent of 2019’s levels.” And there it has stayed, whereas general aviation IFR flights have rebounded to today’s 90 percent of pre-pandemic activity levels.

As for pre-owned turbine sales, transactions rose through 2020, peaking in December of last year. Sales of new turbines, however, have remained sluggish. For 2020, there were 443 new turboprop sales, down 15.6 percent from 2019’s 525 airplanes. Jet sales in 2020 reached 644 airplanes, down 20.4 percent from 2019’s level of 809 deliveries.

Foley thinks that used sales in 2020 reflect demand from buyers new to turbine ownership. They want what the airlines didn’t deliver: the convenience of flying on their own schedules, and better social distancing. “People new to aviation often can’t afford to buy new, so they’re drawn to the used market,” he said.

Bottom line: The industry is poised for a recovery,  and the first sign will come in the new turboprop  and jet categories.This drove used prices up in 2020, and shrank the available supply of used aircraft as they were snapped up. Now their prices levels are making new airplanes attractive options. Bottom line: The industry is poised for a recovery, and the first sign will come in the new turboprop and jet categories. As lockdowns ease overseas, new long-range, large cabin jets will be the beneficiaries.

Suppressed demand promises record levels in 2021 as more people are vaccinated and things return to a “new normal.” Part of that will involve more flying and more person-to-person contact, but I’m not alone in thinking that telecommuting and the Zoom lifestyle will retain enduring footholds.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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