Cessna boss Jack Pelton told the Washington Aero Club this week that his company is now half the size it was two years ago both in terms of jet sales and employees. But Jack also said that business had stopped getting worse, cancellations of orders for new airplanes had slowed, new orders were gradually coming in and total flying hours are on the increase. The worst is over for Cessna and business aviation. He expects recovery to be slow but in a few years jet sales could match or exceed the record levels of 2008.
However, Pelton sees three issues that challenge the long-term health of business and general aviation and as of now, there are no specific solutions. The triple threat that keeps Jack awake at night is the continuing decline in training of new pilots; the unknown and unpredictable environmental demands to come; and FAA's implementation of its NextGen air traffic control system.
The FAA forecasts that by next year there will be fewer than 69,000 student pilots in the U.S. That is down about 30 percent in the past 10 years, and is barely a third of the record levels of student pilots flying in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And less than half of all student pilots continue on to earn a private or other pilot license. Nobody, including Cessna and Pelton, have a comprehensive answer to the decline in the number of people who want to learn to fly, but Cessna is trying. The new Cessna 162 SkyCatcher light sport airplane costs just over one third as much as a typically equipped new Cessna 172 Skyhawk so flight training costs in new airplanes can be cut dramatically. Cessna also supports through its Cessna Pilot Centers the Sport Pilot License which can give a person broad daylight VFR privileges for a fraction of the time and cost of a full private license.
The bottom line is that without a supply of new pilots all of aviation can wither starting with general aviation. But even corporate and airline flying needs new pilots and general aviation is the source, not the military.
Pelton's worry about future environmental regulation is made worse because the situation is so unpredictable. Already various forms of "carbon taxes" are imposed by many countries and they could spread. Pelton pointed out that all of aviation is concerned about the environment but the even more urgent demands for more range, speed and payload have goaded airplane and engine designers to make continuous improvements in efficiency. The turbine fleet is burning a third less fuel compared to only a few years ago and every new design brings ever greater efficiency. All of aviation is continuously reducing its carbon footprint through very real demands for more performance and efficiency. Will that be enough to satisfy regulators? Nobody knows for sure.
The third unknown and thus a worry for Jack is how the FAA will implement NextGen and what impact it will have on business and general aviation. ADS-B automatic reporting of position is fundamental to NextGen but there is much more in the works in terms of new approach and departure procedures, and precision approach guidance. The overall plan is so huge it will impact every aspect of air traffic control and IFR flying. At its foundation, NextGen moves much of the equipment, and thus the cost, of ATC into the airplane so operators, not the FAA, will have to pickup a huge chunk of the cost. Will the benefits of NextGen be enough to offset the expense to airplane operators? Will NextGen exclude some pilots from airports and airspace? It's impossible to know for sure.
Though Jack's three big concerns have no concrete answers, he does urge all in aviation to join together to work toward our common goals. If each segment of aviation looks out only for its own narrow interests, the greater forces of politics and the scarcity of government resources could harm all aviation activity. Jack pointed to progress in business aviation's campaign to defend airplanes as valuable business tools and believes the same kind of unified stance can see aviation through the potentially large changes that loom ahead.
Jack is the only business and general aviation representative on the Department of Transportation's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. We all would wish for more GA representation at this important federal level, but since we only got one I think Jack is the best pick. Cessna is the only company that spans LSAs to business jets in terms of airplane production, and Jack is an active pilot flying everything from his antique piston singles to the Citation X. I share his three big concerns, but am happy to have him representing all of us on the DOT committee.