The conventional wisdom about millennials goes something like this: They would rather sit inside and play Xbox all day than go to the airport and learn to fly airplanes. Mind you, nobody ever presents any evidence to show this is in fact true, but in our gut we all kind of understand there’s at least a ring of truth to it. But don’t blame young people. A great many of them would be thrilled to earn a private pilot’s license. It’s just that general aviation isn’t structured to provide them with the kind of training experience they expect or desire.
What do millennials want from aviation? It’s pretty simple, really: New, or nearly new, technologically sophisticated airplanes that they can actually afford to fly. What do they get instead? Locked airport gates, flight schools that sometimes seem as though they don’t want customers and airplanes that look old and tired because, well, they are.
A point to keep in mind about millennials is that they were born into the safest and most technologically advanced world mankind has ever known. Their tolerance for risk is low and their desire for innovation high. They view driver-assist features like traction control and lane-keeping technology in vehicles as run of the mill, and would feel totally at ease sliding into the “driver’s” seat of a driverless car. Many of them already assume airplanes fly themselves (which, of course, they can).
Unless a young person was born into an aviation family and had the chance to experience what it’s like to hop into an old Skylane or Bonanza and fly around the country, personal aviation must seem strangely foreign to the average millennial. The learning curve appears ridiculously high, the airplanes laughably antiquated and the costs out of line with their financial realities. No wonder, when the latest shiny new iPhone arrives every year like clockwork (free with a two-year contract) but we’re still flying “new” light airplanes that were originally type certified in the 1950s and ’60s.
What general aviation needs is a good old-fashioned paradigm shift. Light-sport aviation was supposed to represent that idea, and in some ways it has. But to attract a future generation of aviators to our activity, we need to start thinking like future aviators. Perhaps the Part 23 rewrite of light-aircraft certification rules will indeed usher in fleets of lower-cost electric-powered training aircraft, just the sort of disruptive technology that can ignite an interest in younger people who grew up glued to their smartphones. Then again, maybe it won’t.
The three main elements necessary to sustain light general aviation’s future include continued technological advancement, better affordability and improved access. Thanks to new technology and decent training, we’re doing a good job of meeting our primary goal of rewriting the safety story. But if we maintain the status quo, we can only expect the number of student-pilot starts to continue to diminish. When the average young person has the sense that they’ll be welcomed at the local airport, where they can learn to fly in an advanced airplane for a reasonable cost, then we may again start to see private pilot ranks begin to swell.