General aviation has always been divided, or bifurcated as the business school types would say. One group flies for personal travel and recreation, and the other flies for business reasons. Most people who fly for business actually enjoy flying, particularly the owner-pilots, but even those who are strictly passengers are often aviation enthusiasts so the distinction between the two groups can blur in the middle.
However, there is an all-powerful arbiter that determines which group you fly in — the IRS, because its rules determine if you are flying for personal or business reasons. I like to think of it as there are pilots and airplane owners who pay for their flying with before-tax dollars, and those who spend what’s left after taxes. It doesn’t take much of a memory to think back to April 15 to imagine what a difference in costs that makes.
This divide in general aviation has been in place for decades, but with recent economic trends here in the United States, and around the world, the difference in the two types of flying is becoming ever larger.
Fuel prices, which at many airports are at or near $8 per gallon, are the most prominent factor in driving up the cost of flying for everybody. In the past fuel was not a dominating percentage of the total operating costs in piston airplanes because fixed costs such as insurance, maintenance and storage added so much. But at today’s prices fuel is the largest operating expense even in light piston singles.
Worse still, fuel costs are the one variable under every pilot’s control. Maintenance bills, insurance, hangar rent and other costs stay about the same no matter how much you fly, but if you don’t fly, you don’t have to buy fuel. And there is a large emotional involvement in fuel costs no matter if we are pumping it into our car, boat, home heating oil tank or airplane. Most bottled water costs more than gasoline, but we don’t think of it that way. I guess it’s because the price is posted on every pump or at every FBO, and we are aware of the cost every time we fuel up.
Before long airplane owners start to compare the cost of fuel to the price of airline tickets, and that is a huge mistake if you want to continue to enjoy your airplane. The airlines continue to haul passengers for less than cost so the personal airplane never wins that comparison. And even when, eventually, the airlines are forced to raise fares to a level that at least covers their expense, it will always cost less to travel on public transportation. The economies of scale always allow a mass transit mode to carry payload for less than a personal vehicle, whether it be airplane, car or boat.
All of these new higher costs also impact the business airplane owner, but at a discounted rate supplied by the tax code. And business travel is not elective. So long as a business stays in business, travel will be essential so the cost gets built into the budget.
The net effect of the split in personal and business flying is that the business side continues to grow, while the perfect storm of costs and shrinking pilot population takes its toll on personal flying. The business axiom that 20 percent of the consumers spend 80 percent of the money has been stood on its head in aviation. It’s more like 2 percent of the private airplane operators are spending 98 percent of the money.
Logically enough, the aviation industry follows the money and designs and builds airplanes that business fliers will buy. And there seems to be no end to global demand for turbine-powered business airplanes. Gulfstream won’t say how many letters of intent it has received for its new G650 supersize and super-long-range business jet, but reports are that more than 500 want to buy the $50-million-plus airplane but they can’t get a firm order for many years into the future. Gulfstream is doing its best to increase production rates but nobody expected that kind of demand for such a capable airplane.
The situation is similar for all business-jet makers. Delivery dates for the new Falcon 7X stretch out for years. Even the small and midsize jets are sold out through most of next year and beyond. Cessna is doing its best to build Mustangs at a faster pace, but orders are coming in faster than the light entry-level jet can be built. Pilatus and Socata are producing their single-engine turboprops at record rates and can’t keep up with demand. And who would have ever guessed that the single-engine turboprop Meridian would be Piper’s biggest seller? The company that made its name with the most basic of airplanes, the Cub, is now making a living with a $2-million turboprop and is hard at work developing a single-engine jet.
Even the piston singles are dependent on business flying. Cirrus has from its beginning sold its airplanes as alternatives to the airlines and most of its customers use the airplane in some form of business travel. Even the most basic of singles such as the Skyhawk or Diamond DA20 begin their lives as business airplanes, not for travel, but in the business of teaching people how to fly.
While business flying pays for the development of new airplanes, and keeps revenue flowing to the FBOs so we have a network in place to support all types of airplanes, general aviation needs to sustain the whole spectrum of airplanes. And that is why Oshkosh and the EAA are more important than ever.
At Oshkosh every type of airplane from every era is represented and celebrated. New business jets will be on display along with antiques, warbirds, homebuilts and powered parachutes. The pilots who fly the business airplanes will certainly look at the new models, but will spend as much or more time studying the classic their family once owned, or the warbird their father flew or maintained, or the kit airplane that they plan to build or already have under construction.
Oshkosh is the place where business aviation meets personal flying and the differences are erased at that airport. Everybody is there because they love airplanes and flying and the purpose of the flight doesn’t matter.
I wish I could foresee a change in the situation that is making business flying ever more attractive while the same factors price more personal airplane owners out of the sky, but I can’t. Pilots who use airplanes for business or other purposeful travel are now, and have been, a minority of all pilots. But that will change as those who invest in capable airplanes put them to work, while other pilots are forced by cost to restrict their flying.
But the EAA and Oshkosh give those who have no travel needs a reason to remain active in aviation. Maintaining a classic, restoring an antique or flying an LSA on a sunny day are all equally valid missions. I think hobby is the wrong word for fun flying because it doesn’t reflect the passion that pilots have for flight. Enthusiast is a better word, but still not powerful enough. But maybe just the word Oshkosh describes the passion of all of us who fly. It is the place where all of aviation comes together and we invest our time and money to sustain the heritage that has been handed down to us.