Aviation Leaders Address Future Challenges (Corrected)

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Pelton, Baker, Bolen, and Zuccaro

Pelton, Baker, Bolen, and Zuccaro

"Building Interest in the Future of Aviation" was the name of the discussion at Sun 'n Fun on Tuesday evening, with four of general aviation's major players on the panel -- EAA's Jack Pelton, Mark Baker of AOPA, Ed Bolen of NBAA, and Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International. "General aviation is shrinking, not growing," said Sun 'n Fun president John "Lites" Leenhouts, as he introduced the event. "We've got to find a way to turn that around." Leenhouts followed up with a short video showing some of the work Sun 'n Fun is supporting to help local students learn about aviation careers. The panelists followed up, outlining the many challenges in the industry, noting some achievements, and offering some insights into what's needed to create positive change.

Zuccaro cited examples of how the career track for pilots can create barriers and frustrations, by requiring aspirants to accumulate mountains of debt, spend years in low-wage jobs, and face arbitrary limits on what work they can do based on their number of hours. "This is a daunting process," he said. "It's expensive, demanding, and frustrating." He suggested that flight instructor should be a career track in itself, not simply a way to build time, and he added that to attract talented young people to aviation careers, the industry will have to offer competitive income and benefits, and advancement potential. Bolen said for GA to thrive, it's essential to "project a positive image" of the industry. "People need to understand the inherent goodness of GA," he said. "The should see it as an industry that creates jobs, promotes economic development, and provides humanitarian assistance -- something to be promoted."

Baker cited the various programs already underway at AOPA that aim to keep people engaged in flying, to create flying clubs, to keep costs down, and to encourage former pilots to return. He said promoting engagement was the idea behind AOPA's expanded presence this year at Sun 'n Fun. "We want to see more of our members," he said. Pelton said EAA members have given more than 2 million Young Eagles their first GA flight, and he cited the story of Zach, a Young Eagle who took his first flight at 14 and discovered aviation. "There were no pilots in his family," Pelton said, "but they supported his passion." Zach won a scholarship to EAA's summer Air Academy for Young Eagles, and went on to college where he studied aerodynamics. Zach now has an aviation career and has started his own EAA chapter. Pelton also suggested that Americans need to change their attitudes about technology jobs and apprenticeships, and bestow more value and prestige on that kind of work.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified John "Lites" Leenhouts as the president of EAA.