Rising Fuel Costs; Falling Flight Hours

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As an economic barometer, the figures for general aviation suggest fuel prices and the economy may be hitting the little guys hard. The evidence is indirect and correlational, but abundant. Friday, AVweb's fuel finder, located at AVweb.com showed prices for 100LL averaging more than $5.30 per gallon and that they had climbed eight cents since the previous week. A review of activity at FAA and contract towers for 2007 included in FAA's Aerospace Forecast for 2008-2025 stated, "At the end of 2007, non-commercial aircraft activity was 16.1 percent below the activity in 2000, having declined each year since 2002." The FAA's most recent year-over-year records available online show the difference in hours flown by recreational pilots in 2005 and 2006 -- recreational pilots flew about 125,000 fewer hours in 2006 than the prior year. If that's just a bump in the road, it's a bump in a road that's been headed downhill for years. FAA figures show that fixed-wing piston aircraft flown for personal use flew about 2.3 million fewer hours in 2006 versus 2000. As for sales of small aircraft, light sport aircraft in the first quarter of 2008 dropped 30 percent from six months prior, according to industry watchdog Dan Johnson. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) showed sales of piston aircraft fell 28 percent when compared with the first quarter of 2007. Showing a stark class divide, general aviation business flight hours appear unaffected as do sales of business aircraft, and both may be carrying their respective tallies -- plus total hours and sales figures for general aviation as a whole -- higher.

The FAA's 2008-2025 forecast predicts an annual increase of 3 percent per year through 2025 in the number of general aviation hours flown, due in large part to an influx of new very light jets (VLJs) and small aircraft operated for business. That market segment's billings (turboprops and light business jets) prospered early this year and not only countered the falling recreational market but pushed the industry's billings to an all-time first-quarter high in 2008, up 16 percent over the previous year. There's an old saying that if you have to worry about the cost of fuel, you probably shouldn't be flying. Today's pilots are paying nearly twice as much per hour on fuel as they did in 2005. Statistics suggest many of America's (fewer than) 600,000 pilots may be taking that to heart and the same may be true for prospective pilots who can often expect to pay more than $125 for one hour of flight instruction. One school AVweb found for this story reported a reduction in training hours of 20 percent since 2007. Ultralight and LSA pilots burning roughly 3.5 gallons per hour are also paying more ... just a lot less of it.