GA Has Its Own Version of the Airline Mess
…it's just not as critical, although it's getting there. Specifically, it's the industry response-or lack thereof-to escalating fuel prices. All we're doing, really, is reducing flying hours, just as drivers are reducing car trips. Both are a logical and, for the time being, necessary response. But the world auto industry is doing something the general aviation industry isn't: It's vigorously tooling up to deliver a new generation of more efficient cars, including diesels, fuel-efficient gasoline cars and hybrids. The market is rapidly heating up.
In contrast, GA's response could be generously characterized as sticking our thumbs up our butts while waiting for fuel prices to magically shrink back to 1990 levels. The gold- plate standard engine in GA remains a six-cylinder, 500-plus cubic-inch engine dragging a heavy airframe with probably twice as many seats as it really needs. Now the GA manufacturers do this because that is what their customers tell them they want. That's why Cirrus sells 700-plus airplanes a year. In other words, because new aircraft buyers are wealthy enough not to have to worry much about fuel costs, sales of high-performance singles haven't completely tanked. Yet.
But I think there's an underlying psychology that will begin to erode this attitude and we had better be ready for it. Anyone who's rich enough to buy an airplane got that way because he or she was smart to begin with. Smart people read, listen and think and they eventually figure out their place in the world. What I'm getting at is that I think enough buyers of new airplanes will say, "ya know, even though I can afford the gas, I choose not to because I want a more efficient solution." My theory is that this has a little to do with carbon emissions, but a lot more to do with the personal pact every individual makes with the whole by answering this question: In a world with limited resources, how much am I personally entitled to?
Everyone has a different answer. Mine is basically that I'm entitled to what I need without apologies and I'm damn sure not going to waste any or expect more. For this reason, I now drive less, ride my bicycle more often, double and triple-up errands or occasionally don't do them at all, use less electricity and I fly less. None of this has diminished my lifestyle in the slightest. I just have to plan a little more. Big deal.
I'm not giving up flying, either, although we recently sold our Mooney K-model in favor of something simpler and cheaper in the LSA line. For me, living in the southeast corner of the country (Florida) means that using the airplane for transportation became an economic non-starter. It takes 15 gallons of gas just to get to the state line. So I fly less generally and use the airlines when I do. But man was meant to sing, so I'm searching for the right airplane. (Might even be a Diamond Katana.)
As I'm writing this, crude prices are closing under $130, down $16 from the peak two weeks ago. This has ignited a round of news stories under the moronic theme "relief at the pump" encouraging the notion that Americans are somehow entitled to cheap gasoline when, in fact, high oil prices are actually a blessing in disguise that will well and truly launch the lasting effort to develop alternatives. If Congress had any guts, it would levy taxes to keep prices at some threshold that would make alternatives profitable to develop.
But back to industry leadership, or lack thereof. To be fair, some companies are paying attention to aircraft energy efficiency. Diamond is one, although it and Thielert's execution of diesel technology is verging on disaster. Continental is announcing its own diesel, SMA already has one and DeltaHawk is plugging away. But I've heard no serious discussion of a "sustainable" aircraft design that would squash the curves from both directions-a more efficient engine married to lighter, low-drag airframe with two instead of four seats. In my view, this kind of design is inevitable and at some point, the market is almost certain to demand it.
AOPA should be a leader in this quest, so I was disappointed last week to see it sign on to the airlines' shell game of asking Congress to legislate against speculation in the oil markets. Reasonable people can disagree about whether speculation is a factor, but the fact that so few do agree probably means that legislation will have zero effect on oil prices. Compared to the vast forces of supply and demand, market controls are likely to be puny. Trying to force prices back down goes to that notion of entitlement to cheap gas. It's just unseemly. It's also worth noting, perhaps, that the speculators are often hedge and pension fund holders whose earnings allow them to buy airplanes and gas in the first place. But I digress.
The focus needs to be on two things. Industry groups like AOPA, EAA, GAMA, NBAA and others shouldn't waste their time on noise issues like speculation, but should raise the profile among their members of the need for a practical, workable national energy policy that recognizes GA's need for a sustainable liquid fuel. Second, the industry ought to be proposing airframes and engines that are profitable and practical at a fuel price higher than what we're paying now. I don't know what that price is, but if I were doing this, I'd be thinking about fuel in the $10 a gallon range.
LSAs are a start on this, but there's no reason that a low-drag, light airframe couldn't also be fast enough to serve as affordable personal transportation. I'd like to see the industry get ahead of this and stop fooling around with fringe issues that don't recognize that the price of oil will continue to rise.
Ten years from now, GA will look very different from what we see today. The companies that will prosper in it are the ones bold enough to step off now.