The persistent downturn in the aviation economy is obviously related to the larger world economy, but there's another long-term trend buried in the numbers: The pilot population is dwindling and student pilot starts have been down for a decade. Take your pick of theories to explain this, but I don't think there's a single cause.
My theory is that multiple demographic effects related to age, real incomes, employment patterns and the rising cost of flying have all conspired to make an unhealthy environment for growing new pilots. And bluntly, the magic and romance of flight notwithstanding, the population at large appears not to be as interested in airplanes as it once was.
While most of us talk about the decline in pilots, along comes EAA to do something about it. It wants to expand the popular Young Eagles flight demo program to include adults. As I've noted before, I like the Young Eagles idea and I've participated in it a couple of times. But its overarching weakness is that it's selling to unqualified prospects with little or no money. A 12-year-old kid, no matter how passionate he might be about slipping the surly bonds, is in no position to make the cash register ring at Cessna. Maybe his or her parents are rich enough and interested enough to fuel the kid's interest when he or she eventually comes of age, but it's just as likely other interests will intercede.
Ah, but adults are different. If they're interested, they have the money to act of their impulses and, I suppose, EAA will eventually find out if there are enough of these folks to make a difference. But no one should delude themselves into thinking this will turn things around very rapidly. The numbers are sobering, making EAA's effort just a beginning.
At the start of the last decade, there were 243,823 private pilots, according to the FAA, with students at 86,731. By 2009, the number of PPLs dropped by 32,000a little less than 2 percent a year in decline, with the usual peaks and valleys in the line graph. The student pilot population showed a similar decline. The good news is that, according to the FAA's tracking, 2010 saw a substantial rise in students, although I don't know how reliable that data is. Furthermore, the total number of pilots also increases, thanks in part to about 3000 or so certificated sport pilots coming into the fold.
Nonetheless, just to stay even, the industry will have to add about 4500 new pilots a year or, say, 375 a month. That doesn't seem like an impossible number and it probably isn't, until you consider that to make one certificated private pilot, some larger number of students will try and lose interest or drop out. And just to get one would-be pilot to the student-start stage will require a bunch of dry holes, so to speak. (Retention is a topic for another day.)
Still, you have to start somewhere and EAA's adult Eagles idea is as good a place as any. It's proactive and the timing seems right. As the association retools itself into the next phase of its existence, I suspect promoting student starts will be a much bigger part of what it does. It has the grass roots ethos and volunteer-oriented membership to make this work and, properly leveraged, AirVenturethe world's biggest airshowcould be a powerful source of leads. I'll bet we'll be doing videos on that topic next summer.
We will see as this idea unfolds. Meanwhile, I'd be just as happy flying an adult as a kid, frankly. They tend to whimper less when you box them with a rolled up sectional from the front seat of a Cub.