Are the Millennials GA's Salvation?

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Have you ever noticed how a word you haven’t heard for awhile all at once starts buzzing into your ears like that mosquito that snuck through the screen door? At Redbird’s third annual Migration training conference this week, the word was Millennial. We all know it as the term used to describe the generation born roughly around 1980 and now the oldest are reaching their high-achieving 30s. It’s quite natural to look at this generation as the salvation of general aviation because nothing quite focuses the mind like having no choice. Millennials, you’re it. Step into the batter’s box.

Futurist and educator Don Marinelli did an admirably humorous job of explaining to the largely flight training-oriented crowd what it is they need to understand to sell aviation to these younger prospects. Heavy on theoretical underpinnings, when Marinelli said “technology is a procedural medium that facilitates participation” when what he really meant is gadgets, like shiny objects, draw people in, I got just a flicker of a psycho-speak warning light. But I take the point. Millennials are drawn into personal agency by technology to a greater degree than was the previous generation. But only by degree, in my opinion. Who the hell do you think is buying all those tablets and aviation apps?

Among many others, Marinelli ascribed to the Millennials several attributes that I found potentially at odds with becoming pilots. One, Millennials don’t read.  Two, they’re very green (as in eco conscious) and, three, they’re financially savvy, both globally and personally. The reading part relates to aspirational reading. It’s not that they’re functionally illiterate, but that Millennials tilt toward information uptake not centered on the printed word, whether on paper or in pixels. They don’t buy magazines. They’re not big readers of books. They engage across a range of information sources, which they integrate into a whole. They are therefore thought to be ripe for the innovative, tech-based and sim-centric pilot training that Redbird is developing. I think this is right. But I also think all of us will like the tech-based and sim-centric pilot training that Redbird is developing.

The green part is a problem. Millennials own fewer cars than Boomers do, use them less and drive very economical cars when they do. So let’s not get our pants snagged trying to argue that a personal airplane is green, unless it’s painted that color. Even Redbird’s super economical Redhawk is averaging 25 mpg. Some SUVs do better. Green starts north of 40 mpg. Or on a city bus.

The financial savvy can cut both ways. Those of us woozy with the passion of flight are willing to partake of it no matter what it costs and many of us devote a substantial portion of our income to do this. Our cost/value relationship is driven by our notion that flying is just the best thing we can ever be doing, otherwise how could we justify paying for a $1200 starter drive? Will Millennials, when introduced to a $150-an-hour airplane, feel the same? More important, as the 21st century unfolds to uncertain global economies, will they have jobs with sufficient income to support such a habit?

When I go to these conferences, there’s often an unchallenged assumption that just because we love airplanes and flying, everyone else exposed to it will, too. But this has never been true and it may be even less true of Gen Y. On the other hand, it will definitely be true of some of them, just as it was with the World War II generation, the Boomers and Gen Xers. That’s why I think general aviation, at least in the U.S., will always exist. It’s retrenching, yes, and will continue to do so. At the Migration dinner, Jack Pelton mentioned that just since 1992, the pilot population has declined by 100,000. The demographic forces that caused that are not permanent; they’ll swing someday. It’s just that no one knows when. Or how.

Some of the conference focused on re-imagining flight training and Redbird has this well in hand with an innovative new training idea that Jeff Van West explains in this video and the Redhawk diesel training aircraft we’ve already reported on. I like where the training proposal is going because one aspect of it rests on the supposition that you can really teach yourself most of what you need to know to earn a pilot’s certificate. You don't need a discrete ground school or a hovering instructor for everything or even much. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that. This new modular, interactive and reactive training drives right down the center of that lane.

I'm not too worried about training these new pilots. Although the economics are challenging, the training is figure-outable. And so might the marketing be. My question is what are these people going to do with their pilot certificates? Will they have the wherewithal to use airplanes for serious travel, or will they be dedicated sport flyers? Well, probably both, just as is true now. Marinelli noted that Millennials are highly attuned to experiential adventures—extreme sports—and flying may fit right in. If they’re financially savvy, maybe the concept of shared ownership will resonate more than it has with current generations of pilots. Or maybe electric airplanes will come of age—they have to eventually—and meet the Millennial generation’s design brief for ecologically sound sporting activities.

There are lots of maybes. As I’ve said before, GA is shrinking, not dying because the urge to fly will always be there in some form. The industry will turn that corner eventually. It’s just gonna be a little messy before that happens.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (21)

'Millennials' do not know how to study, at least not on their own. They are used to being spoon fed exactly the material they need to pass a test, whether it be a standardized test to measure school effectiveness or an FAA written exam. Don't even get me started on studying for an oral! Maybe the real growth niche in GA is test proctoring.

Also, the shine is off the apple as far as aviation as a career goes. Low starting pay and lousy work schedules put airline pilot in the same category as joining the military without the added benefit of patriotic duty.

Most of this generation won't bother learning to fly. It's much easier to land a good paying job at Google and have someone else fly you around in the corporate 757. Talk about not green.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | October 31, 2013 8:14 AM    Report this comment

Some of my co-workers drive very expensive electric cars proudly claiming to be "green". It really pops their bubble when I ask how their coal-powered car is running.

Posted by: A Richie | October 31, 2013 9:52 AM    Report this comment

I'm a millennial and I fly my own airplane. I'm also one of two instructors at a Part 61 school and I'm in the process of training several millennials and they're some of my best students. Here in Wyoming the economy is in good shape and I'm having a number of students buy airplanes. One of my millennial students bought a Comanche to learn in and got his license. He's since moved away, but is working on his instrument rating. I'm teaching another in his Citabria and still another is nearly finished with his training and is in the market for a taildragger. Another local pilot younger than I am just bought a Scout. All of these individuals are under 40. In my part of the world, they make up my greatest share of students and these are the ones buying airplanes.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | October 31, 2013 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Marinelli sounds like a buffoon to me. I was born in 1987 and all I can do is laugh when I hear these outrageous claims - as if the entire generation of people born since 1980 are bloggers living in NYC, biking to work, sneering at SUVs, and posting pictures to Twitter about the tofu they had for lunch.

I don't think I've even ever -met- someone who meets this cartoon definition of a "millennial".

The only problem with personal aviation and my generation is cost, and more importantly the huge differential between costs in general aviation, and costs in other types of recreation.

$140 / hr to rent a 30-year-old, bent and wrinkled, corrugated aluminum tin can designed in 1950, with seats that resemble the couch in my grandparent's basement, doors that close with the same feeling of integrity as a car that has been in several wrecks, and an instrument panel covered in fragmenting, cracked plastic that is inexplicably the color of baby vomit, is just a non-starter. Or, for a mere $50,000, you can buy one of these beauties, for the privilege of operating it for only about $100 / hr.

In comparison, $50,000 will get you a pretty damn nice new car, with leather seats, a modern, organized, well-designed interior, good performance and mileage, and operating costs that are negligible in comparison. Or fund several years of extravagant spending in countless other hobbies. Or a down payment on a nice house. Or a nice bit of padding in your savings account for the next time the prior generations torpedo the economy because they can't agree on whether the government should have its fingers in your bank account or your bedroom.

There's just no comparison.

Yes, you can buy a shiny composite LSA for about $100,000 (used). It's essentially a motorcycle that flies - the same passenger capacity, the same cargo capacity. That's not an easy sell either.

I personally am hoping to buy a used Diamond DA-40 in a few years. That will cost upwards of $100,000. I don't know if I'll be able to pull it off, but that's pretty much out of range of most "millenials", and that's the cheapest airplane that's actually appealing to me to own. It also the only one that, when renting, my "millennial" friends have reacted to positively, so it's not just me.

The other problem is that people in my generation do tend to move around a lot. I would love to partner with 3-4 other people and buy a DA-40 today, but I don't know if I'll be living in the same city next year. So I'm waiting.

Posted by: ALEXANDER VALYS | October 31, 2013 1:24 PM    Report this comment

"The only problem with personal aviation and my generation is cost, and more importantly the huge differential between costs in general aviation, and costs in other types of recreation."

"Or a nice bit of padding in your savings account for the next time the prior generations torpedo the economy because they can't agree on whether the government should have its fingers in your bank account or your bedroom."

I think these two reasons are big factors in the decline/stagnation of general aviation. Things in general cost MORE (relative to current earnings) than just a decade or so ago (my salary from 10 years ago hasn't tripled, like the price of mogas has), and old and young people alike have told me how some of the previous generations have made things worse off for mine, than their previous generations did for them.

However, if there is one hope for my generation (early 1980s), it's that we generally have learned to become rather resourceful out of necessity, and if we find something we like, we'll generally find a way to obtain that goal. So there is hope that we might be able to turn GA around, or at least slow the decline, but it'll take more to get some of us in to aviation to start.

I think it will also require doing away with some of the old thinking and old FBO/flight school models. It'll take more than just starting with the same old beat-up training aircraft, or LSA "toys" that can't carry more than two people to get new young pilots interested. It's all well and good that LSAs burn little fuel and have fancy glass cockpits (for VFR-only use?), but they don't have the appeal when said pilots want to take more than one friend/family member with them, so the economics just don't add up. And a modern glass-cockpit GA that can carry 4 (or more) adults are simply out of reach, financially, for most of us.

I hope RedBird's "RedHawk" pans out, because that looks like the way forward for us "millenials", and I hope they (or someone else) can expand the concept to something like an older 182 that can actually be used as a reasonably-performing travel aircraft.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 31, 2013 3:49 PM    Report this comment

I think Mr Valys has expressed very well what I've been trying to for a long time.

Posted by: Rollie Scott | October 31, 2013 4:40 PM    Report this comment

I think shared ownership is likely one of the best opportunities to get into having my own airplane. As Mr. Valys and Mr. Baluha both point out (correct me, if I'm wrong...), cost of new airplane ownership is quite prohibitive for most of us in our late 20s and early 30s. I personally don't have too many issues with late model C-172s, which are just fast enough for me to get somewhere, and slow enough for me to enjoy the journey. Even at $40k-50k for an average decent model, if you take 2 or 4 people into the mix, the costs have now been halved or quartered for each pilot. Besides the issues of cost, most private aircraft owned by a single pilot are so underutilized, that it's not even really healthy for the airframe and engine.

Posted by: BRANDON FREEMAN | October 31, 2013 5:01 PM    Report this comment

Paul, I read and reread the article. I "googled" for definitions of some of words and phrases used, words like Millenials, futurist, figure-outable, theoretical underpinnings, "technology is a procedural medium that facilitates participation", experiential adventures, agency, aspirational reading, wherewithal and woozy?? Hey, gimme a break! Don't get me wrong, I like you, but maybe you might want to write for those of us outside of the Gen X and Gen Y crowd.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 1, 2013 12:42 AM    Report this comment

Remember the scene in Lonesome Dove when Gus says, "Just once in my life, I'd like to shoot at an educated man." This is my version of that.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 1, 2013 4:57 AM    Report this comment

About 10 years ago, and for the 10 years before that there were plenty of very high earning (upper six or into seven figure) 20 somethings in banks and other trading floors.
Some of them, once they lost their nerve/luck as happens when you hit 30, took their gains and learnt to fly (although the only one I personally know of, now hardly ever flies, preferring to race motor cars instead).
In more recent times, the banks and trading floors have lost their glow, fortunately for the rest of us, and the young rich things have mainly come from internet sites.
I have the impression that few of them want to fly, even though you would think coding skills would be ideal for IFR ratings.
Why, I don't know, but it could be that the actual experience is a bit disappointing after the heightened reality of the flying games out there.

Posted by: John Patson | November 1, 2013 5:10 AM    Report this comment

Being an active pilot, and born in 1984, I feel that I am qualified to comment on this. Right now, I fly as much as I can due to the cost. I have a flight school that I can rent a newer (1999) 172 for $125 / hr. At this, I can fly 4 hours per month for $500... The ownership thing is a bit tricker. I would love to buy an older Maule right now (call it $50,000). Here's how the economics work out: Payment is about $500/month, insurance of $250/month ($3,000 / yr), hangar cost of $300/month, and operating cost of say $100 per hour. What this means is that for a mere $1,050 / month and $100/hr I can have my aircraft. If I still fly approximately 4 hours per month, the hourly cost becomes $362.50. At that price, if I could afford it, I can rent several aircraft that will outperform the Maule. Regardless of what people say, cost is the reason that keeps me from flying more. Additionally, one of the commenter's above nailed it on the head when he stated the fact that Millennials aren't prone to stay in one area for a long period of time. This includes me, so finding a partner (other than my wife who has no interest in learning to fly) isn't a viable option. While I feel that I could handle the payment of an aircraft, the insurance and hangarage are the factors that break the bank for me. I think the RedBird annalogy of several faucets of costs is the best one I have heard yet. P.S. I am still planning on buying the Maule someday when I can afford it.

Posted by: Jarred Curtis | November 1, 2013 8:39 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you should print out Alexander Valys's comment and send it to every airplane manufacturer and large flight school in the country. I'm a pilot, and I was born in 1985, and I have to say, it's sometimes painful to look at what I spend renting airplanes, and look at how things would be if that was going towards my mortgage instead.

It costs too much for not enough utility. I'd be happy to pay $50, $75 an hour to putter around in a Cub and not go anywhere, and I'd be thrilled to pay $150 an hour to fly a really nicely equipped, fast, reliable aircraft (thing something like the Panthera, if they manage to pull it off). The fact is, a Cub would probably cost twice or more what I've mentioned above, and owning an operating a newer Mooney or Bonanza would easily be more than double, at least $350 or $400 an hour.

Sure it can be done cheaper if you're willing to fly a spam can from the 1970's. But the modern boat or sports car will cost a fraction of that and be brand new.

The amount of entertainment that can be had for that kind of money in LITERALLY ANYTHING other than aviation is astonishing.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | November 1, 2013 11:11 AM    Report this comment

"It's just that no one knows when. Or how." ??

The "how" is poking at us but we just refuse to accept it. The "when" will realize after the "how". We can start with the concept: INCREASE DEMAND by DECREASING COST. Affordability as a means to solving the problem may be simplistic, but it is a popular and generally accepted solution.

The leaders of industry and lobbyists must understand that the aviation industry is primarily supported by the aviators, middle income people. From students to ATPs. And that the higher the costs the less aviators.

Another correction lies in that OEMs need to stop blowing smoke up the marketplace and accept that if they want to sell product the medium income aviators or in other words the fundamental customers, should be part of the solution. Another aircraft priced at $225m+ isn't going to make it.

Under the present conditions consider the following;

1. COST vs. INCOME is the root of the problem, it is out if proportion.
2. COST limits participation.
3. COST prohibits growth.
4. COST needs to be reduced to a generally affordable level.
5. COST continues to increase, relative income income continues to decrease.
6. COST is the primary "contributing factor" to the decline.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 1, 2013 11:19 AM    Report this comment

Rafael, I understand the complaints about COST, but what can be done about COST? Cirrus made/makes a nicely styled useful airplane for about 2 to 3 times your $225,000 number and went broke doing so. So, how does one get to your number?

On a different note, not very many people get the aviator gene. I'm one of 6 siblings. In spite of my father's love of all flying, flight instruction in Airknockers, active and reserve military flying in Corsairs and Cougars and FAA flight examiner in Sabreliners to Cessna 150s, I was the only one to get, and act in accordance with the gene.

I have 5 children. Only one has an interest in aviation. However, it is not practical for him due to the fact he works in a the high speed, demanding world of tele-communications in SoCal. He puts in more than 60 hours/week, carries two phones to communicate with people who report to him and his bosses. When I took him for a ride in my new twin, he was on the phone, on a week-end, until I fired up the bird. Good thing I don't have blue-tooth headsets.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | November 1, 2013 11:58 AM    Report this comment

Edd, the COST of flight instruction and recreational flying is high to those who are in the middle income range. The middle income pilots are the majority of the flock. The elitist flyers will continue until they become middle income or go broke.

What to do about COST? In the last few years the media has bad mouthed the "legacy" fleet. Upgrading this fleet is more COST EFFECTIVE than buying new aircraft. This is being done now but not in the volume needed. There should be more refurbished aircraft for instruction and rentals. All other costs can remain but new aircraft and aircraft insurance costs are the greatest deterrent.
The lower the hull value the lower the insurance cost. Nothing wrong with flying a six pack with a WAAS 430. My training aircraft has $94,000 in it and I insured it for $50,000. The savings go to the student/renter. The difference in cost of insurance from a $225,000 hull vs. $50,000, is about $5,000 per year. This is on area to look at on COST CUTTING to benefit the pilot and the industry in turn. Refurbish the assets we have and put them to work.

On new pilots. I am a horseman and a pilot, my wife is a pilot and just retired from the FAA as an AIr Traffic Controller. I have four sons, the first two had a chance to learn to ride and fly. They preferred the ladies and computers, but there are doing well. The younger two are showing interest, I am quietly happy here as I have not pushed them. I believe in showing the way - if they really have the desire they will stay. Not everyone wants to be a pilot nor is designed to be one. We are a special breed though.
I love the profession I am in and I hope it to be a contagious passion. We have more pilots, more experience, and more airplanes, airports, airways, VORs, a well established GNSS and more equipment to use than in any other country in the world. Yet the pilot population is declining. I'd like to believe there is a future.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 1, 2013 2:11 PM    Report this comment

In 1947, Mr. Piper published an article in FLYING magazine about the art of selling GA airplanes. I think it could be argued that Mr. Piper was one of the great airplane salesmen. His observations came down quite simply to:
1. A business market where someone can actually use an airplane to make money, no matter whether it's a Cub or a Beech 18.
2. A recreational market consisting of basically retired or near retired folks whose kids are gone and the house is paid off.
Mind you, this article was written at a time when he was seeing airplane sales headed steeply down.
Has anything changed? I think not; you can label generations any way you want, but the basics still hold.

Posted by: Stephen Phoenix | November 1, 2013 3:00 PM    Report this comment

Alexander, I have to complement you on your description of the present light airplane market. I could see the pea green interior of a 1975 C172 in my head as I was reading your comments. GA manufacturers are not selling that many airplanes today because they don't offer that much more value over an older airframe for the price. Aerodynamic design is a compromise and we have known how to make a good airframe for a long time. There is a reason that the C172 airframe is little changed over the years.
I fly a restored 1959 Comanche with new paint, interior, and a modern panel. Newer composite airplanes are more slippery and can beat the speeds of my airplane with the wheels hanging down. Sure I'd like to own a nice Cirrus, Columbia, etc.. But how much more utility do I get for many times the price of the Comanche?
I think the folks doing restorations of older airframes have it figured out.

Posted by: STEVE BOWLING | November 2, 2013 9:57 AM    Report this comment

@Jared Curtiss (and others): Check out the shared ownership numbers at Aviation Access Project ( You'll find them MUCH more palatable.

Posted by: Andrew Milan | November 2, 2013 11:17 AM    Report this comment

I missed the millennial's (born in 1990). If fuel was the price of car gas, I think we would see an increase in the number of hours flown. That is what Redbird should have done for their promotion, price their gas the same as a local gas station. I would be curious to see the results of that type of experiment would have been. I know there are other factors but I think this is one area the GA community could influence.

Posted by: Samuel Walsh | November 4, 2013 11:29 PM    Report this comment

I agree Samuel Walsh. Good idea.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 11, 2013 1:37 PM    Report this comment

I agree Samuel Walsh. Good idea.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 11, 2013 1:37 PM    Report this comment

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