Have We Hit The Trifecta?

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To remain a general aviation participant in good standing—or hell, just a participant of any standing—requires a certain resilience, an almost alien capacity to slough off disaster and munch gleefully on catastrophe. Rolling with the punches comes to mind, but somehow just doesn’t do justice to the gloom that pervades the aviation economy.

Now that I’ve got that bracing dose of reality out of the way, dare we talk about three developments that might just come together and put a little vigor into this business? Yes, I think I will, actually. I won’t take the example of a German AOPA official I saw at Aero last month who said the association was actually experiencing a small uptick in memberships, but he was afraid talking about it would spook the whole thing. Seriously. Have we become this pathetic? Well, not me. 

The developments I’m thinking of are those we’ve been reporting on: the Part 23 revision, Third Class Medical reform and an unmistakable loosening of the over-stringent and outdated regulations that keep owners from installing non-certified avionics in their aircraft. Let’s consider them one by one.

Everywhere I go, I ask about the Part 23 revision and I’m not hearing much confidence that it will materially reduce the price of new airplanes. I agree with this because no one I speak to has a clear sense yet of how it will apply directly to specific certification projects. And, in any case, when I ask what certification costs amount to in the total price of a new airplane, I never get a good answer. A good gauge is 25 percent. So if the new Part 23 reduces cert project costs by half, it will impact the final price by half of a quarter. It may be less, but I doubt if it will be more.

Buy, hey, I’ll take it. A lot of good work went into this revision and if, when it eventually percolates through the glacially slow product cycle, it just succeeds in arresting cost escalation it will be an unqualified success. So just reduce your expectations slightly because even 10 percent off the cost of a $675,000 airplane is not going to ignite sales or make it more affordable if you can’t already afford it. The real impact may be that lower cert costs will encourage projects that would not have otherwise been started. That’s good.

The Third Class Medical revision: On this one, I’m in assumption mode. It’s going to happen. Part of the reason I’m saying that is that I’m damn sick of reading tea leaves on this and trying to analyze the politics and procedural minutiae of Congress. I think there are enough sponsors and distributed political capital to make it work.

But will it work? Yes, I think it will help, but as with Part 23, don’t hyperventilate over what it will actually achieve. When I was getting my latest Class Three the other week, my AME doubted if it would have a measureable impact because like me, he knows a lot of guys who have stopped flying under the guise of medical worry but whom he said he could probably certify. On a percentage basis, very few medicals are denied. Specials exist to circumvent many disqualifying conditions. Many pilots, understandably, just don’t want to pursue them for reasons of hassle or cost.

I get that, because I have a special myself. This is a long-winded way of saying my guess is that many pilots use medical fear as an excuse to disguise the real reason they quit: lack of interest and, to a lesser extent, the cost. A determined pilot can figure out the cost thing, but not if the interest is flagging. It’s possible, if not likely, that not needing the medical will reignite lost interest. More likely, it will cause some owners who have their airplanes parked awaiting a resolution on medical reform to stay in the game. And so what if that’s a thousand people a year? Or 500. Or 300. It’s still a worthy outcome we should all cheer without slipping into flights of self-delusion. It’s just one more barrier removed or at least reduced.

More pilots staying in the game relates to the last item: EAA’s avionics STC initiative announced at Sun ‘n Fun. The first step is approvals to install non-certified Dynon EFIS in certified aircraft. More projects are planned. At his press conference, EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the idea was to keep owners at the lower end of the strata in their airplanes by offering upgrades at a third or a quarter of the prices they’ve been expecting. In a way, this one ties all three trends together. The Part 23 revision won’t help owners of older aircraft who just want a decent, affordable navigator for an old Cherokee. But the fact that this is now possible is a direct spinoff of the changing attitudes that got the Part 23 revision done in the first place. We’re told to expect more such developments and, in the end, that may be the bigger impact of the revision than simpler certification for new aircraft. Two avionics shops I spoke to were thrilled at the EAA project because they see it as an opportunity to sell upgrades that people can actually afford. New customers coming in the door is good for any industry, even if it’s only 10 a month.

Any one of these trends would be welcome, if not that impactful. Will all three taken together have a synergistic effect? We can only hope. But if for no other reason than improved morale, I’m encouraged by these developments. There’s at least observable motion to reverse steady decline partially wrought by onerous regulation. If that indicates we’ve reached bottom and are at least leveling off, what’s not to cheer?

And speaking of leveling off, in a follow-up blog, I’ll have a look at pilot training and certification trends, which may offer some encouragement of their own.   

Comments (20)

Being a happy sport pilot flyer of my homebuilt Zodiac, none of the three developments really apply to me. But I will always have a beer and a dog handy when I'm scoring the game between GA and its nemesis - RIVAL (Regulation excess; Individual passion; Virtual reality; Appreciable costs; Lethargy), so home team GA just may squeak out a few runs now for an eventual satisfying win in the end.

It ain't over till it's over.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 16, 2016 12:09 AM    Report this comment

On the subject of cost, you piqued my curiosity so I sought out a graph of median household income by quintile by year since 1967. Assuming the vast majority of folks are in the middle quintile by year and then comparing the cost of a new C172 to that graphic, the numbers are all wrong and getting worse. I see cost as having a major deterrent impact on GA, overall.

When my 1975 C172 was manufactured (just prior to the production peak years), it retailed for just over $20K. That was about twice the mean household income then. In 2014, median income for the middle quintile was $54K. What kind of certificated airplane can one buy for $108K? There's your problem. Would I run down to my local Cessna dealer and buy a 2016 C172 for ~$125K? In a New York minute. Would I do so for ~$400K. Not on your life. So what's left? Keeping my own airplane up and running and relevant. The avionics update aspect, then, is of interest to me and I can't wait for more options. I looked seriously at LSA and cannot justify the cost vs performance numbers. The 1,320 pound weight limit. two passenger capacity and little room for baggage issues blows that category of airplanes out of the water, for me. Aside from specialty subsets -- like the Carbon Cub subset you wrote about -- LSA hasn't been a spectacular success for that reason.

I looked at the FAR 23 update and they totally left out the new airworthiness category that the ARC recommended -- Primary non-Commercial. Rather than having EAA do a one-at-a-time STC of non-certified avionics, the P-NC category would have allowed this, carte blanche. I question why the FAA even bothers with aviation rulemaking committees if they're going to subsequently cherry pick their recommendations. I counted 108 signatories to the final report from every alphabet soup org you can imagine. If MY signature was on it, I would be offended that the FAA blew this item off.

I see Tort reform as having more potential impact on cost than the FAR Part 23 rewrite.

Dave's comment is very relevant. Each aviator, aircraft owner and interested bystander has parochial interests and needs. Unless those are satisfied, all of the above matters not. We can hope -- and I AM upbeat some. Medical relief will positively impact my long term hope to continue aviating until I decide it's "time." FAR Part23 -- without the P-NC aspect -- will have no impact for me. The EAA / Dynon collaboration has the possibility of being a game changer BUT ... if one still has to go through the STC process, I question how much.

For gosh sake ... would the "fat lady" please sing !!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 16, 2016 6:19 AM    Report this comment

New airplane costs are an enormous factor affecting GA participation; Paul has written about this topic many times. While legal liability is an important factor, I think the low production rates and ossified regulations are the principal drivers of astronomical cost. Today's aircraft delivery numbers are puny compared to the golden years of yore -- GAMA reports that 143 172s were delivered in 2015; that was equal to a typical month back at "peak GA." I figure that to be 1966 when Cessna made 1597 172Gs (according to a type club website). All the fixed costs are split among each unit you produce ... today we are splitting the fixed costs among less than a tenth of the peak production. Basic microeconomics are against us here. All this production a/c gloom reminds me: I need to order more 5/32" Clecos -- never seem to have enough.

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | May 16, 2016 8:34 AM    Report this comment

A most excellent typo up there...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | May 16, 2016 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Paul - Do you think we can turn this into a Quadfecta if we can capitalize on the TSA wait-line frustration. Perhaps "Learn to Fly" tables positioned where all the frustrated passengers can pick up flyers and talk to a CFI while waiting for their shoes to be x-rayed?

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | May 16, 2016 9:04 AM    Report this comment

The typo is a Freudian slip...or subliminal advertising, but hey, I'll take it!

Posted by: A Richie | May 16, 2016 9:29 AM    Report this comment

I don't think the TSA log jam represents an opportunity. For one thing, I'm not sure it's that bad. For another, it's likely to be transitory and third, a regular traveler would have to invest a lot of time and money in training and an airplane to represent a meaningful alternative to airline travel. And for trips over 500 miles, GA is still too expensive for people cognizant of cost.

My advice is to invest $100 in Global Entry and enjoy the TSA-Pre line. I've paid for mine many times over. If I could afford, say, $10,000 a year for a traveling airplane option, I'd do it in a minute. But I can't so I don't.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 16, 2016 10:07 AM    Report this comment

As with all things the devil is in the details on the medical reform. I read the language and I would still need to fill out the top portion of the existing FAA medical form. Now, what the instructions will be to my physician related to the answers I provide on that form is what interests me. Will instructions to my physician include telling me that I cannot fly because of an answer I provided without a series of expensive tests that prove I'm still healthy?

I don't want the FAA involved in my medical history. I want my doctor and wife involved and that's it. I'll wait and see but I'm not holding out much hope that much will change. I hope I'm wrong.

Posted by: jay Manor | May 16, 2016 10:57 AM    Report this comment

I don't know enough about the Part 23 rewrite to understand its full impact. I'm with you that it won't be the trigger that gets new airframes onto the market at a price that even an upper middle class buyer can reasonably afford. New airframes will still be a privilege of true wealth, and even if that's not ideal, it's not going to change for a while. I'd love it if planes were priced more like boats, but I'm not sure I'd like if if the average boat driver was sharing the airspace with me, so I'll take what we've got for now.

I do wonder if the Part 23 rewrite would have any impact on used plane maintenance costs. Does it do anything to make getting PMA parts certified easier? I feel like that could have a substantially larger impact on the overall cost of flying, especially at the higher end of the owner-flown market (think Mooney, Beech, Cirrus).

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | May 16, 2016 11:31 AM    Report this comment

Careful Paul. Too much optimism and they may revoke your curmudgeon card! I agree that alll these things are good, but will not open any floodgates. My personal favorite is the EAA/Dynon partnership since it holds the most promise for keeping the legacy fleet viable. I would really like to upgrade my Cessna autopilot, but spending 1/3 the value of my airframe on a new AP, especially after dropping major dollars on an ADS-B upgrade, is not in the cards. Maybe if they could work on that aspect.... (hey, a guy can hope!)

As Larry says, adding tort reform to the mix would definitely help, but don't hold your breath. Congress is basically staffed by lawyers who have no intention of killing their golden goose. Still, 2016 is shaping up to be a good year!

Posted by: John McNamee | May 16, 2016 12:06 PM    Report this comment

It just hit me ... if ONLY we could get 'him' to say, "Make GA great again." Yeah, right.

WHAT typo ???

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has decreed that before the end of 2016, private pilots will no longer have to undergo the equivalent of our medical. They'll only need to possess a regular driver's license and do an online form declaring they meet the requirements. If they're under 70, they do it once. If they're over 70, they'll need to do it every three years. It gets a bit more convoluted but -- basically -- that's it.

As good as THAT is, worth noting is that the CAA has now instituted a mission statement which is superbly encouraging:

Only regulate directly when necessary and do so proportionately
Deregulate where we can
Delegate where appropriate
Do not gold-plate, and quickly and efficiently remove gold-plating that already exists
Help create a vibrant and dynamic GA sector in the UK.

If ONLY we could make these mission statements applicable within the US !!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 16, 2016 1:57 PM    Report this comment

Larry Stencel,

That's a GREAT idea! And why not? There will be a change of Administrator coming along, and whether the Trifecta goes through or not, eventually we will need to have a new mission for the GA Caucus.

A new FAA mission statement sounds just like what's needed. Deregulate/delegate the regulation of personal aviation to pilot/industry groups...

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | May 16, 2016 2:35 PM    Report this comment

John, that autopilot project you're wanting is being pursued. I got it off the record, but we may see something this summer. We'll keep our ear to the ground and report as soon as it breaks ground. There's quite a lot going on, actually.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 16, 2016 4:26 PM    Report this comment

" adding tort reform to the mix would definitely help" I certainly hope for this but remain doubtful. I think that reducing the cost of tort insurance and litigation within our industry is an improbability.
"The future ain't what it used to be." But it looks good for the Trifecta.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 16, 2016 5:15 PM    Report this comment

Oh, I've still got plenty of interest in flying...but right now it would cost me five figures to collect enough data to get a special issuance that'd be good for a year, maybe, and run a serious risk of denial - at which point I can't even fly an LSA. In what universe is that a good risk to run?

I'll still need to spend several thousand dollars to get a medical - maybe - under PBOR II. That's a little more likely to happen, but not a lot.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | May 16, 2016 5:20 PM    Report this comment

Paullyanna Bertorelli, I never thought I'd see the day.

Posted by: Richard Montague | May 17, 2016 7:10 AM    Report this comment

".. that autopilot project you are wanting is being pursued". Paul, now you have my attention! Please keep me (us) informed on this. I spoke with the Trutrak people at Sun 'n Fun following the EAA announcement and they said they were definitely intetested in working towards that end. They make a great line of autopilots with modern brushless digital servos.

EAA was smart to pursue the "equivalent safety" angle on avionics modernization. Dynon, Trutrak and Garmin have thousands of very capable avionics suites and autopilots flying in homebuilts and LSAs today. That pretty well demonstrates their capabilities, which would be a good fit for the lower end of the legacy market (Cherokees, 172s, etc.).

Posted by: John McNamee | May 17, 2016 11:18 AM    Report this comment

OK Larry, just for you (but don't tell Paul I told you): see the 1st sentence in the 5th paragraph.

It's a clever subliminal attempt to get the GA market rolling again.

Posted by: A Richie | May 17, 2016 2:39 PM    Report this comment

Lol, thanks Richie, I missed it too!

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 17, 2016 4:52 PM    Report this comment

Paullyanna = an excessively cheerful and optimistic person. LOL!!!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 17, 2016 5:42 PM    Report this comment

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