Have We Hit The Trifecta?
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reporting on: the Part 23 revision, Third Class Medical reform and an unmistakable loosening of the over-stringent and outdated regulations that keep owners from installing non-certified avionics in their aircraft.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.