Cost Remains The Real Issue Behind Flight Training Numbers

Flight instructor working with student on ground training

Endangered species? Many students can’t afford flight training

Despite a recent Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) research study to the contrary, cost remains the primary hurdle to both new pilot starts and general aviation industry growth, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in an unprecedented position to change all that. The aviation industry as a whole, and especially the recreational side of general aviation (GA) is suffering the devastating effects of the perfect storm: skyrocketing fuel prices, declining discretionary incomes, virtually no financing for instruction or aircraft, increasing maintenance costs, community efforts to close airports, and punishing coverage of the industry as a whole from the media. It’s no wonder most aviation-based business are struggling.

To prove my point, let’s consider a hypothetical world where the cost of earning a private pilot license in today’s dollars is around $500, total. How many people would be signing up at your local flight school right now? I believe the sky would be dark with trainers as a huge percentage of the population flock to their local airport in search of flying lessons. And how many times have you heard a former student pilot say, I have all the money I need to earn my pilot’s license, I just didn’t like the instructor”? If you’re like me, it’s never happened. After providing all the excuses about “not enough time” or “can’t pass the test”, student pilots who did not complete their training usually complete the discussion with “and flying is just too expensive”.

AOPA’s 2010 study concluded that about 70% of the people interviewed expressed a desire to learn to fly for recreational or personal business. From these numbers it’s easy to see that most prospective pilots are going to have to pull the money out of discretionary income. Sure, outfits like Pilot Finance, Inc. can help, and some people resort to using a credit card to foot at least part of the bill, but the reality is many student pilots have to decide whether to put gas in the car, or gas in the plane, because they can’t afford to do both.

And that’s exactly where the FAA is poised to make a difference. Over the years, the FAA has created a truly remarkable air transportation system, and they deserve credit for merging air travel, training, and maintenance practices together into an extremely safe aviation industry. But that success has come at price, and I believe we’re all paying that price now. The very layers of paperwork and oversight that have created our safe system have inflated prices to the obscene for just about everything in the aviation world. Aircraft parts, when compared to their automotive counterparts for example, are typically many times the price for virtually the same piece of equipment, and most of that cost difference can be traced to FAA bureaucracies (with a fair share spilling over to liability insurance as well). Just this week, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt commented that the agency is possibly facing large budget cuts and layoffs. If that’s the case, this seems like the perfect time to re-analyze the current state of aviation regulation and loosen the grip, just a little, in key areas the FAA oversees. While we’re at it, why don’t we pass legislation that could severely limit the legal liability of aviation manufacturers. Both of these efforts could help drive down the overall costs of flying.

Let’s face it, aviation world… learning to fly is just too expensive. That’s the problem. And until that changes, we’re in for a long, painful “recovery” from our current state. I think the aviation industry has reached TBO and needs an overhaul. The sooner the better.

I’d like to hear what you think… please answer our poll question on Facebook “Is the cost of flight training the primary hurdle to earning your pilot license?


Babbitt: Budget Cuts Are At Tipping Point
AOPA – A Survey of Students, Pilots, and Instructors (pdf)

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