How Low Can You Go?


A headline detailing the decline of general aviation (GA) activity would not come as a shock anyone who works (or plays) around GA or reads one of the industry publications. The news has been bad for years, and it’s left many of us simply holding on, waiting for things to rebound or stabilize. Alas, the latest statistics are revealing an even deeper depression in activity around Southern California than anyone could have dreamed.

The latest hit comes from Long Beach, where activity has declined 24% year-over-year and a staggering 47% over the past five years.

The airport statistics show that, as of June 2012, there were 106,452 GA operations, which was down from 140,820 operations during the same time period in 2011 and down from 185,563 during the same time in 2007. Other statistics show that, from 2000, when operations were at their peak, to 2011, general aviation and air taxi traffic declined by about 34 percent.

Some FBO operators at Long Beach Airport said declining general aviation traffic is not the only factor impacting the aviation business market. According to John Tary, general manager of Toyota AirFlite, recent struggles include rising general aviation fuel prices, vacancies and increased competition in a slow market.

He said today there are four main FBOs at the airport that sell gas, in addition to a few others, as opposed to only two in years past, ultimately creating an environment where there’s “less fuel to go around.” Also, while the cost to sell aviation fuel has increased, FBOs are still making the same profit margins from customers, Tary said.

“As a percentage we’re making less money and there’s a lot of factors that go into the ability to be profitable,” he said. Tary added that decades ago there were upwards of 1,200 private aircraft based at the airport and now there are less than 400. In addition, he said there also used to be five-year waiting lists to get a hangar and now he has five vacancies.

As a commenter on that article noted, with the numbers that bad, why would there be a need for Class C airspace at LGB? The one good thing we might expect out of a slowly declining airport might be less controlled airspace, but it’s doubtful the FAA will see it that way.

At Ontario, once the bright shining hope for a new international airport in Southern California, the news is not much better. Though it’s mainly an airline and cargo destination these days, passenger counts are continuing their long-term slide.

Traffic at Ontario International Airport dropped again in June by 4.36 percent. A total of 373,652 travelers flew into or out of Ontario airport last month, according to the latest statistics from Los Angeles World Airports, which owns and operates Ontario, Van Nuys and Los Angeles International airports.

In the first six months of the year, the airport’s traffic has dropped by 6.39 percent compared to a year ago.

Passenger traffic at the airport started to slide in 2007 and the drop doesn’t appear to be done.

Speaking of Van Nuys Airport, the venerable GA airport might be the ultimate example of what’s happening around the Los Angeles basin. At one time, it was the busiest general aviation airport on Earth. In 1999, the airport had about 607,000 takeoffs and landings. By 2010 it had declined to 339,000 — the lowest traffic count since 1963.

On the eve of the recession in late 2007, an economic study credited Van Nuys Airport for contributing $1.3 billion to the local economy, while generating more than 12,300 jobs.

But as the study heralded the 730-acre airport as No. 1 in the nation for propeller-driven and corporate jet traffic, it had already been surpassed by Deer Valley Airport outside Phoenix.

Two years later, employment at 15 top employers at Van Nuys Airport dropped by 41.2 percent, for a loss of 400 jobs, according to a 2009 survey by the Valley Industry & Commerce Association.

That has meant less business for surrounding hotels, bars, restaurants and airport service facilities.

At the Airtel Plaza Hotel near the airport’s storied One-Six-Right runway, occupancy rates are down “substantially,” said its owner, Jim Dunn.

“A healthy airport is a healthy hotel,” Dunn said. “If Los Angeles promotes its business airport, there will be more traffic here.”

Hangars across the runway have record vacancy rates, as high as 20 percent, while rental rates to smaller tenants have plunged, lease holders say.

On the tarmac outside, vacancies of propeller plane tie-downs are much higher.

Airplane fuel sales, whose city fees were nearly tripled two years ago, have fallen by 30 percent.

Orange County’s John Wayne Airport recently posted the numbers for June, 2012. Compared with the same period last year, GA activity declined 7.1%. The current avgas price at SNA is now $7.52 a gallon. Could that have something to do with it?

Meanwhile, in the past two years, Superior Air Parts, Cirrus Aircraft, Glasair Aircraft, Hawker Beechcraft, and other U.S. aviation assets have been sold to China. The Chinese are building general aviation airports as fast as they can. We, on the other hand, shut down an average of one airport a week in the United States.

Here in Southern California, Rialto Airport is slated for closure. Santa Monica residents are trying to close one of the world’s oldest and most historic airports. You get the picture.

If there’s a bright side to the current economic picture, it’s the “Experimental-Amateur-Built” (also referred to as “homebuilt” aircraft) category. These are aircraft which ordinary people build in their garages. If that sounds crazy, let me state for the record that the finest quality and craftsmanship I’ve seen in the aviation world comes from this segment of the aviation world.

The experimental aircraft industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Total piston aircraft shipments by professional airplane manufacturing companies was 860 units in 2011. That’s for the entire industry, mind you. By contrast, Van’s Aircraft estimates that about 420 of their experimental aircraft kits were completed the same year. That’s just one company, albeit the largest one in the industry.

Why is Van’s doing so well? As Deep Throat famously said, “follow the money”. Whether it’s airports, airplanes, or aviators, the level of activity will directly follow the money. The more it costs, the less activity you’ll find in that area. That’s why pilot training and airport usage is down. It costs too much. On the other hand, experimental aircraft give twice the performance of a comparable factory-built airplane at about 1/4 the cost. The result? More economic activity.

As this chart from EAA’s 2012 Report to Homebuilders shows, the number of registered Experimental-Amateur-Built aircraft has doubled in about 15 years.

Compare that with the factory-built general aviation fleet, which the FAA estimates will shrink for the foreseeable future:

The FAA predicts piston aircraft will drop from the 2010 total of 159,007 to 151,685 through 2023, with declines in both single and multi-engine fixed wing aircraft. The number of active piston aircraft is expected to increase beyond 2023, but only growing to 155,395 by 2032.

Sadly, the NTSB and FAA are zeroing in on the Experimental world in an attempt to make it safer. As I noted previously, GA safety must originate in the cockpit, not the Federal Register. If history is any guide, their efforts will result in a massive increase in cost which will do to the E-AB sector exactly what it did to the rest of general aviation.

Remember the joke which asks if a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? I can only hope we won’t find the answer to that question at your local airport. It’s getting awfully quiet out there, my friends.

Non-Commercial Landing Fees

Hilton Head Island Airport

As Ronald Reagan famously uttered with a shake of his head, “there you go again…”. I’ve noticed that more and more airports are starting to charge landing fees for non-commercial aircraft. Hilton Head Airport was in the news today as the latest to announce a levy for private aircraft landing at a small general aviation field.

The article notes this as the first airport in South Carolina to charge such a fee, but you can bet it won’t be the last.

During the same meeting, officials learned the state’s top aviation official objected to a related proposal that would charge private pilots to fly to the airport. Money collected under the proposal would also be used to pay for future construction, including runway lengthening.

The fee is expected to generate more than $100,000 a year.

Paul Werts, executive director of the state’s aeronautic commission, sent an email July 15 to Andres stating the fee could also be seen as discriminatory, which could jeopardize state and federal grant money for airport improvements.

“The South Carolina Aeronautics Commission is chartered to promote aviation and air commerce,” Werts wrote. “Landing fees (are) a practice that will discourage users and have a direct impact on operations” and hurt the island economy.

Hilton Head would be the first airport in the state to charge such a fee, a minimum of $10 or up to $1.65 per 1,000 pounds, whichever is greater, to private aircraft.

Currently, the airport charges commercial flights a landing fee of $1.31 per 1,000 pounds.

Private aircraft based at the airport that pay fees for permanent tie-downs or that rent a county hangar would be exempt since they already contribute to the airport’s operations, board members said.

The fee would apply to aircraft based elsewhere that fly in and out and do not pay the long-term fees.

Some members warned that air traffic at Hilton Head has declined because of the struggling economy and Delta Air Lines’ departure last fall. Imposing a landing fee could cause numbers to fall even more, they said.

Neither fee would apply to the Beaufort County Airport on Lady’s Island, where there is no commercial service and general aviation traffic is much lighter.

The landing fee doesn’t require FAA approval. The board will vote on the landing fee Oct. 20 for recommendation to County Council.

Some airport board members argue not imposing the landing fee would be short-sighted.

“We are in the black, but we’re not in the black because we have liabilities. And (we) are embarking on projects requiring the county to come up with substantial sums,” said board member and Hilton Head resident Will Dopp.

Airport revenues exceeded operating costs by about $170,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to unaudited numbers. The airport, though, owes the county general fund about $1.5 million on a loan for prior construction projects.

“A $10 fee won’t drive someone away,” Dopp said.

In the past, this sort of levy was virtually unheard of in the United States. Over the years, such fees became common at the largest international airports (LAX, San Francisco International, etc). Then some “specialty” airports such as Catalina Island, which is owned by a non-profit conservancy, began charging landing fees. Catalina is a public-use field, but the airport is privately-owned.

Hilton Head Island Airport

Landing fees then progressed to popular publicly-owned airports like Santa Monica, Jackson Hole, and Aspen. With the economy hurting and governments deep in hock, I anticipate landing fees popping up more and more as municipalities demand that the local airport turn a profit to help the general fund. I can’t help but wonder why we aren’t doing the same thing with our roads. How about a per-mile tax applied every time you get in your car?

The inverse relationship between aviation’s cost and its vibrancy are well documented. Once a critical mass of landing fee airports is reached, that’s it. The fee becomes de rigueur, and we become Europe or Asia, where landing fees are high and omnipresent, and aviation activity is extremely low.

In fact, it seems the airport authority is hip to that fact, because they’ve estimated the landing fee will only bring in $100,000 per year. At $10 a pop, that’s 10,000 aircraft per year, or 27 landings per day. As a vacation spot with only 80-some aircraft based at the field, it seems they are anticipating a big drop in transient traffic. That should be great for the local economy, wouldn’t you say?

According to the FAA, in 2007 Hilton Head averaged 159 operations (takeoffs or landings) per day. As of July, 2010, that number was down to 109 per day. Traffic has dropped by a third in just three years. Will a $10 landing fee for a small private aircraft put a further dent in those numbers? Who knows. But I think it’s safe to say once the fee is established, it’s unlikely to stay at $10 for long. If you can hit those “rich guys” for ten bucks, why not $20 or $30? Just think of all the stuff they could pay for!

Mr. Werts was correct when he stated the fee was discriminatory. Did you notice that the charge for a non-commercial aircraft ($1.65/1000 lbs) is higher that levied on a for-profit business ($1.31/1000 lbs)? The flat rate for an average GA single-engine aircraft is well over $3.00 per 1000 lbs, more than twice the rate charged for an airliner.

The bottom line is that this is just another user fee, no different that the ones being proposed for flying in controlled airspace, receiving a weather briefing, flying an instrument approach, or filing a flight plan. Talk about killing the goose! Non-commercial pilots already pay for aviation infrastructure via fuel taxes, possessory tax on hangars, property tax on aircraft, and fees for parking, overnight stays, ramp usage, tiedowns, service charges, security, and more.

If it wasn’t for all that, perhaps the concept of a landing fee wouldn’t be nearly so objectionable.

Is Flying Safe?

I receive a wide variety of aviation-related questions from non-pilots such as passengers, students, friends, family, others. Over the years I’ve realized that a fair percentage of them are really asking the same thing: whether or not flying is “safe”, especially as it concerns general aviation.

Oh, not many people come right out and ask it directly. I imagine that’s because few folks wish to posit a question which might be perceived as impudent, especially on a sensitive topic at which they are at a disadvantage. It’s a respect thing. But the question is there, hanging in the midair like a model aircraft suspended from the ceiling.

For example, rather than come right out and ask if flying is safe, I’ve seen the inquiry phrased as:

  • How long have you been flying?
  • Do you fly much?
  • Have you ever had the engine quit?
  • Have you ever had an emergency?
  • Know anyone who’s been in a crash?
  • How much training did you have to undergo?
  • How many hours do you have?

These interrogations don’t always belie a deeper question, but oftentimes they do, even if the individual doesn’t realize it. They want to know whether flying is a safe activity. And who wouldn’t?

Step back and look at it from the neophyte’s perspective. It’s a completely unnatural thing for a human being to go hurtling through the air at high speeds in a loud metal contraption. They’re transported to altitudes where the air is thin, the temperature is cold, and there’s enough altitude beneath their feet that the fall would kill them.

Everything about it says “don’t do this”. They know little of the aircraft’s design, the regulations involved, or the training, experience, and judgement of the pilot. Add in the fact that they don’t understand how something weighing thousands of pounds can magically defy gravity in the first place and it’s a wonder they’d ever consider boarding the aircraft at all. It’s just the sheer fact that so many people do fly and somehow survive the experience that gives them enough confidence to trust their lives to us.

So, dear reader, the question remains: is flying safe? As a pilot you’d expect me to say yes, of course it is. Look at the time and money I’ve invested in my flying. See all the ratings? Look at how thick my logbook is, how many different airplanes I’ve flown, or how much recurrent training I undergo. See how many magazines and web sites about flying I read every month? Check out this medical certificate which shows I’m in good physical condition for flying.

Those things are all well and good. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that aviating is not a safe activity. Hell, any fool can see that you can get yourself killed by flying!

The problem is the word “safe”. Webster defines safe as “the absence of risk”. By that definition, flying is not safe and never will be.

But then again, by that definition it’s not safe to drive either. It’s also unsafe to walk down the street, exercise, go to work, stay in bed, cook, dine out, or breathe. Nothing in life comes without risk. Risk of inhaling a germ which will lead to your demise. Risk of a terrorist attack, car accident, building collapse, natural disaster, cancer from sun exposure, drug interaction, allergic reaction. The list is literally endless.

Risk is a part of life, and that’s not something modern-day Americans are inclined to accept (much to our detriment, in my opinion). We are accustomed to a world where risk can be averted through helmets, air bags, crumple zones, seat belts, inspections, and regulations. If that doesn’t take care of it, there’s always insurance, re-insurance, government backstop/bailout, legal maneuvering, or other methodology.

Nobody wants to hear that you can’t keep your kids or other loved ones safe, but it’s true. No matter how much you bubble wrap them, life is a long stream of risk which always ends in death. Perhaps the real question is whether you want to spend your time on Earth wrapped in the aforementioned bubble or get out there and live. If it’s the former, you can stop reading now. You’re done.

If it’s the latter, what you’re really interested in is risk management, and that’s where a good pilot shines. A monkey can learn to fly an aircraft, but it takes a true aviator to manage risk intelligently. After years of teaching people to fly and doing so myself both privately and professionally, I’m convinced that this is what separates the good from the not-so-good. It’s not physical flying skill (although that’s important), it’s not vocation vs. avocation, and it certainly isn’t hours logged. It’s judgement.

No pilot wants to admit that the pilot is the weak link in the system, but statistically it’s true. “Pilot error” outnumbers mechanical failure as a cause of accidents by a ratio of about 9 to 1, and many mechanical failures can be linked back to human error, whether on the part of the pilot or a mechanic.

John King said it best in his interview “Battling the Big Lie”:

We used to teach ground school classes, and through the years, we’ve taught 15,000 people face to face. And you can’t be involved knowing that many pilots without some of them, people you respect and admire, people whom you think are competent, bright people and achievers, going out and hurting themselves, which is a euphemism for killing themselves and their passengers in an airplane. We used to read articles about pilots who had accidents, and we thought, well, you know, what they did was stupid, and I’m a smart person, so I’m probably exempt from that. But what you find is, when you know the people, that they’re not stupid people. They’re bright, achieving people, because that’s who general aviation tends to select.

Through the years, we’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the problem is pilots don’t do a good job of assessing the risks that they’re taking. And our feeling is that one of the reasons for that is that we in aviation have had a long-standing culture of telling people that aviation is safe. We have used the old line, ‘the most dangerous part of this trip was the drive to the airport.’ But statistically, it’s not true. You’re seven times more likely to have a fatality in a general aviation (GA) airplane than you are in a car, per mile. People say, well, per hour is what counts, so, okay, say 3 1/2 times as likely, because an airplane is twice as fast. The point is, you’re more likely to have a fatality in a GA airplane than in a car, traveling the same distance.

Airlines, on the other hand, are 49 times safer than GA per mile. So cars are seven times more dangerous than airlines. So where that old song came from are the airlines. The airlines have a phenomenal safety record. They have turbine equipment they’re flying standardized routes, with more than one pilot, dispatchers to help them out, etc. That’s why they’re safe. General aviation planes don’t meet that record. A Bonanza does not have the same kind of guarantees that come with a transport category aircraft.

If you’re the pilot, you have a high degree of control over your risk exposure. You get to decide what kind of weather you’ll take on, how much of the performance envelope you’re comfortable exploring, how much reserve fuel you’re comfortable with, what aircraft defects are acceptable for flight, and how illness, stress, fatigue, and emotion will affect your go/no-go decision. Yes, there are regulations for each of these items. But as anyone who’s logged more than a couple of hours behind the controls of an aircraft can attest, not everything which is legal is safe, and not everything which is safe is necessarily legal.

If you’re a passenger, you have far less control over your risk exposure when flying in general aviation aircraft, but that’s not to say you cannot control it at all. The biggest decision a passenger makes is whether to go flying in the first place. If you’re unsure about whether to accept that offer of a flight with your friend/spouse/family member, I would recommend considering many of the same items which pilots themselves are taught to look at when assessing risk:

  1. First and foremost, do you trust the judgement of the pilot? If you don’t, nothing else matters. There are hundreds of decisions to be made on every flight, and most of them won’t affect flight safety appreciably. But when a critical one comes along, you want to be flying with a person who shows good judgement. If they don’t display it in everyday life, don’t expect them to start now. You don’t want headstrong, impulsive, anti-authority, or macho.
  2. How much experience does the pilot have? They say good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement. We all make mistakes, but the more time a person’s got “behind the wheel”, the greater the odds they’ve made some errors and learned from them. This is not to say you shouldn’t fly with a low-time pilot. They tend to be methodical and safety conscious, but experience is something worth considering.
  3. How recent is that experience? Does your knight in shining armor having thousands of hours of experience? That’s good. If they were all accumulated decades ago, that’s not so good. Flying is a skill, much like driving a car or riding a bicycle. Sure, you never forget how to ride that bike, but after a long layoff you might be awfully rusty. So how much have they flown recently?
  4. How’s the weather? Many accidents are weather related. Just like sailing a boat or driving a car, the odds are better when the weather’s likewise. Poor weather is not a harbinger of disaster, but it is a risk factor worth considering. If the weather’s cloudy, is your pilot instrument rated and current, and is the aircraft equipped for instrument flight?
  5. Is the pilot experienced with the aircraft? Unlike a car, aircraft models differ remarkably from one another. A Cherokee is nothing like an Aerostar or a Baron. So how much time does your pilot have in the aircraft you’ll be flying? And how recent is that experience?
  6. Is the pilot familiar with the route? If he’s flown the route many times, he’s also familiar with alternate landing fields, terrain considerations, airport quirks, and the like. If it’s a new route and/or a new airport, the risk may be higher.
  7. Is there any pressure to make the flight? Repeat after me: you never ever HAVE to be anywhere when you’re flying. No meeting, ballgame, graduation, or wedding is so important that you’d rather die than not make it. Every pilot knows this, but pressure can be a subtle, self-induced thing. Watch for it.
  8. Did the aircraft just come out of the maintenance shop? If so, the risk is higher. Aviation mechanics are good people, but they are also human and as such are prone to the occasional mistake. The first flight after a maintenance event is statistically a time of higher risk.

Look, I’m as big a proponent of aviation as you’ll find — anywhere. But it’s a mistake to whitewash the risks inherent in flying, because it just promotes the false expectation that nothing can ever go wrong. Flying needn’t be a high-risk activity, but hopefully we can all agree that it’s terribly intolerant of carelessness. So let’s acknowledge the risks, analyze and mitigate it where possible, then get out there and enjoy the miracle of flight!

The only purely “safe” alternative is to never leave the ground, and that’s no option for me.