Ground Clutter

Nov. 8, 2002

A Market Shift

As often admitted, my record of predicting aviation’s future has included many an embarrassment, such as predictions of the failure of Lear, the Cessna Citation and Caravan, FedEx, and the success of the Burns Aircraft and the Piper Brave. On the other hand, there have been a few successes....

Ralph Hood is a Certified Speaking Professional who has addressed aviation groups throughout North America. A pilot since 1969, he’s insured and sold airplanes at retail and distributor levels and taught aviation management for Southern Illinois University. Reach him at [email protected]

In 16 years (that’s my longest job, except with my own company) this column has predicted the growth of charter, air freight, aircraft management (although we did not foresee that so much of that management would be done by fractional ownership companies), the servicing of airlines by FBOs, self-fueling - and recreational flying.

Don't look now, but recreational flying is growing. My first trip to Oshkosh left me wondering if our industry shouldn't be paying more attention to recreational flying. That was at the end of a five-year "aviation downturn' during which real aircraft sales sank faster than the Titanic, and it was truly delightful to see a segment of aviation that was upbeat and doing business.

Since then, recreational flying appears to be booming. To see if these appearances were borne out by facts, I checked around. Nobody really has a good, all-inclusive definition of recreational flying, so it is hard to get statistics. Does it include just homebuilts? Does it also include sailplane flying and antique flying? How about homebuilts that go faster than a speeding bullet and must slow down behind a Lear on the ILS into O’Hare? What about warbirds?

One good definition includes all flying for recreation, rather than for transportation. That includes ultralights, Cubs, sailplanes, paragliders, Bearcats, and most homebuilts. Surely some of those can be used for transportation, but most are used to fly just for the fun of it.

There was a time when old-line GA folks totally ignored this segment.

Even with that definition, it is hard to measure the growth of recreational flying. Ultralights, for example, need not be registered, so we have no records. We do know, however, that EAA membership has grown by 70 percent during the last 15 years, and that may well be our best indication. Also, the registration of certificated homebuilts is up to 23,000, and growing by about 1,000 aircraft per year. No telling what will happen if the light sport category becomes a reality. (One caveat – this could all come to a screeching halt if TSA/Congress decides to outlaw all of this freedom in the name of security.)

There was a time when old-line general aviation folks totally ignored this segment of the business. Many aviation business people said they wanted nothing to do with "lawn furniture that flies." Others felt we should "be nice" to these people because, who knows, someday they might grow up and buy real airplanes. Others wondered at the time if maybe we should look at recreational flying as a new market opportunity, rather than trying to change it.

Today, one can’t help but notice little, "mostly for fun" airports busily thriving with rec pilots who rent hangar space, buy fuel, and otherwise support those airports. Sailplanes mix with ultralights, antiques, and "real" airplanes, and many people are introduced to aviation by this wildly enthusiastic segment of our industry.

I have a friend who owns and flies a Bonanza for transportation. He is currently hunting a recreational aircraft as a second airplane. Makes you think, doesn’t it?