Threats to general aviation

According to AOPA, the biggest issue facing general aviation in the U.S. is the risk of user fees. I agree with Phil Boyer that user fees could hurt GA, especially if they are per use (as in Australia) rather than flat fees (as in Canada, with one misguided exception); however, I think that there are even bigger issues facing North American general aviation. Here, on no scientific basis whatsoever, are my top five:

  1. The end of AvGas: Almost nobody makes AvGas any more, it’s expensive to transport, and environmentalists rightly hate it because it’s leaded. Watch for it to get rarer and more expensive, with more and more shortages, over the next few years, at the same time as ethanol in MoGas renders it unsuitable for the few aircraft engines that could use it. The solution? Diesel engines, but they’re still expensive to install (nearly the whole cost of my plane), probably won’t ever be approved for all existing models, and do not yet have a significant North American maintenance network in place. Most old planes will have to be retired, and most pilots won’t be able to afford to replace ’em, so they’ll retire with their planes.

  2. (In)Security: It’s there, and it’s not going to go away. The general public has always been afraid of airplanes (I’ve posted in the past about how we exacerbate the problem by promoting air shows), and general aviation in particular scares them because it’s so lightly regulated. In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, one of the candidates was a GA pilot and went out of his way not to cause problems for his fellow pilots; in 2008, we probably won’t be that lucky. And the next time something bad happens, watch for GA to be the scapegoat even more than in 2001: we could be regulated right out of existence on either or both sides of the border.

  3. Airport closures: New residential neighbourhoods, either on reclaimed industrial land in the city or former farmland in the country, almost always mean bad news for general aviation. Airports are useful only when they’re near somewhere you want to go, so the most useful airports are typically also the most threatened: Toronto City Centre Airport is constantly under seige from nearby condo dwellers, for example, and even little Rockcliffe Airport struggles with community noise complaints (note that both of these airports have been there since before World War II). Airports aren’t the only ones who suffer from the soccer-mom onslaught: in rural areas farmers have to deal with complaints from new subdivisions about noise and smell, hunters have to go further away to hunt, and so on.

  4. Maintenance: Most of the GA fleet is, and will remain, old — very few of us can shell out $300K-$1M for a new light plane, so we have to settle for spending $20K-$150K on something older. It would take only a couple of expensive Airworthiness Directives from the FAA or Transport Canada to knock a huge part of the fleet out of the sky by requiring a repair worth more than the planes’ resale value. Furthermore, the shops that maintain these planes for us often operate on a shoestring, billing much less per hour than an auto shop, and in the U.S. a few of them are starting to refuse to work on older planes for liability reasons (U.S. law protects manufacturers from being sued once the planes are a certain age, so the shop would be the only one to go after in a crash).

  5. User fees: We’ve been paying these in Canada for a while now, and since they’ve remained low and fixed (thanks to COPA), they don’t seem to have had any impact at all on GA. However, that could change easily. If either Canada or the U.S. introduced a pay-per-use system, flying could quickly become too expensive and/or too dangerous for most GA owners. For example, if you had to pay $100 each time you filed IFR, scud running might become a bit more tempting; if you had to pay $25 for a weather briefing, you’d be less likely to talk to a specialist about icing. Realistically, I don’t think this is as big a threat as the others, but I’m still grateful that COPA and AOPA (I’m a member of both) are looking out for our interests.

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8 Responses to Threats to general aviation

  1. Dave Rooney says:

    Hi David,

    I live in Barrhaven, and have bought 3 homes here since 1993. For each of those purchases, I had to acknowledge that I understood that there was an airport nearby and as such there would be noise. Essentially, I was signing a waiver that I couldn’t complain about the noise from aircraft. To me, that makes perfect sense – if you don’t like the noise, don’t live near an airport. Of course in my case, the proximity of the airport and living practically underneath the approach to 07 was a selling point! 🙂

    It drives me crazy to hear about people who move near an existing airport then complain about noise. I should point out how much improvement has been made with regards to noise reduction in the 14 years I’ve lived here. In 1993, close to half the flights were being made in first generation 737’s, DC-9’s and some 727’s. All of these have the old JT8D’s whose noise level is only eclipsed by the occasional military fighter. When one of those aircraft took off, you had to pause any conversation until it passed.

    Now, there are exactly 4 flights per day of aircraft with that noise level – FedEx, Purolator and First Air 727’s and a single 737-200 (whose airline I haven’t yet determined). The rest of the flights have noise levels that are quite tolerable. When a 767 or occasional A330 take off, it’s louder than normal but more of a low rumble. Even the Prime Minister’s A310 is louder than most other aircraft, but you can still have a conversation without yelling as it passes by.

    Now, if you consider GA aircraft, there is only a single plane here in Ottawa that I would consider to be loud. It’s the Piaggio Avanti, which for some reason is considerably louder than any PT6 turboprop I’ve ever heard. The remainder of the GA aircraft are very quiet. I would venture that a Katana or Cessna 150 passing over at 1000 feet AGL is quieter than the neighbour’s lawn mower. You don’t hear about any ordinances forcing people to use manual lawn mowers, do you?!

    Of course, there are many, many more voters who aren’t involved in GA that are. As such, all we can do is continue to raise awareness and counter half-truths with facts.

    Dave Rooney

  2. Aviatrix says:

    I have a reader who flies a diesel C172 in Finland. As I understand it the price of avgas made the conversion a reasonable proposition.

    And I think I have heard of a manual lawnmower ordinance. I’d like to see a rake ordinance, myself. I can’t even see that leaf blowers are more effective than rakes. It’s just that for some reason if you’re blowing the leaves instead of raking them, it makes it acceptible to dump them on the street or on your neighbour’s property.

  3. david says:

    Dave: one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in aviation was an Air Canada 747 (Heathrow-bound) making a shallow, graceful right turn over Barrhaven when I was visiting a friend there (presumably after departing CYOW 25, assuming that 8,000 ft is enough runway for a 747). You’re right that it wasn’t noisy, but it was so low that it seemed to fill the sky, and I imagined that if it were a few feet lower I could see the faces in the windows. The ILS 07 approach above Barrhaven has brought me and my family home safely in our Warrior on more than one dark, rainy night. It’s a comfort to see lights start appearing below through breaks in the cloud while following the needles down with the rain pelting the windshield and flying past the side windows in horizontal streaks — Barrhaven’s a bit like a lighthouse that way, and I’m sure that the same applies even to airline pilots after a long, rough flight.

    Aviatrix: Some day the diesel conversion will make sense in North America as well, but our gas is still far too cheap for that. I expect to see flight schools switch first, since the burn a lot of gas and go through engines frequently — they might be able to make back the conversion cost in a couple of years (especially if they keep a tank of diesel on hand, rather than using Jet-A), and they’ll also have more predictable maintenance costs (the diesel engine is replaced rather than overhauled, and I think it’s warrantied for its whole TBR time) and planes that start as easily as cars (FADEC).

    My plan is to buy a used plane some day where someone has already done the conversion, or else to get rich and buy myself a new Diamond TwinStar.

  4. randall g says:

    I recently heard an Avweb podcast interview with someone at Thielert. They have a deal with one of the big Florida flight schools to retrofit over 60 of their planes with diesels.

    David, I’m with you on the TwinStar!

  5. Dave Rooney says:

    I miss the same 747’s on their way into YOW. You could seem them from miles away making that same graceful turn onto final, then look like they’re practically standing still as they crawl their way towards 07. Despite some 40 years of following aviation, the sight of something that big flying that slow still boggles my mind!

    BTW, 8,000 is plenty for the 747 at the end of the Heathrow-Ottawa trip. I’m pretty sure, though, that the heavier Air Force One had to use 32. I talked to a B-1B pilot at one of the airshows about 10 years ago… he described 32’s 9,800 feet as “interesting”! 🙂

  6. david says:

    Dave: I was confused at first by the reference CYOW 32’s “9,800 feet”, since it’s an even 10,000 ft with no displaced threshold; then I remembered that a 747 is just over 200 feet long, and a B1B is around 150.

  7. Jim Stewart says:

    I think there is still a huge potential for the LSA class of pilots and planes. You can get a beautiful CTSW for about 100k *new*. The Rotax 912 runs beautifully on premium mogas, burning 4-5 gallons an hour and getting you to your destination with better gas milage than most cars. Annuals for LSA’s are running about $500. Avionics are much better and cheaper than ever. So maybe the days of picking up a beater plane for $30k and running it cheap are drawing to a close. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other alternatives.

  8. david says:

    Jim: I think that LSA is a great idea for people who just want to buzz around on the weekend, but I’m not so sure about it for getting to your destination. The U.S. LSA rules allow only two seats, very little weight margin for baggage, no night flying, and no IFR. Furthermore, the maximum speed for an LSA aircraft is the same range as an entry-level certified aircraft like a 172 or PA-28, and I can say from experience that it’s no fun flying at 120 knots for a few hundred miles into a 50 knot headwind — for any non-trivial cross-country flying, most people want 145 knots or faster (I’m a rare exception). I’d also be pretty concerned about flying anywhere behind a Rotax engine after watching their horrible reliability record in the Katanas at a flight school here in Ottawa (most of the forced landings haven’t been reported, since there was no damage, but even then two or three have been).

    That said, you’re right that there is a good chance for lower prices and better economy. I won’t be surprised to see more homebuilts not too far from $100K with reliable, efficient diesel engines (maybe even automobile engines) and decent speed/load capabilities.

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