Pilot population trends

In the U.S., AOPA president Phil Boyer wants to know how to stop the pilot population from declining — it has fallen below 600,000, and is still heading downhill.

No surprise, really. Flying is a fuel- and land-intensive pastime, when both oil and real estate are expensive and in short supply.


In Canada, as of September 2007, there were 61,109 pilot licenses and permits in force, with an additional 7,683 student permits [Transport Canada]. If we had the same population as the U.S., that would be the equivalent of nearly 628,000 active pilot licenses. Granted, that’s licenses/permits and not pilots, and a few pilots will hold multiple licenses or permits (e.g. fixed-wing, helicopter, and glider), but it’s probably true that Canada has proportionally more pilots than the U.S. Furthermore, the number seems to be holding fairly steady — ten years ago, in 1998, there were 61,241 licensed pilots (excluding student pilots?) [Transport Canada].

Positive or negative vibes?

What’s the difference? After all, we’re paying slightly more for fuel than the Americans are. One thing might be the hysteria about security and terrorism in the U.S., which paints pilots and planes as, if not exactly potential terrorists, certainly high risks.

Why get involved in a pastime that will make people look at you suspiciously, where your state or city will try to run extra security checks on you, where you read in the news about small planes being intercepted in constantly-changing TFRs, where the less talented investigative reporters will sneak onto your little community airfield to see if your Cessna’s door is unlocked so that they can run a scare story on the news that evening?

That won’t turn everyone away from flying, of course, but it will make some difference — we’re all sensitive to what our friends and neighbours think. In Canada (and, I suspect, parts of the U.S., like Alaska), people still generally react positively when they hear that you’re a pilot, though they learn quickly not mention the weather as a topic of conversation.

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7 Responses to Pilot population trends

  1. Viennatech says:

    If the Americans were less afraid of their own shadows then flying would be what it is, a great pastime and a good way to go places. It’s as if the powers that be NEED the masses to live in fear. Why? I’d assume it’s because it makes it very simple to force a generally privacy oriented people to accept atrocities like the “patriot act” and it stimulates the economy. Canada is also victim to these scare tactics. Every time you put on the news you see it. “make sure you have enough food and water to survive for three days”. It’s a tricky way to make you spend money on stuff you might not otherwise buy. Overall the economy does well. If you want to tap a phone conversation and you don’t need a warrant, you just need to scare the people into thinking they NEED it for their SAFETY.

    Sad really. I think for true safety we need less of this type of stuff. (that’s the nicest word i could find to desacribe it) 🙂

  2. phil says:

    Walking to my rented 172 in Oakland CA, I noticed that the apron was littered w/big iron. I stopped and took out my point and shoot and as I took a picture an employee of the fbo ran out and told me that I was in violation of the safety rules and that I could have my camera confiscated.

  3. david says:

    phil: We’re not immune to silliness in Canada, either: things can be wildly inconsistent.

    In southern Ontario, many of the medium-sized airports with airline service have only token security — often they have open gates as well as direct access through FBOs. More than once, I’ve arrived to find the (non-pilot) person I’m visiting sitting out at a picnic table airside waiting for me, while airline travelers are having their shoes x-rayed in the public terminal 100 meters away.

    In northern Ontario, on the other hand, security tends to be much stricter, and the FBOs often don’t even have landside access — the only way to get to an FBO or your plane is to present your id to the security guard in the public terminal and get let out onto the field. I wonder if the northern airports got special government grants, with extra security as one of the conditions.

  4. Soulie says:

    David – One thing I can add, I talk about flying to my coworkers constantly. What was originally a bunch of guys who were leary at best and hostile at worse about Those Little Planes are now and worst agnostic, and at best sort of curious. They read newspaper articles about accidents with a more skeptical eye, they ask questions, and even want to know what the weather is doing what it’s doing. I have talked two people into looking at training, or rekindling an involvement in flying, by pointing out flying doesn’t have to be financially crippling or other-wordly dangerous.

    The fact is, pilots can bitch about Them, but won’t take the time to engage. And there will always be more of Them then Us.

  5. david says:

    Soulie: excellent point about engaging the public. On a bigger scale, I remember reading about one U.S. airport recently that gave up some of its grounds for a city park and playground, so that families can come and have picnics or watch the planes take off through the fence.

    My own home airport, Ottawa/Rockcliffe, is literally a display at the Canadian Aviation Museum (which is located on the south side of the field) — they have video cameras that kids can use to watch planes take off, windows facing out onto the field, etc. The airport is in the middle of Canada’s capital and 4th largest city (for any non-Canadians reading).

    CYRO is only 3 nm from the Parliament buildings and much less from the Prime Minister’s and Governor General’s residences. Right off the threshold of 09 is the field where the RCMP Musical Ride horses graze. Still, nobody seems to worry about the airport being a security concern. There are almost always cars parked on the access road watching planes land and take off, and the public is welcome to come and picnic or play frisbee on the grass. Like many urban airports, it’s a quiet oasis in the middle of a noisy city. The only visible security is the mounties, who like to exercise their horses on the path that runs behind the airport and through our parking lot (not in their dress scarlets, unfortunately).

  6. Walter says:

    The apples to oranges comparison of population size to pilots might be misleading. There are other factors that has to be looked at to get a viable picture of pilot populations. Age, ratings or experience, and costs. The perception of flying and terrorism is more driven by the Homeland security crowd, than the real perception of the general population. The declining population is more driven by costs and time. It’s so much more cost effective to go into some business with a degree than it is to become a pilot and fly for the airlines. The other problem from the fun side is it takes a minimum of 40hrs to learn to fly, plus the written and exam, much less renewing your medical every 3 to 2 years. Most young kids don’t want to spend that time, or have the money to keep current or follow-though on flight training.

  7. david says:


    Good points. Another thing to consider is the role of aviation in each country. A lot of Canada (by geographical area) is more like Alaska than the continental U.S., where flying is sometimes the *only* way to get from place to place. The roads and railroads generally end a few hours’ drive north of the U.S. border.

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