Industry recovering from 10-year slump Aircraft production, pilot training rise to meet pent-up demand

Aviation

October 05, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

This year, at age 15 -- even before she got her driver's license -- Blair Stahnke began learning to fly.

"Someday I'd probably like to be an airline pilot, but right now I want to get my private pilot's license and finish high school," said Stahnke, a Grand Prairie, Texas, high school junior.

Women represent a vast resource of potential pilots both for general aviation -- the world of private and business flying -- and the airline industry, which depends on general aviation as a pipeline to supply pilots.

It is a resource that has become increasingly important to an aircraft industry that has fought back from a disastrous slump and is cautiously looking forward to a period of growth.

The ranks of licensed pilots in the United States have dropped drastically during the past 10 years, from a high of 827,000 in 1988 to 616,000 last year, according to figures from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots organization.

That drop -- combined with a near cessation of U.S. production of single-engine, general aviation aircraft -- pushed the industry into an extended slump that cost more than 100,000 people their jobs, from large aircraft manufacturing plants to the 5,000 small, general aviation airports that dot the nation's landscape like measles.

But the industry is on the mend, with aircraft production moving back into high gear and manufacturers and others involved in the $15 billion-a-year business of general aviation once again optimistic about its future.

General aviation includes all flying except scheduled airline and air cargo flights.

But the world's leading producers of single-engine airplanes -- the mainstay of personal and small-business fliers -- stopped or severely curtailed production of new aircraft in the mid-1980s as product liability judgments from sympathetic juries sent liability insurance premiums soaring. Production plunged from a high of 14,398 single-engine planes in 1978 to just 444 in 1994.

Law changed

Then in 1994, the general aviation industry got a major boost. After long and hard lobbying from Cessna Aircraft Corp., Piper Aircraft Co. and others, Congress passed the General Aviation Revitalization Act, which President Clinton signed into law.

The act limited manufacturers' liability on new aircraft to 17 years, opening the door for Cessna and Piper to crank up production again to fulfill what analysts say was a pent-up demand for new single-engine planes.

The general aviation industry was reborn.

With production under way again at Cessna and Piper, the number of new single-engine planes manufactured increased to 905 last year. And Cessna alone plans to increase production to more than 2,000 a year in the next three to five years, spokeswoman Jan McIntire says.

Peter Arment, an analyst for JSA Research of Newport, R.I., says, "The elimination of long-term product liability brought renewed growth to the single-engine aircraft industry.

"I don't know whether we will ever get back to the number of units produced in the early '80s, but there is definitely pent-up demand."

Business is booming

Evidence that the industry is on the mend is found in general aviation airports. At Grand Prairie Municipal Airport near Dallas-Fort Worth, business is booming at Howell's Aircraft Service, a flight school and aircraft rental band maintenance firm operated by husband and wife Mark and Laura Howell. It's the school where Stahnke is learning to fly, and it's also where she has landed her first aviation job, as a part-time dispatcher.

"Business has absolutely gone nuts," Laura Howell says.

The Howells' flight school has 15 instructors and more than 300 students on its rolls -- including Stahnke, one of an increasing number of women who are learning to fly.

But to sustain the industry, and ensure its future, general aviation must train more pilots, manufacturers say.

"Pilots buy airplanes," says Edward Bolen, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

So the industry has formed GA Team 2000, a campaign to increase the number of people starting pilot training, from the 60,000 who began lessons in 1996 to at least 100,000 a year by 2000.

With an initial budget of $2 million, the group has placed "Stop Dreaming, Start Flying" ads on the Discovery Channel and in aviation magazines and has set up its own World Wide Web site -- www.beapilot.com.

The ads and Web site promote a $35 introductory-flight coupon that is accepted at hundreds of flight schools across the nation.

"This is an important push for the industry," says Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, whose membership comprises about 55 percent of the nation's licensed pilots.

"Now that the military is no longer training most of our future airline pilots, and because general aviation has been in such a slump, the long-predicted pilot shortage is finally upon us," he says.

So far, the push is working. New-pilot training increased 7.9 percent last year and signs are that the figure will be even higher this year, Boyer says.

Howard Van Bortel, whose Van Bortel Aircraft Co. at Texas' Arlington Municipal Airport bills itself as "The World's Largest Cessna Dealer," says business has never been better but adds that the industry needs new blood -- both male and female -- to sustain continued growth.

"We can't be an exclusive group," he says. "To keep this renaissance alive, we must attract and train the next generation of pilots."

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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