General aviation trends in charts—2021 update

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Four years ago, I tried to capture the state of general aviation (GA) in 12 charts, covering everything from new airplane shipments to fatal accident rates. At the time, those bar and lines suggested activity was picking up, albeit from a fairly depressed level. An industry as varied as general aviation cannot be summed up in a few charts, but sometimes graphics tell the story better than thousands of words and many readers told me how helpful that article was.

Many things have changed since 2017—some for the better—so I thought it was time for an update. Here are 18 charts that show current trends in general aviation: flight activity, training trends, pilot demographics, active airplanes, and safety. Almost every one shows some scars from the Covid-19 pandemic, but other important trends are detectable as well.

Current activity

Let’s begin with the question on many readers’ minds: how is GA doing right now? There are dozens of ways to answer that question, but one popular place to start is new aircraft sales. Theoretically, more people buying new airplanes means a healthier industry. Here the news isn’t great: sales are trending up slightly, but they are still down from the mid-2000s peak, not to mention the glory days of the 1970s and 80s. Even business jets, a growing part of aviation lately, have not recaptured their previous heights. This might change given how tight the used market is right now—20-year old Cessna 172s are selling for well over $200,000 and low time business jets are almost impossible to find—but it’s hardly guaranteed. Also note that this data, from GAMA, does not include experimental aircraft and right now kit sales are through the roof. That would improve the picture, but even this adds hundreds of airplanes, not thousands.

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New airplane sales capture only a tiny sliver of the overall market, though. How about flight activity? Tracking this is surprisingly hard, because many GA flights do not use ATC services or land at busy airports. Still, FAA stats can give a broad view of flight activity and here the story is similar to new airplane deliveries: trending up over the last few years, but still down from 20 years ago.

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Another measure of GA activity, in particular piston airplanes, is avgas use. This is relentlessly down, suggesting that any increase in activity is made up of either turbine airplanes or more efficient piston airplanes (trainers and LSAs instead of big piston twins). Longer term, this chart is a reminder that leaded fuel’s days are numbered. Whether it’s GAMI’s new unleaded 100 octane fuel or electric airplanes, it’s hard to see a bright future for 100LL.

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It’s interesting to compare these trends with the turbine airplane world. FlightAware does a nice job of breaking things out, first for commercial airlines. It’s easy to see the “Covid cliff” in March 2020, then the slow climb out of the valley. Even today, though, airline traffic is down about 20% on 2019 levels. Many pundits are speculating whether some amount of business travel is lost forever.

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Business jets, on the other hand, are booming and probably picking up some slack from the airlines. In the chart below, FlightAware defines “Business Aviation” as any turbine flight that is not cargo or commercial (essentially Part 91 or 135), and summer 2021 activity was noticeably above 2019 levels. Anecdotal evidence suggests a whole new segment of customers has discovered private flying during the pandemic—how many will stick around long term?

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Training

If the above charts look a little depressing, there is plenty of good news to be found in the training market. One of the first steps in the process of becoming a pilot is to pass the knowledge test, and while numbers here had been down or flat for many years, starting in about 2016 the trend reversed. You can see a downturn in 2020, most likely due to Covid shutdowns, but the pattern is still clear.

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The next step is the checkride, and here we can track how many Private Pilot certificates are actually issued. This next chart looks at original certificates (not add-on ratings), and the trend is the same: up significantly since 2010. Even Covid couldn’t slow down checkrides much last year.

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The cause of this training boom is clear: airlines are hiring at the highest rate in decades. Data from FAPA.aero show a sudden stop in 2020, but in an encouraging sign for student pilots, hiring has picked up quickly. In fact, August 2021 was the second highest month for new hires in 20 years. Most airlines are still projecting a pilot shortage over the next decade.

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Profile of GA

So much for the overall numbers; who are the pilots flying in 2021? One trend has continued since 2017: more and more of them are professionals. Whereas once there were half a million pilots flying mostly for fun, today there are actually more ATPs than Private Pilots. Airlines and fractionals have grown steadily while recreational flying has declined, and that’s reflected in the crossing lines below.

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As a result of this trend, all pilots are old, right? Not necessarily. While there’s a noticeable bump after age 50, it’s worth remembering that 20-30 is the peak time for pilots. Sure, many of these are training for a career as a professional pilot, but they still bring youth and energy to an industry often criticized for being stale. The other theory that is confirmed by this data is the mid-life dip: learning to fly in your 40s, a time typically busy with growing children and careers, is not easy. Should GA’s marketing machine focus more on the 20-30 segment and the 50-60 crowd?

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Moving from pilots to aircraft, we can see clearly that the piston single is still the dominant way to fly. For all talk about the growth of business jets and turboprops, a Piper Cub, Cessna 172, or Cirrus SR22 is still the way most of us get airborne.

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When it comes to hours flown, though, the tables are turned. The FAA’s GA Survey estimates that turboprops and jets (not to mention helicopters) fly twice as many hours per year as piston airplanes do.

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Another way to slice the data is to look at when these active airplanes were built. Looking at the graph below is like reading a short history of GA: you can see the short postwar boom in 1946, the overall peak in the 1970s, and the more modest spike in the 2000s. The fact is, the majority of GA airplanes are over 40 years old—and based on the new airplane deliveries chart above, this trend won’t reverse.

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And how are these airplanes being used? Mostly for personal and instruction, but the pie chart below is a reminder of how varied GA really is. From cropdusting to air medical to air taxi, there is a lot going on in the skies over America.

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One final trend in this area is interesting, if not surprising: pilots are not using legacy resources to file flight plans like they once did. In an age of electronic flight bag apps and smartphones, a call to Flight Service just isn’t what it used to be. Even DUATS flight plan volume is down steadily, as more apps submit flight plans directly.

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Safety

Finally, a look at safety. GA accidents, both overall and fatal ones, have declined by about 20% over the last 20 years. This is obviously good news, and recent advances deserve credit, from better training to new technology. But the overall number of accidents seems to have leveled out recently, and this gross number does not take into account how many hours were flown (or under what conditions). On a per-hour basis, the fatal accident rate is essentially unchanged.

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What leads to these crashes? The top cause sits in the left seat. Whether it’s due to lack of proficiency, poor decisions, bad luck, or even health problems, pilots cause almost two thirds of accidents.

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The gold standard in aviation safety is clearly the airlines. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows a stunning decline in fatal airline accidents over the decades. Flying on a US airline in 2021 is truly is safer than driving to the airport, with a fatal accident rate per 100,000 hours of almost zero since 2010. For comparison, the AOPA Air Safety Institute estimates the general aviation fatal accident rate in 2018 was 0.74 per 100,000 hours—and 2018 was probably the safest year ever. There is work to do.

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Where are we?

These charts are like a Rorschach test: pessimists can find plenty of evidence for GA’s continuing decline into obscurity, while optimists will point to signs of life in the training market. The truth is, unsurprisingly, somewhere in between. The go-go days of the 1970s, when Cessna was shipping thousands of airplanes ever year, are clearly gone forever—flying yourself in a light airplane is simply a niche hobby. At the same time, it’s clear that things are better than they were five years ago in many ways, from flight training to business jet flying.

General aviation is, as always, what you make of it.

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