Tuesday, December 15, 2009

GA Flying for the Broader Population is Absolutely Achievable Through the Sport Pilot Certificate and LSA Offering

Conventional single-engine piston aircraft and light sport aircraft (LSA) are two distinct markets addressing two different needs in general aviation today. The conventional single-engine piston market targets “monied” people – while the LSA market targets “common” people or broader population. We must refuse to accept the idea that general aviation (GA) flying is for the wealthy only. GA flying for the broader population is absolutely achievable through the Sport Pilot certificate and LSA offering.

Yes, the wealthy (or “monied” people) certainly can afford a private pilot’s license (or other advanced rating for that matter) – let alone a conventional single-engine piston aircraft like a Cessna 350, Cirrus SR22 or Diamond DA50 – thoroughly embracing GA flying and the unique sense of freedom it brings. And they certainly can afford to buy luxury cars and live in expensive homes, too. We welcome their contribution to consumerism! And it’s probably fair to say they comprise the likes of successful industry leaders, business owners, celebrities and other "monied" people. However, the assumption is that this market uses GA aircraft primarily for transportation rather than recreation – visiting clients, attending important meetings or events, operating multiple business locations, and more – facilitating business-related uses. They buy their aircraft based on a desire for flying and, ultimately, business demands. Therefore, primary use is business-related vs. pleasure-related. Pleasure use is likely secondary – vacationing, weekend getaways, etc. – but not necessarily recreational in the truest sense. Again, this market is ideally suited for conventional single-engine piston aircraft.

The “common” people (or broader population) likewise have an equal desire for flying, but typically have limited resources to enjoy the thrill, exhilaration and freedom of flying. The assumption here is that this market uses GA aircraft primarily for recreational use rather than transportation. Therefore, primary use is pleasure-related vs. business-related. Today, we call this non-conventional flying vs. the yesteryears of common barnstorming and grassroots sport flying. Flight plans are usually not required, and cross-country trips are characteristically rare. In fact, flying under the radar might be considered the norm. Sport pilots go fly, land, and do it all over again – enjoying the purest and most simplest form of recreational fun and adventure – for example:

• Flying around the ranch, lake, ocean, airpark or airport
• Flying airport-to-airport for a bite to eat
• Flying to a remote landing spot and enjoying an afternoon picnic
• Shooting landings (both on land and in water)
• Taking in the sights or flying in formation
• Exploring remote locations or geography and satisfying the adventurer spirit
• Doing fly-ins (i.e. camping, fishing, hiking, etc)
• Engaging in short “air rover” flights for fun – while at the same time maintaining proficiency

So, business use is not a factor, and transportation use is likely secondary – such as occasional visits to see friends or family – but limited by payload, fuel costs and other fees. Furthermore, LSA product does not necessarily require sophistication - especially since night flying, instrument flying, and long cross-country flying are either prohibited or limited in scope. So, this market is ideally suited for the Sport Pilot certificate and LSA product offering.

When you look at GAMA-FAA stats, its evident that there is a huge latent demand for the Sport Pilot and LSA market. Based on historical data regarding the average age of those currently holding a sport pilot certificate in the U.S., it’s clear that the middle-aged baby-boomer is the most active group. And I bet you’d find the majority of members in EAA chapters comprising this group, too. And yes, there are numerous factors contributing to this trend such as latent desire, disposable income, more available time, etc. This age group, who probably got hooked on flying when younger, most likely got side-lined with life, and had no other choice but to put the "dream" on hold. Perhaps even obtained a private pilot’s license and aspired to be a professional pilot – but inevitably had to suppress the dream due to work, family, lack of disposable income, and other constraints. However, today this group finally has the means to afford to fulfill that suppressed passion through the Sport Pilot and LSA offering, and are starting to pursue that life-long dream again!

Again, the middle-aged baby-boomer segment is a huge market – ranging in age from 45 to 60. They are not “monied” people, but rather “common” people with discretionary income – wage earners and small business owners desiring to learn to fly and fulfill their passion for aviation at mid-life. This segment comprises both net-new aviators who were unable to obtain a private pilot’s license when they were younger, and active/inactive aviators such as:

• Inactive, retired professional pilots (i.e. military, commercial, corporate, etc) – who still need a flying fix!
• Inactive, frustrated GA pilots – who desire re-currency but have been sidelined by life distractions and high costs for years
• Active, high-end, advanced ultralight converts
• Active, low-end, private pilot converts – who focus on recreational sport flying and want to minimize overall operating costs due to budget constraints
• Active, advanced computer pilot converts

Another huge and untapped market is the youth segment ranging in age from 16 to 29. Based on GAMA-FAA stats, this group represents the largest group of student pilots among all age groups. In fact, the number of student pilots falls off dramatically after age 29 – most likely due to affordability issues. This “Generation Y” segment is vital to the future of GA. We need to get this segment hooked on flying, and sticking with it! Growth in this segment will help meet future demand for pilots in GA – such as corporate and charter pilots. Likewise, it will help meet future demand for pilots in other professional roles – such as commercial and military pilots. The key question is – how can we get this “Gen Y” segment excited about GA and flying? Through proactive outreach! More on this in a later blog.

Probably the largest untapped market today exists within the traditional US powersports market which is approximately 60 times the size of the US piston-engine personal aircraft market, according to The Aircraft Partnership Association. According to the APA, in order to penetrate this broader market, it is critical that the average purchase price of light sport aircraft be reduced to a range of $5,000 to $50,000 - as the vast majority of new powersports vehicle purchases typically fall within this price range, the apparent "sweet spot" for sales to this broader market. In other words, the primary barrier to entry (for personal aircraft manufacturers) into the $44+ billion powersports market is the unit price or acquisition cost of aircraft, according to the APA. Unless this barrier is overcome, GA will remain stuck chasing a shrinking and aging market niche. More on this in a later blog.

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