Panel: General aviation needs grassroots boost

More should be done on a grassroots level to build a pilot population, protect general aviation airports and promote the general aviation industry to keep it viable, leaders of five industry trade groups said Tuesday.

The general aviation industry isn't huge, but it's not insignificant, National Business Aviation Association president and CEO Ed Bolen said during a Wichita Aero Club panel discussion about the industry.

General aviation includes 600,000 pilots, 1.2 million employees and 5,000 general aviation airports, he said.

But the industry faces a number of issues — a shrinking number of pilots, the threat of user fees, a need to move to unleaded aviation fuel, and the cost of aircraft certification.

Bolen was joined on the panel by Andrew Broom, vice president for communications at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association; General Aviation Manufacturers Association president Pete Bunce; Experimental Aircraft Association president Rod Hightower; and National Association of State Aviation Officials CEO Henry Ogrodzinski.

More should be done to promote learning to fly and help those taking flight lessons finish, panel members said.

Fewer than 20 percent of those who start lessons earn a pilot's certificate, Hightower said.

They stop for a variety of reasons, such as cost, a lack of mentorship or support network, and the quality of flight instruction, he said.

"We don't have solutions," Broom said. The AOPA has started a national dialogue to see what programs could be developed to help.

One area that could help bring down the cost of aircraft ownership would be to reduce manufacturers' costs of aircraft certification, said GAMA's Bunce.

Single-engine aircraft are certified at the same level as a business jet, he said. Developing a step certification program would help lower costs, he said.

Another issue facing the industry is the need to convert from leaded to unleaded aviation gas.

Any move must be well studied and thought out.

Unless there's an understanding of the processes, such as its distribution, the industry could end up with $10 a gallon aviation fuel, Bunce said. It would collapse under the weight of those costs.

"It's a long-term issue," Broom said. "There's no silver bullet out there."

The industry also expects to face another effort to fund the FAA using user fees.

"User fees are a really bad idea," said NBAA's Bolen. "And in Washington, D.C., it's hard to kill a bad idea.

"User fees kill general aviation."

General aviation users now pay through fuel taxes.

"It's hard to imagine anything that's better and more efficient than a fuel tax," he said.

It's easy to collect and hard to avoid, Bolen said.

User fees would also "crush the airlines," added GAMA's Bunce. But general aviation would feel it first.

The trade groups are working together to promote and help the industry, panel members said.

But they can't be everywhere.

They called on those in the industry to talk with family and friends, write to elected officials, host airport open houses and career days and speak in front of groups, they said.

Pilots should take others for rides to pass on the enthusiasm and joy of flying.

"We as a community have to become... ambassadors," said NBAA's Bolen. "We have a really good story to tell about who we are if we can get it out there."