Becoming a Pilot at a Discount

Let’s be honest, cost is the single most prohibitive attribute of becoming a pilot.  Sure there are other reasons like fear, air sickness, and lack of interest, but for the vast majority of people I talk to, cost is the biggest issue, me included.

So how on earth can we make flying cheaper?

It is quite the tall order with fuel and insurance costs being as high as they are.  Not to mention the fact that airplanes themselves aren’t exactly cheap.  I actually just got a hold of a copy of The Pilot’s Guide to Flying on a Budget which is a great resource that I will be writing about more in the future, but it relates to the system as it currently exists rather than an actual reduction in cost across the industry.  The closest comparison that we can make might be to driving, but it isn’t quite the same.

Even a small plane like this Tecnam costs more than 10 average cars.

Even a small plane like this Tecnam costs more than 10 average cars.

Gas for your car costs approximately half as much as gas for a plane, depending on where you live obviously.  Insurance is also substantially higher due to the inherent risks of flying, as well as the greater cost of an airplane.  However, I think there is one major difference between the two markets that ultimately causes these costs to be as high as they are.

Simply put, there are a lot more cars and drivers out there than there are planes and pilots.

I don’t claim to be an economics expert, in fact I’m pretty sure I had to take one of my economics classes in college twice.  However, there is a principle that I think I understand, at least in very simplistic terms, and that is economies of scale.

For those of you that lack economic savvy like me, economies of scale means essentially that by producing something in larger quantities you can reduce the overall cost.  This is largely based on the fixed costs being distributed across a larger number of goods.

The best example that most of would recognize is stores like Costco and Sam’s Club.  It is cheaper to buy 10,000 diapers or 500 lbs of cheese because it only costs marginally more to manufacture, package, and ship that much than it does to do the same with 20 diapers or 2 lbs of cheese.

Please pardon my exaggeration, but that is the principle in essence.  In getting back to comparing driving and flying, there are a ton more cars out there than there are planes, thus pretty much everything associated with them costs more.  Driver’s Ed courses are a dime a dozen, which makes them cheaper than a flight instructor.  Cars are almost more common than people, which makes them much cheaper than a plane.  Think about it.

A brand new Cessna 172 costs somewhere in the vicinity of $300,000.  Even one that is 40 years old can cost $60,000.  Comparatively, a car that costs $300,000 would be a Bentley or something of that nature.  Thus, it is the people who can afford these types of cars that can also afford flying.

On a crew of 6 we had two females.  We need more of that.

On a crew of 6 we had two females. We need more of that.

Now, my point in this was not so spend an hour comparing cars and planes, but rather to point out that if we could increase the number of people flying we just might be able to reduce the costs to make it easier for people to afford.

As luck would have it I came across two articles today that related to just that topic.  The first is about how China is easing the rules to become a private pilot.  Prior to this announcement, which took effect last Sunday, obtaining a private pilot license in China was comparable to getting a commercial pilot license in the US, which is substantially more time-consuming, and thus more costly.

China is also working to open up its airspace to general aviation.  At the moment only about 20% of Chinese airspace is open to public use with the rest being restricted by the military.  In comparison, approximately 85% of US airspace is open to public use.  While these barriers are not present in the US we have barriers of our own, but there is a movement that is gaining steam that could lead to the growth we need, and thus possibly the reduction in cost that we want.

Dan Pimentel of the Airplanista Aviation Blog wrote about his Christmas wish for aviation in his contribution to December’s Blogging in Formation series.  In his article Dan expresses his lofty wish of having 1,000,000 active pilot certificates in the FAA database by the end of next year.  Just to give you an idea of what that would mean, there were approximately 610,000 certificate holders in 2012.  That includes pilots as well as student pilots.

With any luck I will be able to turn all three of these #avgeeks into pilots.

With any luck I will be able to turn all three of these #avgeeks into pilots.

While Dan admits to the loftiness of his goal he also provides a legitimate solution to this problem which includes three parts.  First, we need to tie aviation and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) together.  Second, the big 7 aviation organizations (EAA, AOPA, NBAA, HAI, GAMA, the Ninety-Nines, and Women in Aviation International) need to form a “power collective” as he calls it, to promote aviation.  Finally, that collective needs to push that STEM/aviation message to women and girls in junior high, high school, and college.

The number varies slightly depending on the report you read, but women pilots only make up about 6% of the pilot population.  That is just ridiculous when you think about it.  That means that of the approximately 610,000 certificate holders only 36,600 are women.  Now imagine we increase that number up to 50% of certificate holders being women, and we will get dang close to that 1 million that Dan dreams about.

Increasing the number of pilots is good for everyone in the industry as it helps to provide the variety that makes aviation so much stinking fun.  If increasing the pilot population also leads to a reduction in cost than all the better as that will only lead to even more growth thus more pilots, and even lower costs.  That is the type of cycle that I can buy into.

If that scenario did ever play itself out, then maybe the headline in The Beijing News associated with the article about China above may just become a reality:

“In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.”