US general aviation (GA) is poised to grow, and grow steadily - at least to 2008 - in fleet size, pilot population, aircraft use and hours flown. The US Federal Aviation Administration is predicting more than a decade of steady, incremental growth for the market. This should bode well for small-aircraft users internationally, FAA officials say, as higher production rates and more innovation should produce new models at lower prices.

There is an unstated caveat behind the FAA's rosy scenario: the brighter future predicted for private flying is likely to be null and void if the Clinton Administration saddles GA with new fees not factored into the FAA's forecast. When pressed, those same FAA officials concede that GA industry growth could quickly sour again if Administration efforts to fund the FAA with European-style fee-for-service schedules drive up the costs of flying.


Rebirth under way

Three years ago the US Congress passed a law limiting to 18 years the once-endless product liability which small-aircraft makers, suppliers and vendors carried. According to the FAA, rebirth is already under way, catalysed partly by that law and partly by the GA community's own efforts to recruit new pilots and encourage former ones to return to flying.

"We were excited to see the gains of 1996, even though we didn't exactly predict them," says John Rodgers, director of the FAA's ofÌce of policy and plans. "It gives us some interesting challenges to deal with in future forecasts," he adds. If the FAA is right this year, then 1996 is but a preview of what to expect from now to 2008. The numbers that follow are the FAA's:

-the active GA fleet was up by 6.3% in 1996 to just over 181,341 aircraft; by 2008, the fleet should be 198,000-200,000, based on growth of less than 1% a year;

-the biggest growth segment in the 1996 numbers was experimental aircraft, up by about 3,000, compared to fewer than 1,100 aircraft sold by mainstream members of the US General Aviation Manufacturers Association;

-the pilot population declined again, to under 640,000 overall, down by 15,000, or 2.3%; new-student starts fell to 58,000 from just over 60,000, a third straight lowest-in-history, although the total number of students grew by 5.2%, to 101,279, the first growth in five years.

The FAA forecasts that total pilot population will grow by 0.9% annually, to better than 710,000 by the end of 1998. Even more encouraging is the outlook for the all-important student population, which is second in growth expectations (at 1.2% annually) only to the growth rate of air-transport pilots, at 1.5%. Private-pilot growth is forecast at 0.7%.

Higher numbers of aircraft and pilots mean a healthier GA community only if the pilots fly those aircraft. On that front, as well, the outlook is upbeat, thanks to a tiny increase in hours flown in 1996, to about 26 million. Looking ahead, FAA forecasters expect a slight gain in hours flown in 1997 and about 1% a year of growth in the coming decade.

New fees desired by the White House are already the subject of intense debate, with the USA's seven largest airlines favouring a structure which shifts some costs from their passengers' current 10% ticket tax towards the smaller, low-fare, carriers, corporate aviation and private flying. The latter now pay taxes on the fuel they consume ranging from almost 5.5 cents per litre of aviation gasoline to 23 cents for jet fuel. Taxes traditionally generate more than $6 billion annually and provide slightly more than 75% of funding for the FAA.


Revised charges

The proposal which airlines and the US Department of Transportation support would charge for flight briefings, air-traffic-control services, and a host of other not-yet-defined services. The hope of supporters is to make the FAA 100% funded from the fees, which implies generating $8-$9 billion annually.

"We don't know what the effect might be of these proposals and we won't until they come into sharper focus," FAA Acting Administrator Barry Valentine says. It helps that the FAA's forecast has a positive outlook, the first in more than a decade, but that will not help efforts to sell the new fees, given strong challenges to the Administration's contention that, without billions in new dollars, FAA advancement will grind to a halt under the existing, "inadequate", excise-tax funding system now in use.

FAA officials admit that there is compelling evidence that anything which drives up costs for the "cost-sensitive" GA community can only hurt the tentative, fragile growth. FAA staff members have no answers to questions about the impact these new fees might have on the predicted growth. The fees, unknown entities as the forecast was made, could not be factored in, FAA staffers stress, but, if the small-aircraft community can weather this planned shift in funding, the outlook ahead is all good.

Source: Flight International