Why Small Plane Aviation Boomed In The Covid Economy

Why Small Plane Aviation Boomed In The Covid Economy — And Why The Future Is Electric. Q&A With AOPA’s Chief, Mark Baker Rich Karlgaard

Rich Karlgaard Forbes Staff
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Note: the following transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

Video of my interview with AOPA’s Mark Baker here:

Our guest today is Mark Baker, President of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. AOPA is a Frederick, Md.-based not-for-profit membership organization with more than one-third of a million pilots and aircraft owners. AOPA was started in 1939, when the DC-3 was an icon of civilian aviation. AOPA’s mission today is fourfold: to improve the private aviation safety, grow the pilot population, preserve and improve community airports and provide a positive image of general aviation.

Mark became AOPA’s fifth president in 2013 after a successful business career that included the CEO job at Orchard Supply Hardware and senior executive positions at Home Depot and other national retailers. He is a Minnesota native and enthusiastic pilot with nearly 10,000 hours of pilot-in-command time. We will talk about his favorite airplanes in a bit. But first, Mark, let’s tackle the big issue at hand – how is GA holding up in the COVID economy?

Mark Baker: Actually, it is a good story. General aviation is in a mini boom right now. Flights are up 10-15% as are fuel sales. Most days, there are actually more 172 Cessnas in the air than there are Boeing 737s. So general aviation is thriving.

Karlgaard: Congrats – I would not have made that guess in March. Can GA keep it up if the Covid economy keeps performing at some substandard level?

Baker: Certainly, the economy matters. People need to have jobs and discretionary income to use their aircraft or buy aircraft. So the economy does matter. But I also believe we are seeing a sustained interest to alternative forms of transportation. Particularly if you have a high-performance single, or twin, or even a light turbine. There are over 5,000 public airports that general aviation can access. Most of these airports are closer to your destination. I think it is an exciting time for general aviation.

Karlgaard: Commercial aviation is cheaper and safer, however.

Baker: Well, there is no question about it. The airlines have provided great value and safety for moving people around the country. But GA offers a different value proposition. If you do not feel safe from a transmission of virus issue on a commercial flight, GA is an alternative. GA also competes on convenience. By the time you go to the commercial airport, wait for your turn to get on the airplane … even a high-performance piston single can beat the total time elapsed on most flights within 400 to 500 miles GA is also twice as safe, from a fatal accident rate, from just twenty-years ago.

Karlgaard: From airframe parachutes to the glass-panel situational awareness about weather, terrain, traffic and engine health – the rate of innovation has been impressive. One of the successful AOPA lobbying efforts has been to remove the regulatory burdens that prevented these safety-enhancing technologies from being retrofitted into older planes. It seems kind of odd that it should have been hard to do.

Baker: Yeah. Getting that done with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) was a bit of a challenge but the industry came together and today we are seeing lots of big technology upgrades being done to the fleet.

Karlgaard: One of AOPA’s missions is to preserve and enhance smaller airports, which pits you against those who want to shut them down. How is that battle going?

Baker: It’s important to look at the numbers. There are more than 5,000 airports in this country. The airlines serve less than four hundred of them. And these 5,000 airports were paid for by the taxpayers over the years and in some cases converted from military strips to civilian strips. All this created a great deal of commerce. There are close to a million people employed for taking care of these five thousand public-use airports. And so in the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act we got $100 million allocated to the public use airports. The money is being spent to upgrade and take care of these airports. In the case of Santa Monica, it gets prioritized because it is an earthquake relief airport. It is an airport that still has 12 or 14 years of life that we know of, and hopefully longer than that.

We’ve also spent time with state officials to see if the state funds can be used to get matching FAA funds to make sure these airports are getting their runways coated, painted, instrument approaches upgraded – the things that keep the infrastructure alive. Remember that America’s 5,000 public use airport infrastructure is unique in the world. There is not another place in the world that has this kind of access at every state level. So we are very active in making sure that those projects get done and get funded.

Karlgaard: Let’s talk about AOPA’s goals to grow the pilot population. If more young people become pilots, the level of support for community airports in general aviation will go up.

Baker: That is right. And so about half a dozen years ago, we assessed that very issue. People’s perception of safety matters, and there, as I said, the news is good. General aviation is twice as safe as it was 20 years go. We also started a program called “You Can Fly.” It talks about all phases of the aviator’s life, but the first and most important piece to me was to create a high school curriculum for aviation. The goal is for young people to take this STEM curriculum as an elective. There are now four hundred classrooms teaching the Aviation curriculum and about eight to ten thousand high schoolers enrolled.

Another thing we look at is the demographic. Only six percent of the active pilots in this country are female, but about 23 percent of the people taking this Aviation curriculum are females. Minority pilots make up only five or six percent of the pilots population as well. Well, it turns out about 35 percent of these students taking this are from under-represented groups. So we are reaching inner-city, suburban and rural kids in this program, and we are at the very early stages now.

We are working with the FAA to get permanent funding for the Aviation curriculum. I really care about outcomes with these kids that are going to get exposed to aviation. Not all of them will become pilots. Some may want to be a mechanic or air traffic controller. But just becoming a community friend of the airport, and knowing what airports do, is also an important outcome.

Karlgaard: You were CEO of Orchard Supply Hardware. What are the parallels and differences in being CEO of a member organization like AOPA?

Baker: In both for-profit and non-profit, there is a value proposition stream. Why are people willing to pay a membership fee? Why will somebody come and shop at your retail outlet and buy your product? It’s because there is a value there. So our job at AOPA is to show members there is value there either through education, information, access to our legal services plan, and being part of this greater community that allows us pilots to have a voice in Washington DC.

But at the end of the day, I am also kind of a business guy. To me, not-for-profit does not mean we lose money. It means that we invest our member’s money into achieving different outcomes.

Karlgaard: How did you become a pilot?

Baker: Well, a quick story is that my grandfather went to school with this young guy named Charles Lindbergh. So my grandfather always had an aviation interest. My father had a job in high school cleaning DC-3 airplanes. So there was also a lot of talk about airplanes in our house. Then on the weekends, at the local airport, there was a thing called the “penny-a-pound” ride. So as long as I was fifty pounds or less, my parents were willing to throw the fifty cents away and let me go for a ride in the airplane, which I wanted to do as often as I could.

I got my first airplane when I was in college with a friend for $4,500. That was my very first airplane and I have owned over a hundred different airplanes since then. I’m now approaching more than 10,000 hours of flying time.

Karlgaard: Which airplanes you’ve owned or flown stand out in your mind?

Baker: I have had the opportunity to fly World War II planes and the Ford Tri-motor that was actually flown by Lindbergh. I’ve flown bombers. I’ve owned business Jets to get to different business meetings. I’m type-rated in everything from a DC-3 to the most recent Cessna Citation.

But today my yellow Super Cub is my favorite airplane. I bought it from the original owner who bought it new in 1953 and I’ve put a couple of thousand hours in that airplane, from the bottom of Mexico to the top of Hudson Bay, to the West Coast over the Rockies, down to Florida, up to East Coast. Bear in mind that the Super Cub only goes a hundred miles an hour.

Karlgaard: What other planes do you currently own?

Baker: I have a Cessna 185 which has a 300-horsepower motor. It’s a backcountry kind of airplane. I have an old King Air F90 and a Cessna Caravan on floats.

Karlgaard: I took up flying in my mid-40s. How does one become a pilot today?

Baker: Go to our website aopa.org. There is a lot of information there. We are always working and continue to work with flight schools and upgrading their customer service. Then take the first step and go down to the airport and go for an introductory flight. Try a couple of places until you feel good about the flight school and the instructor.

The minimum number of hours you need to get a pilot’s license is about forty. The average today is around seventy.

Karlgaard: Cost?

Baker: You could kind of average of between seven and ten thousand dollars based on how much time you commit and whether you commit to get it done fast. AOPA is committed to helping flight schools become better operators because 60% of students drop out. And it’s not usually about money. It’s about instructors leaving for other jobs.

Karlgaard: Today, the vast majority of the piston airplanes run on 100-octane, low-lead fuel. But leaded fuel’s days are numbered. What is the future of small-airplane propulsion technology – and fuel?

Baker: So the Congress has set aside $6 million a year to help us understand what are the alternatives to lead. So far, they haven’t found the magic bullet for the high-performance piston engines of more than 200 horsepower. Engines under 200 horsepower – most of the fleet – have alternatives today, including premium auto gas. That is a pretty good-sized part of the fleet. For whatever replaces 100-octane low-lead, AOPA wants to sure it is economically viable.

Right now it appears the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative is a few years away from sorting out the best alternatives for the higher horsepower engines. It is not just about the engines, it’s also about the materials compatibility and all the other things that go into a very complex process. Aircraft engines have to work consistently in cold and hot , high and low, and in all kinds of different power settings on the aircraft. So PAFI is working through it. But what I am really excited about is alternative propulsion like electric and hybrid gas-electric.

Karlgaard: Electric flight has been demonstrated, but the range limitations are really constricting.

Baker: In some cases pure electric is a limitation because weight density for energy of battery cell. That’s why a hybrid engine seems to be kind of the most exciting thing right now. You can take off on a gasoline piston-driven engine and then cruise on the electric engine and charge the battery with propeller when you are in the descent and all those kind of things that can do it there. Pure electric airplanes will be great for training airplanes because the average lesson is only an hour to an hour-and-and half.

To me the really encouraging thing is how new propulsion technology can reduce the cost of airplane rental for instruction. I think we’ll see pretty exciting things in two to three years that reduces trainer airplane rental costs from more than $100 an hour to around $25 an hour. The new EV trainers also will produce much less noise, keeping the neighbors happy.

Karlgaard: Mark Baker thank you for taking the time to catch up. It is terrific to learn that general aviation is booming now, with exciting days ahead.

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Rich Karlgaard

Karlgaard, R. (2020, October 07). Why Small Plane Aviation Boomed In The Covid Economy – And Why The Future Is Electric. Q&A With AOPA’s Chief, Mark Baker. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/richkarlgaard/2020/10/07/why-small-plane-aviation-boomed-in-the-covid-economy—and-why-the-future-is-electric-qa-with-aopas-chief-mark-baker/