Thursday, September 11, 2008

Death of the Airport Kid

I got into flying at a very early age. I'm not sure exactly how old I was when I abandoned my interest in trains for an obsession with airplanes, but there is a surviving third grade assignment wherein I declare my intention to be an airline pilot. My first plane ride took place at the age of 11, and I flew three more times before scheduling my first flight lesson at the age of 13. Throughout my early teens, I scrimped and saved money from odd jobs just to take one flight lesson at the end of each month. Later I worked as a line boy for the flight school, which was a dream job in that I got paid - in flight time! - for doing something I'd do anyways, namely hang out at the airport. I soloed on my 16th birthday and passed the Private Pilot checkride on my 17th.

My story isn't at all unique. Airliner cockpits across the nation are populated by thousands of former airport kids. Like me, they built models, read aviation magazines, bummed rides off local pilots, washed and fueled airplanes, and in many cases learned to fly before they could drive. All of us were bitten hard by the flying bug very early on, and it predestined us for a lifetime aloft.

I've since flown with and met many of these former airport kids. As it tuns out, nearly all of them are significantly older than me. Most were making a nuisance of themselves at the airports of the 1960s and 70s; I didn't start flying until 1994. I didn't know it at the time, but the airport kid was a dying breed. Among airline pilots of my generation, the vast majority started flying in college or later. The few I've met who began flying young had pilot parents. The trends behind this change have only accelerated since then, and I fear that airport kids are becoming few and far in between.

The primary factor is money. The cost of flying has been outstripping inflation for years. Regulatory changes, increased liability, fuel price spikes, and the greater complexity of even basic aircraft have all contributed to the spiraling costs. Perhaps the greatest cause is that there are simply fewer general aviation pilots flying now than at any time in the past 40 years. Pilots who learned to fly in the 60s can recall renting a Cub or Taylorcraft for mere dollars. As late as the mid 1980s a Cessna 150 could be had for $15 per hour. By the time I started in 1994 it was up to $38/hr. Now it's hard to find any rental airplanes for under $75/hr. This is putting aviation well out of the reach of kids, at least those without well-to-do parents willing to pay for their offspring to partake in an expensive and moderately dangerous hobby.

A second constraint is the decreased availability of training. The general aviation airports of the 60s and 70s were busier places than the airports of today. The decline of the pilot population has caused many of the businesses that served them to close down. This trend has been very noticeable the last few years as fuel and other costs have pushed general aviation activity way down. Here in the Twin Cities area, roughly half of our flight schools have shut down in the last five years. Many smaller airports, including the one I learned to fly at, have been left without any flight training options at all. The would-be airport kid of today might ride her bike to the airport only to find that there's nothing going on and nobody to talk to.

The third barrier is security. This is a recent development thanks to the events of seven years ago today. Although those attacks didn't involve general aviation, apparently some ne'er-do-well somewhere talked about the possibility at some point, and that was enough. Where airport kids could once wander around even busy general aviation airports almost at will, now even many sleepy uncontrolled fields confront them with security fences and controlled-access gates. Although it's debatable whether these would pose much of a deterrent to the truly nefarious, there's no question that they're quite effective at keeping the merely inquisitive at bay.

My aunt approached me at a family function last month to inform me that my 11 year old cousin has recently become obsessed with flying. He's building airplane models, reading every aviation book and magazine he can get his hands on, and flying heavy jets on Microsoft Flight Simulator. In other words, he's me 15 years ago. How much would it cost, my aunt asked me, to get him in the air? She was visibly crestfallen when I told her that dual instruction would cost at least $110 per hour. This isn't a poor family, but like many they don't have that kind of cash lying around on a regular basis.

I suggested that she get him involved in Civil Air Patrol or the Experimental Aircraft Association. Both offer great opportunities for hands-on aviation experience, and the CAP even offers low-cost flight training for teens. My cousin is fortunate that there's a CAP wing and EAA chapter near his house; they may be the only opportunity for him to follow his dreams of flight at a young age. Many kids aren't so fortunate.

I can hear some hard-nosed pragmatist somewhere grumbling "So what if kid's don't fly? If they really want to fly, they'll do it when they're older." Yes, perhaps. As you get older, life does tend to get in the way. I have passengers remark to me on a very regular basis, "You know, I always wanted to learn to fly...." These are people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I have not yet heard one single person express regret that they pursued their goal of learning to fly.

There's another, more practical reason to mourn the death of the airport kid. A great many former airport kids have gone on to become professional pilots because, well, they had the bug and couldn't imagine doing anything else with their lives. Most of the professional pilots my age, on the other hand, didn't start flying until they'd already decided to pursue an aviation career in college or later. Their reasons vary and I suspect the fun of flying was one unifying factor, but a large part of the draw was undoubtedly the lifestyle and compensation that an airline career offered at the time. With the profession now a mere shadow of its former self and training costs ever skyrocketing, I suspect fewer and fewer people will make that choice in the future. There may come a day when the airlines need former airport kids to fill their cockpits, only to find that there are none left.


Kevin Gleeson, A.K.A. KevinSource said...

Awesome post! It's true, the expense of flight lessons is a major obstacle is pursuing it at the pace I would like to. I often wonder what will happen in the future with the decline of general aviation. Perhaps, pilots will be in such high demand, at some point, that the prestige & compensation that once came with being an airline pilot will return...Or, will pilot hiring for US carriers be outsourced to foreign countries?!

Klaus Ellegaard said...

The worst part is, the current prices you quote would be considered cheap by Danish standards.

I'm three lessons away from my PPL checkride and the cost of dual lessons has been around $375/hr. The cost of renting a reasonably new Cessna 172 is about $180/hr.

I love flying very much and I would probably have pursued a career in aviation had I had the money to pay for an ATPL at a younger age. At 36, I don't think I'd get a reasonable return-of-investment in less than 30 years of flying commercial, considering an ATPL is about $150k in Denmark.

A PPL is just fine, though. The feeling of being able to fly anywhere you want (within reason) is incredible.

One nice thing about flying in Denmark is that although security has been tightened somewhat around airports, most GA-only airfields are very relaxed.

Thank you very much for your blog! It is well-written and always interesting to read.


JerseyJohn said...

During the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school I managed to land a job as a line buy at Beechcraft East at Teterboro Airport. I didn't drive yet, I had to take buses to get there then walka few miles. It was worth it...

Sure, I washed off a lot of bugs, put up with a lot of ribbing from the tech guys and hanger rats, and was usually far off on the perimeter spraying weeds and admiring planes that rarely were flown.

And we got Viscounts, DC-9's, BAC-111 (Leona Helmsley's), and even a Hansa Jet.

Now with security and more expensive aircraft, operating costs, and corporate aviation, TEB is not a likely place to find airport bum kids.

(I love the smell of Jet A in the morning).

Anonymous said...

First, let me say I love your blog and this is a great post. Really cuts to the core of aviation and training.

I would like to make a couple of comments:
1. At 11 years old, it will be years before your cousin will be able to get his license. Any time now in an airplane would fuel his desire, but not lead him any closer to getting a license.

2. At 11 years old, there is plenty of time to start saving up (birthday money, Christmas gifts, etc.) so that when he is close to the legal age, he will have the resources. Instead of getting sweaters and socks for Christmas, have his family to put money into a savings/money market account. If he needs to open something on Christmas/Birthday, wrap a small model plane.

3. Once he is able to start working, if he is making $7 an hour, and bringing home $5 per hour after tax, at 20 hours per week, that's $100 a week and that's enough for an hour of dual.

4. With an hour of dual time per week (not taking into consideration any prior savings from Christmas/Birthday gifts that could increase his dual time per week), and approximately 50 hours to get a PPL, he would get his license in a year.

This is the same timeframe it took you to get a license.

BTW - As you can tell from my post, this is coming from an Accountant, Corporate Controller and financial planner. :)

Don't let the financial limitations hold him back from his love. I missed my calling to be a corporate pilot and became a corporate accountant.

Ron said...

I don't think $100 will buy an hour of dual unless it's in some sort of LSA.

As for the death of the airport kid, it is very sad. GA airports should be open places, inviting to the younger generation. Instead they are barbed wire fortresses which scream "Stay away!!"

Head in the Clouds said...

I wasn't an airport kid, though I think I'm on my way to being an airport adult! My husband and I have a dream of one day owning/running an airport that creates and enables 'airport kids' (and adults)!

Welcome! said...

Wow, this whole story sounds JUST like me. I am a freshman in high school and have wanted to be a pilot for the last 3 or so years. The only game I play is flight simulator and I too scheduled my own flight training.

So far I've done the groundschool course. The issue is how on Earth I'm going to be able to pay for a PPL. I know for certain it will be a career of mine. Will joining the military be a good way to go?

This is my new favorite website by the way. It describes me perfectely: I am the airport kid. I can't wait to read the rest of your posts!

Grayson said...

How wierd welcome! You beat me by five minutes in saying exactly the same! Well...minus the actual training.
I too am a freshman, loved trains and switched to planes, and fly avidly on the sim. My friend invited me to join a glider association in town, and I might join (if school and sports permit.
I take flying so seriously (even if it's on a computer screen) that I have charts, approach plates, flight planning forms, and checklists...I really have the bug, huh.
Love this post! Hopefully I'll find a way to be a pilot whether it be military or college degree.

Anonymous said...

Strange, I've got from airport kid and being a complete airport dork to being furloughed. The dream for me has, for the most part, died. To be frank, though, I'm glad the dream is dead at 26 when I can pick up with my life and my soon to be wife and find a career that will actually pay our bills instead of paying $30,000 a year for the next 5-10 years while I wait to upgrade, and the hopefully move onto a major.

Maybe I don't want it enough, but to be frank I'm excited to go back to GA, and as I say to many of my captains, "to go back to when flying was still fun."

dlesmond said...

Very true post. I am 18 years old and live in Sydney, Australia. I definitely have the flying bug, but it is frustrating with the cost of training these days.

I am looking forward to joining Qantas cadets in a couple of years, although the cost is a gigantic $130k + living expenses (flying training is conducted in Melbourne).

Very fortunate that I know a senior captain in Qantas, and I have been in the 767 simulator which was an amazing experience.

Having just finished high school last year, I am currently working in the city, saving every possible dollar!

Only good news I guess is that there is a major pilot shortage, so hopefully in someway it will lower the cost.

Good luck to everyone else following the dream!

William Hanks said...

This was a very insightful post, indeed. But I quite agree with dlesmond. Despite the present troubled financial situation (suprime mortgages crisis and all that), globalisation and an unprecedented growth of trade everywhere make it possible for more and more people to afford flying instead of other way of transport. So if there ever is a shortage of pilots in the future, which seems very likely according to what you write, the solution will be at hand, all right, and the airport kid will get the chance to become a pilot again - there's no flying without them. And where there's no flying, there's no revenue for the aviation industry. Well, unless they create a pilotless aircraft. I wouldn't want to fly in it, though :)

Becca said...

Luckily your cousin has an airline pilot in the family - there's lots of things you can do to encourage him until he saives money or is able to learn to fly. Rent a C-172 at a local airport and take him for a ride. Get him involved in CAP or EAA (like you have). R/C airplanes and flight simulators are options.

The cost of flying is ridiculous, but it won't go down any time soon. I live in an area with lots of pilots (Houston) and even my part of town has terrible rental options - run down FBOs and lackluster flying clubs dominate. Makes me long for the "good old days" of even 10 years ago. Now its almost cheaper to own a plane than to rent. You can still by a C-150 for <$20,000. Find a few other people interested in learning to fly, and this is a real option - especially considering parents will often spend that much money on buying their teen a car!