Catch the wave


I am frequently confronted by individuals concerned about the aging pilot population and what will happen to Personal Aviation as pilots make their final flights. They ask what can be done to bring young people into aviation lest it disappear like the dinosaurs (no reference to old pilots intended). I’m afraid I do not share their pessimism.

Certainly introducing young people to aviation is a worthwhile objective with many valuable results. In the short term it helps foster a positive attitude towards personal aviation among the parent population in the 30 to 50 age group.

It no doubt does generate a few direct entries into the world of aviation but I suspect this is mostly on the commercial side. In the long term it most definitely fosters a positive attitude among the public as these young people move into the 30 to 50 age group. So I am very supportive of these types of program as long term investments in personal aviation.

That said however, let’s take a look at a few statistics. The 2007 COPA survey pegged the average age of COPA members at 55 compared to 53 in the 2002 survey. In the 2002 survey 68 per cent of our members either owned outright or owned a share of an aircraft. In the 2007 survey 78.5 per cent owned or shared an aircraft. That’s a 15 per cent increase in members investing their money in aircraft ownership in the last five years.

So our average member has gotten slightly older but many more members are buying aircraft.

I can think of a number of contributing factors to that, such as the increasing availability and acceptance of kit planes and ultralights, and of course the shrinking U.S. dollar. But a major influence, in my opinion, is the baby boom wave. This unique phenomenon has had a profound economic impact on life in Canada over the past 50 years.

The baby boom generation is currently from 42 to 60 years old. A common misconception is that the baby boom is a sudden increase in population that lasts for a few years and then drops off. In fact the population rises steadily for about 10 years then it peaks for approximately 10 years and drops off after that (See the accompanying chart).

The result is a wave of population moving through time creating economic chaos or opportunity, depending on your point of view.

The rising front of the wave represents people now in the 50 to 60 age group. Generally people in this group have grown families, are able to get involved in more leisure activities and are beginning to plan for their retirement. Many at the leading edge are already retired or semi-retired. This has resulted in a boom in demand for golf courses over the last 10 years and currently we are experiencing a boom in demand for RVs, vacation homes, resort properties and retirement properties.

Leisure vehicles such as motorcycles, boats, snowmobiles and ATVs have also seen a surge in demand in the past 10 years.

It is the 50 to 60 age group who now have the time and money to invest in more leisure activities that is driving these demands. I suspect this is also the prime mover behind the increase in aircraft ownership. It’s worth noting from the 2007 survey that 25 per cent of COPA members are retired.

Although we don’t have good statistics on the amount of personal flying going on, there are many indicators that this is also increasing. In our 2002 survey the median number of hours flying experience of members was 500. In this year’s survey it is 600.

I operate a small grass aerodrome near Calgary and in the past couple of years I’ve received a minimum of one call per month from someone looking for a place to hangar their aircraft.

The key point is that I believe the prime age group for personal flying is the same as many other recreational activities, 50 to 60 years old. So let’s take a look at that population graph again.

The early boomers, 55-59, total 2.1million. Behind them the 50-54 group jumps 14 per cent to 2.4 million. Coming up next the 45-49 group jumps another 12 per cent to 2.68M. Then we finally hit a peak within the 40-44 age group of 2.7M.

So the population around the 55 year old mark will continue to increase significantly over the next 15 years or so before starting to drop off. After the numbers start to drop we are into the "children of the boomers" generation, which according to the graph is fairly level at greater numbers than our current 50-60 population. The next generation after that will prove interesting because it is steadily declining.

It seems apparent that the prime age group with the time and means to engage in personal aviation could continue to increase for the next 10 to 15 years by as much as 30 per cent. Of course, this doesn’t translate into a 30 per cent increase in aircraft ownership due to normal attrition, but significant increases are clearly indicated.

The more baby boomers that engage in aviation the more the next generation will be influenced. I fear if we focus solely on introducing young people to aviation we will miss this one-time opportunity to boost personal aviation across Canada.

Let’s not miss the wave of a life time. Take the time to introduce someone in the 45-55 age group to flying today.

Keep your prop spinning.