By Adam Hunt
The Canadian private civil aircraft fleet was still growing in 2009, but not at anywhere near the rate in recent years. In 2008 the fleet grew at 3.2 per cent, but in 2009 that dropped to 2.3 per cent, a rate of growth that is the lowest since 2004.
Given the economic realities of 2009, which was the worst recession year since the 1930s, it is hardly surprising that far fewer aircraft were purchased or built. In many ways it is surprising that the fleet did not shrink in size, but that was probably prevented by high asking prices for used aircraft in Canada.
In total the civil fleet increased in size by exactly 600 aircraft in 2009, compared to 803 in 2008.
The private fleet increased by 577, while commercial aircraft increased by just 31 aircraft. The state fleet, owned by the various levels of government in Canada, actually shrunk by eight aircraft as government priorities shifted to economic stimulus and automotive manufacturer bailouts.
For the past few years certified aircraft have been leading the growth in private aircraft numbers, fuelled by a low U.S. dollar, making imports from that country cheaper than buying domestically. That same trend held in 2009 with 196 private certified aircraft imported , made up of 141 airplanes, 54 helicopters and 10 gliders. Of note, the number of privately-owned certified balloons dropped by nine, which represents two per cent of the private certified balloons.
Private certified aircraft accounted for 33 per cent of the overall fleet growth in 2009. The total number of private certified aircraft in Canada was 15,532 at the end of 2009, out 26,436 private aircraft overall.
The second quickest growing area of private aviation has been BULAs for several years and this trend continued in 2009, with 157 new aircraft, accounting for 26 per cent of the overall growth seen. These included 156 single-engine and one twin-engine ultralights. There were 5,102 BULAS at the end of the year.
Amateur-built aircraft were in the number three slot again this past year, increasing by 125 aircraft, including 121 airplanes, seven helicopters and one balloon. Three gliders and one gyroplane were removed from the register. Amateur-builts made up 21 per cent of the aircraft added to the overall fleet in 2009.
Amateur builts now number 3,635 in Canada and include fixed wing airplanes, helicopters, gliders, gyroplanes, balloons, airships and even one ornithopter.
As in 2008, AULAs remained in fourth place for growth, increasing their numbers by 42 airplanes over the year. By category definition all AULAs are powered fixed wing aircraft. Their growth in numbers in 2009 made up seven per cent of the fleet increase and brought the total number of AULAs on the register to 1,082.
The AULA category was introduced in 1991 and has since increased at an average of 60 AULAs per year, so this was a below-average year for the category.
As in 2008 the O-M category had very little growth this past year, adding only 27 aircraft. This means there were 483 O-M aircraft in total at year end. The category is made up of 471 airplanes and 12 gliders.
This category continues to suffer from a lack of interest amongst Canadian aircraft owners as a result of the FAA stating that these aircraft will never be allowed to be flown in U.S. airspace or sold in the USA.
COMMERCIAL AND STATE FLEETS
Reacting to the poor economic conditions, the commercial aircraft fleet had a weak year, increasing by only 31 aircraft to bring it to 6,832. The increase included 24 airplanes, five helicopters, one glider and one balloon. Of note the number of commercial single-engine aircraft fell by 35, while the twin-engine fleet increased by 73.
The state fleet dropped in numbers in 2009 by eight aircraft, the losses made up of seven airplanes and one helicopter.
The private fleet still makes up 79 per cent of the aircraft in Canada, the same as it did in 2007 and 2008, with the commercial fleet at 20 per cent and the state fleet at 0.8 per cent.
SO WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Many of the trends in 2009 were continuations of what was seen in the fall of 2008, when the economy first showed signs of contraction. The number of new and used private aircraft being purchased dropped as people lost their jobs or became uncertain about their financial future. Even avgas prices, which had dropped with world oil prices in late 2008, have rebounded, which has undoubtedly dissuaded some people from buying aircraft.
There is lots of evidence that even though the fleet continued to grow in 2009 that the number of hours being flown by Canadian pilots was down. Fuel and insurance sales, along with Nav Canada traffic numbers all support the notion that more Canadian aircraft spent more of 2009 parked than in past years.
A large number of Canadian aircraft were offered for sale this past year, but as in 2008, at prices that were generally higher than for the equivalent aircraft in the USA. In the U.S. ample stock of used aircraft for sale forced prices down and, along with a weak U.S. dollar, kept Canadian aircraft more expensive. This meant that many aircraft advertised for sale in Canada did not sell and probably weren't flown often either.
Aircraft imports into Canada were down in 2009, as can be expected and fewer of the imports were light aircraft, illustrating that despite lower asking prices in the U.S. few pilots were shopping there. In 2008 there were 968 aircraft imported, whereas in 2009 this number was 673, a drop of 30 per cent.
On the plus side with Canadian asking prices mostly far too high for the North American used aircraft market, very few used Canadian aircraft were exported, keeping the fleet numbers in positive growth territory.
It is interesting to note that between December 2008 and September 2009 the number of licensed pilots in Canada with valid medicals actually fell by 529, an annualized rate of -0.1 per cent.
This year may well prove to be an interesting year for the Canadian private fleet. Even though the banks are proclaiming the recession a mere memory, economic uncertainty is still a daily reality for most Canadians and Americans. Many economists are not convinced that economic growth has returned to stay and the risk of a "double-dip" recession is real and may be driven by high oil prices.
Whether the recovery is maintained or we slip back into recession, the economy and the associated demand for aircraft are both likely to remain weak through 2010. This point is illustrated by the experiences of U.S. light aircraft manufacturer Cirrus Design. The company had laid off workers in late 2008 and again in early 2009. Cirrus started rehiring in June 2009, only to have to carry out more lay-offs in September and again in November 2009.
One thing is certain, as long as asking prices for used aircraft in Canada remain above those in the U.S., the Canadian fleet will continue to grow as pilots import and build their own aircraft, rather than buying used aircraft in Canada. This in turn, means that the Canadian fleet is likely to continue to increase in 2010, albeit modestly, regardless of other economic factors.
If Canadians who are selling aircraft lower their asking prices to match those of the USA, then it is possible that the civil fleet may shrink in the near future, as high prices are keeping aircraft in the country.
Note: Data for this report was taken from the Transport Canada Civil Aircraft Register and reflects the difference between the number of aircraft registered in Canada on Dec. 31, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009. These statistics reflect the net number of aircraft built and imported, minus the number destroyed, scrapped and exported. Just because an aircraft is registered in Canada does not mean it is being flown and therefore the number of registered aircraft should not be confused with the amount of flying activity.