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Light Sport Aircraft – An Experiment in FAA Deregulation

I'm a current student pilot (PPSEL) and I have been reading up on the new FAA regulations that have come about. My interest, like most potential pilots, is to eventually own an aircraft, but that will be several years down the road. However, the new Light Sport Aircraft class caught my attention. I wanted to throw a few observations out.

Like a lot of people, I have always dreamed of flying. I have always been enamored with the aircraft with their sleek lines and high speeds. They are the ultimate irony, these huge metal creations that slip so easily into the sky and back again. One day I finally realized that there was nothing stopping me from being a pilot, so started my research.

One of the things that I weighed was the cost of aviation, both training and flying after the fact. Most of this is related to the costs of an airplane. Aircraft are expensive to own and operate. And most of those are old. I don’t mean old like you dad’s Buick. I mean seriously old. If you are at a flight school, odds are the airplane you train in will be older than you. And the trend appears to be getting worse. Why is that?


The Costs of Aviation

The problem appears to be twofold. First, the general pool of pilots has been decreasing for a while. Roughly 1974 was the high point of aviation this country. There were approximately 1.2 million certificated pilots. Currently in 2005, there about 600,000 pilots. Compared to the auto industry, the economies of scale aren’t there. A lack of pilots to purchase aircraft prevents manufacturers from spreading R&D and other costs over a large volume.

The second issue appears to be FAA certification costs. They are massive, to say the least. A typical aviation company would spend millions to get its aircraft certified. This is a significant barrier to entry. If you combine this with the relatively small number of pilots, it’s easy to see that it would be difficult to produce cheap aircraft. I didn't see much of a possibility for prices to drop any time in the near future. Given this, I expected that FAA was letting general aviation die a slow, painful death. This didn’t bode well for my investment in flight training.


Sport Pilot Arrives

Then I started reading up on something new, the Sport Pilot Rule. This FAA regulation, implemented in September of 2004 created a new type of certificate called sport pilot. The sport pilot certificate allows a person to get flying in less than 20 hours with no flight medical and a few limitations, chief among these is that they can only carry one passenger. As a companion to this new certificate, they also created a new aircraft category, Light Sport Aircraft. These new aircraft would be limited in speed and number of passengers (2), but other than that, they appeared to be quite capable.

The sport pilot certificate had a few additional limitations that weren’t really appealing to me, but the light sport aircraft had me intrigued. From most of the pilots I've talked to, a LOT of their flying consists of tooling around the area, usually involving themselves and maybe another passenger, the quest for the $100 hamburger, etc. Hence, the popularity of the Cenna 15X/17X and Piper 140 class airplanes. A quick check of my local airfield showed roughly 90% in this class. From what I read, it seems that LSA can meet this need nicely. The speeds are within range. It appears that these aircraft can be night and IFR certified as long as the pilot holds the appropriate ratings (Private pilot or better).

So, naturally, I was really excited about this new category of aircraft. However, as I read up more on LSA, I began to realize that this was far more than a new type of aircraft. It was actually a revolution in how the FAA would deal with the manufacturers of these aircraft.


Consensus Standards

The key to this revolution is the concept of consensus standards. What this means is that instead of exhaustive certification tests by the FAA, any aircraft that meets the performance specifications and is built by well known methods using agreed upon materials will automatically be certified. Simply put, it takes the FAA out aviation manufacturing and replaces them by industry experts, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

The result is that certification costs will drop by several orders of magnitude. Companies that use good manufacturing techniques can simply drop off a plane, have it checked out and they are done. The plane is ready for market. With these consensus standards, the prices for the airframes would be much cheaper.

Some people would argue that this would result in a decrease in safety. I would disagree. Statistics have shown that the experimental homebuilt category of aircraft has a safety record approaching that of the standard category. And experimental aircraft have no FAA testing and no consensus standards. With consistent manufacturing processes, I would expect a nearly identical safety record.


The Current Market

I have seen some nice aircraft advertised for about $80K. However, these prices are using FAA certified engines and instruments. In the future, I would expect consensus standard powerplants and instruments. But for right now, these prices are still high for the middle class person wanting to fly.

What we are looking in the market currently is short term economic profit. A new economic sector opened up and very few competitors are in the market. In the short term, these companies make an excess profit. When other companies figure this out, they enter the market, competition increases and prices go down. It will take a year or two to for the market settle if this is the case.

However, to a pilot with a potential busted medical and can only fly under the sport pilot rule, these planes are cheap. I wouldn't be surprised if this is 99% of the market right now. Once this market is exhausted, then the sellers might start slashing prices.

In the long term, I expect prices to settle a bit. When this happens, sales of LSA's should rocket as current pilots trade in their older, expensive to maintain aircraft for newer, cheaper ones. This would accelerate if the gas prices continue to rise, as the fuel consumption of LSA’s is generally much less than standard category aircraft.


The Future Direction of General Aviation?

Given the declining trend of general aviation, I see this as the start of something larger in the future plans of the FAA. A pilot program, if you will pardon the pun. If this really takes off and the industry starts to revitalize, I could see the capabilities of LSA’s expanding by adding speed, weight limits and number of seats. Possible future LSA’s could include retractables and complex aircraft.

The limitations of the LSA’s specifications are designed to reduce the amount of damage that they can do in an accident. But, if their safety record shows itself to be stellar, I would not be surprised to see the FAA incorporate all non-commercial aircraft operations under the LSA rule. As an unapologetic capitalist pig, I understand that in America if money is to be made, it will happen.

The big factor in all this is public perception. If there are many deaths, then this experiment will fail grandly. And of course if Dateline runs a story about those new "dangerous uncertified" airplanes, it will be dead before it even takes off. Product liability is also a factor. Unfortunately it is hinged more on marketing and public perception than law. Maybe tort reform will fix this. I can't even being to speculate on the future direction this takes with LSA.

The bottom line is that aviation is still expensive. And it will remain so for many years to come. But it appears that the FAA has seen the error in its ways and is trying to remedy the situation. The changes will happen slowly. We can only hope that their efforts are not wasted.


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