General aviation declined after the Great Recession and hasn’t recovered yet

Jimmy Seaton, owner of Longboat Limousine, stands with of the the cars in his fleet at Dolphin Aviation. General aviation traffic at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport dropped after the recession and hasn't fully recovered since.
Jimmy Seaton, owner of Longboat Limousine, stands with of the the cars in his fleet at Dolphin Aviation. General aviation traffic at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport dropped after the recession and hasn't fully recovered since.

After the Great Recession, activity in general aviation took a nosedive.

At Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, it still hasn’t fully recovered to pre-recession levels.

The higher cost of aircraft, rising jet fuel prices, new instrument requirements imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration and inflation in pilot license costs have all contributed to a declining pilot population. Fewer pilots, among other factors, translates into fewer general aviation operations, or takeoffs and landings.

At SRQ, general aviation operations dropped by 37 percent between 2005 and 2015. Data for general aviation operations at other Florida airports was not immediately available from the Florida Department of Transportation.

“This is not just an SRQ trend but rather a national trend,” said SRQ senior vice president and COO Mark Stuckey.

Declines in registered aircraft and higher liability insurance costs may also contribute to the drop in general aviation, he said.

More expensive jet fuel and aircraft aren’t the end of the general aviation community’s woes, either. The cost of learning to fly a plane and the cost of maintaining a plane may also keep recreational pilots or corporations out of the general aviation airfield, said John Poindexter, president and CEO of Flightstar Capital Partners.

One impact of the Great Recession was a sharp decrease in disposable income.

“It’s a license to learn, but it’s also a license to keep spending money,” Poindexter said. His company buys, sells and arranges leases on aircraft for commercial airlines and cargo shipment companies.

The internet of things, as the concept of global connectivity is known, provides less incentive for corporations to fly executives around the world for meetings and business deals.

“The way people do business is different,” Poindexter said. “They’re using Skype and group conferences and groups are working over internet systems, so that’s part of it. Technology has made it where you can have a European conference in the afternoon and here in the morning and everyone can be on same page.”

Dolphin Aviation owner Ron Ciaravella contends that the clientele brought into the Bradenton-Sarasota area by general aviation, though it may be less overall than in previous years, still has a significant impact on the community’s tourism market.

“The people we’re talking about are a higher net worth,” Ciaravella said.

It’s not cheap to rent a plane for a private flight. Poindexter said he recently looked at the cost of fueling Gulfstream III and IV model jets.

“It’s around $3,000 an hour for the fuel on a Gulfstream; and that’s just for the fuel before any other costs,” Poindexter said.

Jet fuel prices were less than 50 cents per gallon in 1995, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, compared with $1.50 per gallon now.

“A typical person would be a business owner who lives up north and has a home here,” said Jimmy Seaton, owner of Longboat Limousines. “They use both commercial and private (flights). When they need to get around quickly; if there’s a board meeting and you can’t get a commercial fight, it’s a reasonable expense.”

Private flights can run anywhere from a few thousand dollars an hour to more than $10,000 an hour, Seaton said, depending on jet size and amenities included.

In addition to doing business at SRQ, a private pilot and crew will often stay in area hotels and dine at local restaurants for the duration of a client’s trip, he said. His car service company relies heavily on business from customers flown in on private flights, as Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and Tampa International Airport are his two top destinations.

Rich Cawley, co-owner of Rectrix Aerodrome Center in Sarasota, said during the past four years his company has seen trends opposite to those found on SRQ’s activity reports.

“We’re running about 5.5 percent better (with business jet traffic) than in 2008,” Cawley said. “But hobby flyers are not flying as much as they used to. That’s probably as a result of the economy.”

The FAA’s aerospace forecast predicts slow but steady growth for general aviation during the next 20 years.

“Although fleet growth is minimal, the number of general aviation hours flown is projected to increase an average of 1.2 percent per year through 2036, as growth in turbine, rotorcraft, and experimental hours more than offset a decline in fixed wing piston hours,” the report said.

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday