Where does the general aviation industry go from here? Well, this looks to be a year of transition, from the old economy that we knew prior to 2008 to the new economy that should start to really see growth in 2012. Growth will come with a different look than it has in the past, driven by technology innovation in the market and increased globalization. The United States will no longer be alone in the drivers seat. Traditional market general aviation growth will happen in China, India and other developing economies.
Growth here in the U.S. has to come from market innovation. We need to do more than get used to it. We need to adapt and embrace it, and determine where the opportunities are for those of us in general aviation in the U.S. and in Europe.
Our company finished 2010 with a strong run to the end of December, and the first few months of 2011 look strong in aircraft charter and FBO fuel sales. Is this a sustainable trend? I hope so. My major concern is the volatility of fuel prices. We don’t know if the economy, let alone the aviation industry, can stand oil prices 30% to 50% higher than they are today.
Setting concerns aside, when I look out to 2011 and beyond, I see opportunities for general aviation to capture the traveler in a new way. The number one reason more people don’t fly general aviation aircraft is price. I have written a lot about this over the past 18 months. I’ve thought about this problem (opportunity) for many years prior, as I talk with people who use or want to use our service almost every day for the past 28 years. There are some ideas worth considering in a good book I’m reading right now called “What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption” by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers.
Wikipedia says the following about this term I had not heard of until recently:
The term collaborative consumption is used to describe the cultural and economic force away from ‘hyper-consumption’ to re-invented economic models of sharing, swapping, bartering, trading or renting that have been enabled by advances in social media and peer-to-peer online platforms
The authors propose that in order for “Collaborative Consumption” to work, four underlying principles must be present:
* Critical Mass
* Idling Capacity
* Belief in the Commons
* Trust Between Strangers
Conditions one and two definitely exist in General Aviation and the subset of Business Aviation. We sit on a fleet of underutilized aircraft (idling capacity) , many parked and not flying at all, and even the active aircraft are not used anywhere near optimum levels. Critical mass is present but not properly managed and accounted for. In the U.S. there are 17,000 aircraft available for hire in charter service. Many more aircraft could be available if demand was sufficient to put them to work. Where are they and how do they work together as a synergistic fleet to serve the market? Today the fleet doesn’t work in a synergistic way.
The charter industry is fragmented and not optimized, but technology companies like Charter X / Avinode are making strides in providing a global distribution system for supply of aircraft availability across the fleet. The bigger problem seems to be finding the customer.
That customer is currently being pushed and shoved around by the airlines in a system that seems to become profitable only at the expense of efficiency, comfort and happiness of the traveler (the customer). If Zappos is in the business of delivering happiness I sometimes wonder if the airline system is in the business of delivering misery.
On conditions three and four, we don’t know if there is a belief in the commons and trust between strangers in General Aviation. Are we willing to share a ride or flight, and do we trust who we are sharing with to sit next to them? The defining technology that will push us through these hurdles will be social media. I can see a day when we share a flight with others to a destination of common interest and long before we board the aircraft we know who we are flying with because we know them online. We see their Facebook profile and we are connected to them on LinkedIn. We have tweeted and texted them and maybe even used email (outdated) to connect to them, to discuss our common travel intentions.
And so our belief in the commons and trust between strangers centers on sharing a flight in a private aircraft together to safely and efficiently travel. And more than that, it will be enjoyable travel because the travel itself will have a social component to it that we don’t get when we travel on the airlines today. Traveling with old and newfound friends and business associates and family will be the new order of travel.
This is not going to happen on a large scale in 2011, but it will begin this year. By 2015 it will absolutely change travel by air in ways that most people cannot even imagine today.
Early adopters from the supply side will be those charter companies (new and established) who are not afraid to adopt new technologies and business processes to meet the new economy. As the critical mass increases and more travelers find this way of air travel, more suppliers will fill the demand.
From the demand side, those who are fed up with the current system of air travel are hungry, maybe even begging for a better solution to meet their need to travel. Social technology may discover that demand for what we have to offer far outpaces our ability to meet it with the supply where it sits today.
Eventually the airlines will have to reorder their business model when they discover that travelers don’t want to go when and where they are being forced to through the current system. It will take them a while to realize what is happening and some airlines that do understand innovation will figure it out. Many will not, due to their inflexible business models.
The next few years will be an exciting time in our industry as disruptive technology changes the way we travel. I look forward to seeing it happen and hopefully being in the midst of it.