LSA: When Government Tries to Run Business, Everyone Loses


Let me tell you a story about how the government allegedly tried to help an industry and the resulting failure.

In 1987, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created a new pilot license: Recreational Pilot. In part as a result of dwindling numbers of active pilots, the FAA created a limited privilege license, allowing a pilot to fly a 4-seat, single-engine airplane in clear, daytime conditions within 50 miles of the airport of departure (Click). The Recreational Pilot privileges are inferior to those of a Private Pilot, but the training was less lengthy and less complicated. It was a dud. In 2008, the total number of Recreational Pilots in the U.S. totaled just 252 out of 613,000 U.S. pilots that had a current medical certificate (pilots without a medical certificate were not counted as part of the pilot population. Basically, the Recreational Pilot License was 30 years too late and considering the still considerable expense, most people chose to step-up to the Private Pilot Certificate.

As the number of active pilots continued to decline, with an average age of 46, the FAA tried again. They decided to create an even more rudimentary license, the Sport Pilot License (Click). Not content to just create a new, simpler recreational license, the federal government also put its big feet into determining how to increase both the potential number of Sport Pilots, but also making it almost impossible for any Sport Pilot to fly almost any existing aircraft, the idea being they could artificially increase the sale of Light Sport Aircraft and thus increase the numbers of light, inexpensive aircraft in the country. The FAA determined that the new Light Sport Aircraft would sell for $20,000 to $ 30,000 and that the demand would be overwhelming because Sport Pilots could fly upon the basis of their having a current driver’s license, whereas any other pilot license required at least a Third Class Medical Certificate, and this requirement was keeping grounded both older pilots and prospective pilots who could not pass an FAA medical exam. In fact, the FAA created a Catch-22 situation because they could not fly even as Sport Pilots if they had been rejected for an FAA Third Class Medical Certificate (Click) i.e. Sport Pilot was not available to older, less healthy pilots who had failed an FAA medical but was available to sick and infirm pilots who had a valid driver’s license and had not taken an FAA medical exam.

It gets worse. The $30,000 Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) became the $ 120,000 LSA as soon as these craft hit the market. The FAA hadn’t a clue about what they would really cost. While a new former ultralight aircraft might fit under the $30,000 window, the new LSAs proved to be four times as expensive as the original SWAG (Click), which is held as superior to a WAG. It is true that there are several older certified airplanes that fall under the LSA mandatory maximum allowable weight of 1,320 pounds loaded, but these are older airplanes of the 1940s and early 1950s (Click). The most common training 2-seat aircraft, such as the ubiquitous, 1,600 pound Cessna 150 (Click), were purposefully put outside the weight limit of the LSA, immediately removing them from the LSA market so as to spur on the new LSA industry. 23,948 Cessna 150s were built, with the vast majority still flying (Click).

Meanwhile, five years after the Sport Pilot/LSA became a reality, the number of active pilots have taken a dump from 827,000 in 1980, to 591,000 in 2009. Of that number, in 2008, 252 were Recreation Pilots and 2,623 Sport Pilots (Click).

To summarize, the Government failed with the Recreational Pilot License. In the six years since the Sport Pilot became a reality, less than 2,700 people have been licensed to fly aircraft that are largely too expensive to buy and can be used only for local flying in good weather during the day time and away from any controlled airspace (Click). A new LSA will run you up to $140,000 (C;ick), a far cry from the price of a “too big” Cessna 150/152 or Piper Cherokee (Click), which can be had for $ 20,000 and up in good condition.

LSA: four times as expensive as originally promised. Both more complicated and more restricted than originally forecast. Half the cost of a Private Pilot License but only ¼ the privileges. Most production shifted overseas, benefitting few American workers (in fact, both Cessna and Piper are moving their standard light aircraft manufacturing off shore because of the devastating effect unions and over-regulation have had on domestic production). And as the pilot population continues to shrink, a bleak outlook for an industry that once employed hundreds of thousands of American workers and was the envy of the world. Another true lose-lose from the Government.

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