|The AOPA Expo
by Jay Wischkaemper
I had never been to an AOPA convention. Ive always wanted to, but the situation was never right. Since the conventions are usually held on either the East or West Coast, those of us in the middle of the country are never close. Transportation, registration, and lodging would shoot the better part of a grand, and thats if youre lucky. This year however, was different. I had work to do and money to make in California. The convention was there. The SW Aviator folks got me a press pass, and I managed to con a free airline ticket out of my brother by taking him along. This was the year. I was going to Palm Springs.
AOPA is a wonderful organization that works to keep us flying, but AOPA isnt nearly so much about airplanes as it is about people. The public may see general aviation as a bunch of fat cats blowing money frivolously on their expensive machines, but to look at the AOPA Expo crowd, which is the best cross section of general aviation pilots available, gives a totally different view. Im sure there were people there who could have written a check for a new Citation, and maybe someone did. The Mooney folks indicated there was at least one person who wrote the check for a new Mooney. But there were a lot more in attendance who struggled simply to afford the price of admission, and yet they came. They came not because they had money to burn, but because they had that burning desire to be around airplanes and airplane people and airplane stuff. They had to get their fix. They had to see what was new. They had to look at the marvelous panel on a new Cirrus or Glasair and dream of having one. They had to sit in the new Liberty or Symphony and see if there was any way to work it in the budget. For most, it would be no more than a dream, but for now, that was enough. After all, you never know. Everything starts with a dream.
They came in all sizes and shapes. Old, young, rich, poor, male, female, skinny, fat, black, white. All were there. They were drawn together by a commonality of interest. The vendors were there too. Airplane manufacturers. Avionics people. Engine salesmen. Instrument people. Pilot shops. Software techno-nerds. Insurance people. All hoping to make a sale. You could buy anything aviation. Need a new handheld? Take it home. Need a sectional? Its available. It was three days of total aviation immersion. There were even supposed to be some seminars, and Im sure people attended them. I couldnt even have told you where they were being held. For me, it was enough to drool over all the new toys. Ill catch the seminars next time.
To attend an event like this gives one renewed hope and optimism for general aviation. New designs are proliferating, most designed to make flying affordable and available to more people. Technologically, there are things now working in our cockpits that were the stuff of science fiction 20 years ago. Basic GPS is archaic technology compared to the 10-inch MFDs offering terrain avoidance and weather uplinks. Who ever thought of building airplanes out of composites? (Actually, Dr. Windecker did 30 years ago, but he was ahead of his time. Now is the time.) The industry is realizing that to make this technology available to the masses, they must come up with creative ownership opportunities. Fractional ownership of single engine aircraft is becoming a reality. Capable airplanes whose entry-level cost is little more than twice the price of a new luxury car are on the market, with more coming. New designs are announced with regularity, and people are buying airplanes. There is a resurgence of excitement like we have not seen in recent years.
Why the interest? First, there is that age-old love with flying that mankind has had since before the Wright Brothers first flew. I would contend that the interest has always been there. For years, people have predicted that when there were advances in aircraft technology, people would buy it. There is no way to deny that the Cirrus is new technology, and people are buying them. Its the same with the new small jets. It will be the same with anything that offers value for the dollar spent. Its not a matter of people not having the money. They just have to see the value. Thats finally happening.
Another factor that will loom large in the next few years is how the future of airline travel plays out. Airlines cannot continue to lose millions per day and stay in business. Something is going to change. At some point, fares are going to have to rise. Combine airline fare increases with the useless, ineffective, onerous security measures that currently exist, along with declining availability of airline flights as airlines continue to cut their schedules, and a great number of people may be attracted to general aviation, especially the business crowd. The inability to get where you need to be when you need to be there can cost a lot more than any airplane. Combine that attraction with the proliferation of new light jets under development as well as other high performance offerings on the drawing board, and you may have a combination that will signal a resurgence of general aviation as the preferred method of air travel by businesses.
That doesnt mean there arent still challenges. There are many, but the light we see at the end of the tunnel doesnt appear to be the landing light on an oncoming plane. Good things are happening, and its only going to get better. Its a time of optimism, and a visit to the AOPA Expo showed there is reason for it.
Texas native Jay Wischkaemper is a successful MassMutual life insurance agent based in Lubbock, Texas. He is a long-time partner in a Bellanca Super Viking, which he uses for both business and pleasure. Jay is a Texas Tech alumni, where he earned a degree in public address and group communication.
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