Economy grounds pilots

EVERETT — The skies around Paine Field might seem as abuzz as ever with small planes.

The numbers tell a different story.

In 2000, more than 213,000 takeoffs and landings of aircraft took place at Snohomish County’s airport. In 2010, that number was 110,270 — a drop of nearly half.
Most of that decline was among small, private aircraft, airport officials say. Paine Field also serves Boeing test flights, aircraft maintenance businesses and some military and vintage aircraft.

The numbers fluctuated somewhat in between, but have reflected what’s happening nationwide, in the state and at other airports in the county: Fewer people are flying their own planes, and fewer people are learning to fly.

Arlington Airport and Harvey Field in Snohomish report a downturn in activity as well.

The reasons are not surprising. A downward spiral that started after 9/11 has been accelerated by a deep recession and rising fuel prices, cutting into discretionary income.

“People just aren’t spending their money,” said Dave Wheeler of Everett, president of the Paine Field chapter of the Washington Pilots Association. “My personal flying has been darn near zero.”

Wheeler also is co-owner of the Northwest Aviation Center, a flight school at the Arlington Airport.

Nationwide, general aviation flights declined more than 5 percent in 2010, continuing a decadelong trend, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. General aviation includes all flights other than commercial airlines, air taxis and military.

Flying is down all over Washington state, said Jamelle Garcia, executive director of the Washington Aviation Association, a statewide chamber-of-commerce type interest group.

“You’ve got to put gas in your car, you’ve got to fix the leak in your roof, you’ve got to clothe your kids and feed them,” said Garcia, who runs an airport management business based in Auburn.

Between the economy and fuel prices, “it’s kind of a double whammy, and aviation is the first to suffer and the last to recover,” he said. “People really think two and three and four times before they decide to take a private airplane.”

The price of aviation fuel is more than $6 a gallon, roughly double what it was four years ago, flyers say.

Henry Hochberg, an Edmonds physician, keeps a plane at Paine Field. He said he still takes occasional long trips in his Mooney aircraft but has cut out day trips on weekends because of gas prices.

Jim Smith, a Lynnwood city councilman, keeps a Beechcraft Bonanza four-seat plane at the airport. He, too, has cut back because of the cost of gas.

“Now it’s just like with your car,” he said.

This has had an effect on the industry, with layoffs coming among fuelers, maintenance workers, clerical staff and other positions at aviation-related businesses, Garcia said.

People are more reluctant to part with the several thousand dollars it costs to take flying lessons, said Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation, a flight school at Paine Field.

As recently as 2006, the school regularly had 30 students a day coming through. Now, it’s down to about 10, he said.

“We’re discretionary money and the price of fuel is ridiculously high,” Grant said.

Still, his business is hanging in there, he said. Some students have found the means to take lessons. Dean Dugger, 44, of Seattle, is pursuing his instrument rating at Northway Aviation. He got his private pilot’s license several years ago, spending close to $10,000, he said. His instrument rating will cost about $7,000, he said.

“I finally have the time and the money,” said Dugger, who works for Kenmore Air, an air taxi company in north King County.

Candice Harvey, owner of Harvey Field, said business at the flight school, Snohomish Flying Service, at the airport has stayed steady thanks to a large number of foreign students. The airport’s skydiving business is as brisk as ever, even growing, she said.

“I have noticed that private aircraft owners and business owners aren’t flying as often as they used to,” she said. “I’m very grateful that our flight training and skydiving center seem to be holding their own.”

Wheeler said the business at his flight school in Arlington has dropped off dramatically.

“We’ve come down from 30 students to two right now,” he said. “We’re hanging on by our fingernails.”

At Arlington, the overall flight trend has been similar to that at Paine Field. A drop in flights occurred after 9/11 and continued into about 2004, airport supervisor Dale Carman said. The numbers leveled off, then dropped again starting around 2007, he said.

“It’s been going down ever since that time,” Carman said.

Part of the problem, flyers say, is that aviation has more competition with other forms of entertainment than ever. Fewer young people are interested in flying, Hochberg said.

“The novelty is not what it was,” Smith said.

“I think kids don’t look at aviation so much as a career,” said Cathy Mighell, owner of Out of the Blue Aviation, a flight school in Arlington. “I think kids would rather sit in front a computer and play games rather than do real live adventures like aviation.”

Still, there could be signs of optimism for the industry.

“I’m actually bullish on aviation, I think it’s going to improve,” Mighell said. More commercial pilots are approaching retirement age, she said, which will create new job opportunities.

“I think there’s going to be a huge demand,” Mighell said.

Candidates to meet that demand include Stephan Subedi, 22, of Woodinville. He has his private and instrument licenses and now is pursuing a commercial rating through Northway Aviation.

He’s working part-time at a small software company, and he can barely afford the $7,500 for his current round of lessons, he said.

His dream, though, is to be an airline pilot — “even if I become homeless in the process.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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