Public-use Airport Numbers Decline
By Ed Scott
In 2007, USPA finally began to emerge from the aviation-wide downturn caused by the attacks of September 2001. DZOs began to report that tandem students and skydivers were coming back, and USPA membership slowly began to climb after dipping to 30,488 from the August 2001 high of 34,583. Not even the great recession that began in 2008 slowed skydiving down (lending some credence to those who claim that skydiving is recession proof). While all segments of aviation—from the airlines to general aviation—stagnated after the 9/11 attacks, the recession slowed recovery, especially for general aviation.
Today, USPA membership stands at 40,512 and continues growing with over a half-million people in the U.S. making their first jumps every year. General aviation, however, is still in a downward arc despite the best efforts of general aviation groups to attract and keep more pilots. The number of private, commercial and airline transport pilots is now around 420,000, down from 494,000 in 2008. The number of active general aviation aircraft stands at 213,000, down from 225,000 in 2007. Even the number of public-use airports has dropped from 5,190 in 2008 to 5,021 today. Those airports are the subject of this “Gearing Up.”
Public-use airports can thrive and grow only by attracting pilots and other users, as well as the aviation businesses that serve them. With general aviation’s slow decline, many airports are now less busy than they were some years ago, producing a financial strain for their owners and communities. Inactive airports also lose the support of their neighbors and community, since the few remaining pilots and aircraft owners keep to themselves. To increase airport activity, proactive airport managers are more often reaching out to skydivers and offering their airports as bases for drop zones and skydiving clubs.
Aviation attorney, pilot and author Rick Durden has noticed the downward trend in general aviation. In his column in AVweb, he encouraged airport managers to welcome more airport users (including skydiving businesses), writing, “Putting it bluntly, the rate of contraction of general aviation is approaching crisis. In my opinion, it’s just plain stupid for an airport to try and keep some types of users away because the established users (fixed-wing pilots) don’t like them. First, the number of established users is probably going down. Second, there are growing areas within general aviation, notably ultralights and, especially, skydiving. Federal law says that airports have to make themselves available to all users unless a particular use or user is unsafe—and the safety decision is to be made by the FAA, not the airport. Airports with mixes of gliders, fixed-wing aircraft, rotorcraft, skydivers, ultralights and balloons have been operating safely for years. Interestingly enough, from my observation, those tend to be the ones that are the most healthy. I’ve spoken with airport managers whose airports were operating in the red financially and who had reached out to a skydiving operator. Once skydiving started up, fuel sales ratcheted up dramatically (in some cases it doubled) and the airport finances became healthy. A side effect was that local motels and restaurants got more business because the skydiving operator attracted customers who would come for the weekend to jump and bring their families.”
DZs and their skydivers can be a welcomed addition to any airport. As more airports open their gates to skydivers, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we safely share the airspace and show respect for all operators. With increased opportunity comes increased responsibility. It’s a great position to be in.