Some early numbers from around the country are showing signs of improvement that could mean a better year for general aviation in Central Pennsylvania. But some groups think the data still are too nebulous to say for certain whether business flights will break through the wall of higher fuel prices.
"Like the economy, the numbers are showing a mixed picture along various indicators," said Dan Hubbard, spokesman for the National Business Aviation Association based in Washington, D.C.
Midstate and national trends could herald growth in businesses aviation or small, private planes for travel to meetings. That process only would accelerate in 2013 if the economy maintains its steady climb, Hubbard said.
He pointed to a small uptick — about half a percent — in billings, or orders small-plane manufacturers took in 2011. That means more general aviation aircraft could be delivered this year, but still has to be measured against the 3.5 percent decline in deliveries last year, he said.
Worldwide shipments of general aviation airplanes were 1,865 units last year, down from 1,932, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Small propeller aircraft shipments dropped 1.5 percent, turboprop shipments dropped 2.4 percent and business jets declined 6.3 percent, the Washington association said in a February report.
Billings were up $100 million dollars for a total worth $19.1 billion worldwide, according to the association.
At the least, the uptick in billings means the market is stabilizing, Hubbard said.
In the midstate, flight trends illustrate some airports are doing better, managers and directors said.
First-quarter general aviation is up 35 percent from last year at Capital City Airport in Fairview Township, York County, said Todd Smith, general manager for CXY Aviation. The company manages business at the airport for its owner Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, or SARAA, which also owns and manages Harrisburg International Airport.
One company alone, Columbus, Ohio-based charter service NetJets Inc., did 50 percent more business in the first quarter at Capital City than it did over the last two years, Smith said.
General aviation flights at Capital City were down 1.6 percent in February compared with last year, according to SARAA's March business report. However, the first two months were flat with 2,441 flights, the same number as the first two months of 2011.
"We've truly gone through bad times at this airport," Smith said. "But we're doing a lot of word-of-mouth marketing, and it's moving in the right direction."
Lancaster Airport in Manheim Township, Lancaster County, has seen a small decline in single-engine airplanes using the airport, Director David Eberly said.
"Most of that is your small, private pilots because of the economy and the high price of fuel," he said.
Overall, general aviation has been down about 18 percent compared with peaks in 2007 through 2008, Eberly said. However, larger corporate customers are coming back, he said. He didn't have exact figures on increases, he said. Still, the airport has about 90,000 takeoffs and landings a year, he said.
Fuel prices are the largest factor slowing the industry's growth, Smith said. Airplane fuel is about $6 a gallon, he said. If you're only flying from Harrisburg to York, that's expensive for 25 to 30 gallons of fuel, he said.
Fuel is not the only factor in the decline of general aviation at HIA, said Scott Miller, a spokesman for SARAA.
March reports put HIA's general aviation traffic down by 59 percent in February, and down 61 percent for the year to date.
"The tower is reporting operations a little differently than in the past, and we are trying to figure out if the numbers now being reported are more accurate or less accurate than the numbers reported over the past couple of years," Miller said. "None of us believe that (general aviation) traffic at HIA is down as much as is being shown."
Other factors, like eliminating the 6 percent state sales tax on fixed-wing aircraft, could help the general aviation industry here, Smith said. As clichéd as it might sound, he said, the airplane industry is a trickle-down economy; do away with that tax and airplane sales will go gangbusters.
Still, with the price of gas and a slow economy, the future of business aviation is going to be foggy and grounded for a little while longer, some directors said.
"Might be premature to say companies are buying more airplanes, and getting into flying," Eberly said.