My Waypoints column in the February 2011 issue of AOPA Pilot
is already getting lots of e-mail comments and it’s only been out for a few hours.
Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at writing to fit the available space in the magazine, but this subject–how mean and cranky everyone has gotten in aviation–was tough and I actually wrote two versions. One for the magazine and one that is longer. The longer version, which explores the subject more thoroughly, follows. I hope you will share your comments and insights.
Just a heads up on the meaning of the headline: This is not a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy column about the philosophical meaning of aviation. Nope, this is about how mean aviation has become. Let me explain.
I’ve been in the media business in one way or another for 27 years, 25 years covering general aviation. As a great consumer of information, I’ve noticed over the years the trend in newspaper letters to the editor and more recently online comments to newspaper articles toward the negative. Where at one point, people could respond to an article with an articulate, well-thought-out argument, today people seem to resort to name calling and rude, thoughtless comments and taunting right out of the box.
Here’s one well-documented example: The St. Petersburg Times noted the hit-and-run death of a 48-year-old man on a bicycle. He was killed pedaling home after his shift washing dishes at a restaurant where he had been employed for 10 years. Shortly after the story posted online, a person wrote a comment saying: “A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.” The newspaper quickly took the comment down and in response, sent a reporter to check out the dead man’s past. Turns out he was a simple, quiet man who was revered by his co-workers, loyal to the core to his employer, and not a bother to anyone.
Unlike the general public, general aviation pilots used to be more civil The fraternity of pilots enjoyed robust discussions in person, in print, and online, but, for the most part, respect prevailed. Over the years, I have observed that pilots, in general, are good folks—more patriotic and more respectful than the average citizenry. When my daughters were young, we spent a lot of time around airports and I felt comfortable telling them that if they ever got lost near or on an airport to look not just for a policeman, but anyone with a headset or chart bag or hanging around a pilot lounge. Pilots, I said, could be trusted to get you help.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure I would still offer that same advice. Somewhere along the way, pilots have become as mean-spirited and spiteful as the rest of the population. I find that disheartening.
Over the decades, I’ve developed a thick skin as people often disagree with things we write, but the recent trend toward personal attacks and the destructive nature of comments is wearing, for sure. A few examples:
One member took the time to write an e-mail decrying the hairstyles of several AOPA staff members pictured in the magazine—his only reason for the e-mail. One woman’s hair he described as “a cross between an Alabama trailer mom on welfare, a Puli [I’m not sure what that is], and [a] wig….” According to this member, a senior executive here has a “1975 SuperCuts hackjob, likely inspired by Sal in the film Dog Day Afternoon.”
Thanks much for the constructive comments….
Personal attacks are not limited to hairstyles. Another member wrote in to complain that several people pictured in various articles in a particular issue were overweight. I guess we should only feature thin, handsome, well-coiffed pilots going forward. And white, well-groomed ones too.
An ad in this magazine for one of AOPA’s products included a photo of a dark-skinned man who was not clean shaven, causing one member to call AOPA President Craig Fuller’s office to complain. He felt we were presenting a poor image of general aviation with such an image. Apparently, in this member’s mind, general aviation consists only of clean-shaven white men. Some members have been equally riled by photos of a well-known pilot/celebrity who has an earring. With so many issues facing general aviation, do we really have the time to deal with such trivial matters?
Another “Instrument-rated long-term member” (no name given) was selected to participate in an online survey after AOPA Summit. Rather than complete it, or simply stop, he took the time to write us a letter (with a footnote) where he said he started the survey. “I answered two screens full of pages, but then said ‘to hell with your survey,’ because: [this in 48 point bold, underlined capital letters] Your survey is just too damned long!”
He continued: “Hope this feedback helps. You’ll get crap from your survey, and you’ve shown your discourtesy and thoughtlessness.”
Really? By asking for your input?
In response to us replacing “Test Pilot” with a staff-developed quiz, a member who describes himself as a middle school special education teacher wrote in to tell us to “take that staff-developed quiz, print it out, and shove it squarely, yet ever so firmly, up your rear end.” To his credit, the member later wrote back to apologize and acknowledge he had crossed a line. Still, I’m not sure I want this guy educating my kids.
As with online forums in many locations, the AOPA forums attract plenty of people with strong opinions. They make for entertaining reading, but it’s a shame when people spout off without even bothering to gather any facts. One member on the AOPA forums started a new thread called this: “AOPA beats the hell out of sweepstakes airplanes.” The thread generated 41 responses and was viewed by 1,348 people as of early January. The poster eventually deleted his initial baseless comments and replaced them with simply “never mind” after other posters reminded him about all the productive ways we use the sweepstakes airplanes over the course of the year, educating nonpilots and pilots alike about general aviation airplanes, including with our Remos, providing a wounded warrior with sport pilot training. Occasionally sanity reigns, even on the forums.
The annual awarding of our sweepstakes airplane brings out the conspiracy theorists. The forums, letters, and e-mails we get suggest some people believe that AOPA doesn’t really deliver the airplanes. We apparently squirrel them away somewhere for some other purpose. Although, I’m not sure what that purpose would be given that because of their distinctive paint jobs it would be difficult to fly them anywhere without being noticed. (I often think these are the same people who believe that the Apollo moon landings were shot in a Hollywood studio.) But that’s only the beginning. Others believe that we somehow hand select the winners for some purpose, as if we care who wins the airplanes. Some argue that it seems that only aircraft owners win the airplanes. Half of all AOPA members own an airplane outright or in partnership. Statistically, then, about eight of the winners of our 17 sweepstakes airplanes should have been owners. In fact, only five have been owners.
Sore losers in all seriousness often suggest that we somehow put restrictions on the sweepstakes to only allow people meeting certain criteria to win, such as non-owners, those of only certain financial means, those without any sort of letters attached to their name (such as MD, PhD, Esq., etc.). Not so coincidently, the people remaining in the pool often look a lot like the letter writer. Never mind that strict sweepstakes rules that vary from state to state and that are carefully monitored by attorneys general nationwide prohibit any such restrictions.
As I ponder what brings out the general crankiness of pilots, several things come to mind. The dismal state of the economy, especially as it pertains to general aviation, may contribute to the foul mood that drives people to fire off thoughtless and destructive messages. Perhaps it’s the political landscape that causes people to fear the future and frustration to well up. Maybe it’s the impersonal way we communicate today. It’s easy and quick to fire off an e-mail or post a forum comment without taking the time to reflect on the fact that a real person is going to read what is written. Those e-mails don’t go to some blind e-mail box. There’s a human being on the other end.
Toni Mensching, who heads up the AOPA team of specialists that answer the technical questions in members’ e-mails and calls summed up the mood and our frequent response recently in an internal e-mail a few months ago: “General member frustration and intolerance is beginning to seep into everyday contacts. The cause seems less to do with AOPA specifically and more to do with upcoming elections, economic turmoil, and an overall stress on aviation from all directions. There is increasing pressure from members contacting us venting about problems very distantly related to AOPA. This is an unavoidable result of high AOPA accessibility. Easily getting a live, caring person on the line at AOPA gives members the ability to immediately share their frustrations with us, when they would otherwise hit a few barriers at other companies. Compassion is the only product we have for these members.”
With the start of a new year, how about we all take a deep breath and recognize that no matter how difficult today’s general aviation situation, we are still so much better off and freer to fly than pilots in just about any other country. Careless and destructive comments only tend to divide our ranks. Instead, we should be providing constructive comments that help us all get behind the big issues that threaten to derail general aviation as we know it. User fees have gone quiet, but not away. Avgas faces an uncertain future. Airport funding at the federal and state level will be thoroughly challenged in coming years. Our aging air traffic infrastructure is stuck in the 1940s. The pilot population is in decline. These are all issues that require focused, creative solutions. Together we can solve these problems. Or we can bicker among ourselves about hairstyles and the length of surveys. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather work together to assure a positive future for general aviation.