It’s Time To Change Our Image (part 1)

November 25th, 2013 by John Petersen

Let me try this on you: I’d guess that most people – obviously not including you, since you’re reading this magazine – have a generally negative view of aircraft and flying.


Think about it: the closest most people get to airplanes is riding the airlines to go visit someone . . . and we know what kind of experience that is. Apart from those who are scared to death that the flight is the last bit of transportation they’ll ever take in this life and that what’s left of their body after the crash will never be found, I’ve never heard any of the people in the back of the bus carrying on about how cool it was to get irradiated and frisked by the TSA and then crammed into knee-knocking seats that are so tight that you can’t get into your pocket to get the money out to pay for the “food” that they want to sell you.
It gets worse, of course if they have ever been stuck on the ramp for multiple hours with the lavatories overflowing for reasons the company chose not to tell them about. The whole experience is pretty de-humanizing.

The other times when most people get near an aircraft is when one flies overhead. Although you and I probably look up and admire the machine, there are a whole lot of folks who just hear the noise and don’t think that they should have to. Some see the plane (or the contrails) and think of the pollution that is coming out of the exhaust of the engines and how aviation is contributing toward the destruction of the planet and the opportunities for their kids. (They’re generally wrong, by the way, about the relative contribution that aviation – particularly GA – contributes to the total air pollution, but for this discussion, that is moot.)

Then there’s the general attitude that just about everyone has about business aviation. I was impressed when talking to a senior executive of a Wichita-area airframe company recently about the kids coming out of college who were looking for jobs with his company. They desperately wanted to get a job with this jet manufacturer but when asked what they thought about the product that they might be working on, the almost universal reaction was that private jets were for “fat cats” and that they polluted and made too much noise.

There’s a reason why Barack Obama picks on business aviation when he’s trying to make a point about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. I used to be in politics. I can tell you with great certainty that the political guys in the White House have very good polling data that says that private jets are the go-to, symbolic hot button to use if you want to get an immediate, predictable response from the public about the inequity of it all.

If you like airplanes and flying like I do, then all of this hurts a bit. You feel sad that these folks don’t appreciate the beauty, the productivity, the freedom and even the spiritual nature of driving a plane through the sun striped, strato-cu clouds or marveling at the light art painted across the surface of the planet during a CAVU, twilight approach to someplace like LAX.

This perception disparity is serious business. I’ll talk about that next month.

John Petersen

John L. Petersen is a futurist, strategist, and pilot. He is a former aircraft carrier based naval aviator, aircraft builder, and author of three books. He founded The Arlington Institute, edits and publishes the free e-newsletter FUTUREdition, and is the chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • arne saknusum

    Change the politicians first.

  • sid

    Good article. I think the business jets hot button pushers are more wide spread than the White House staff.
    The major Biz Jet attack pre-White House started rolling with an article in the Wall Street Journal yes the WSJ about use of company jets for personal trips.

    The WSJ often attacked Mayor Bloomberg for his use of business jets and he fittingly told them he paid for the jet & its use and it was none of their business; too bad the auto comapny execs in 2008 and were skewered for expensive jet use could have Bloomberg’s presense of mind to state that it was efficient for them to come to DC with Staffs in their company jets rather than buying so many airline tickets and paying all of them salary for airports downtime!

    Here’s the 2011 article
    The White House staff probably picked it up from that article.

    Here’s a para from the article –
    A Wall Street Journal review of FAA flight records found that dozens of jets operated by publicly traded corporations made 30% or more of their trips to or from resort destinations, sometimes more than 50%. Often, these were places where their top executives own homes. The review covered nearly every jet flight in the U.S. over the four-year period from 2007 to 2010. (Search the full records of FAA flights here.)

    Regards and keep teh articles coming we all learn from them

  • Robert D.

    Funny that the most vocal criticism came for the guy in office who flies the most expensive corporate jet in the world to political fundraising dinners, vacations, and the like.

    Anyway, one way I can think of to gain sympathy from the general public is to compare GA to other activities where people relish their freedom. Boating, hunting, shooting, horseback riding, motorcycling, RVing, and even driving are all freedoms that Americans enjoy that are luxuries, have risks and impact others in one way or another. But, even this is a hard sell in these times when a lot of people and apparently many in the press no longer celebrate the freedoms that we have and certainly don’t celebrate the freedoms of “others.” I like to say “be careful whose freedom you call for restrictions, the next may be your own.”

  • Jones

    The abuse of this “fat cat” business jet point of view isn’t limited to Washington politicians. The Cherokee Nation’s chief ran, and won, his election campaign on the platform that he would sell the Tribe’s airplane when elected.
    As pilots and aircraft owners we need to find a way to change this perception.

  • Avi Weiss

    One key geographic and usage model that gets frequently overlooked by the aviation community to bolster the image of GA as an integral part of enabling day-to-day living is Alaska. Life in modern day Alaska would simply not be possible for thousands of people, and would directly negatively impact many more times that if light non-turbine GA aircraft were not available for use in backcountry and remote outposts.

    While it would be disingenuous to say that GA isn’t used extensively by the well-heeled, it is equally unfair not to recognize the amount of revenue and community service GA aircraft do, from Angel Flights, to Young Eagles, to medivac, to critical organ transport, emergency access, and other vital flight services.

    Unfortunately, the GA community doesn’t seem to closely track and categorize all the different types of flights and report them to a central location so we could have meaningful statistics on how many were “pleasure” and how many were “service”. It would be an interesting ratio to accurately determine.

  • Robert Wright

    I’m sorry, but terms like freedom, beauty, and the spiritual nature of general aviation are never likely to resonate with the vast majority of the public. That’s why GA numbers, and AOPA membership, is declining. We continue to sell the romance of general aviation rather than the one thing that might entice the non-flying public to embrace GA – reliable, safe, on-demand transportation. Our training system is not set up to teach people how to use GA airplanes for that purpose. We need more options for showcasing the flexibility of GA for transportation, including those who don’t want to be pilots. To provide a safe GA transportation network, our ultimate goal should be to eliminate the pilot. The technology is almost here – think drones that transport people rather than kill them. This will offend the purist, enthusiast community, but they will only survive under the umbrella of a larger more practical GA where the general public will demand that GA airports be kept open and where product volume is higher and costs are lower.

  • Robert M

    Robert D touched on freedom. “If” we could get equal time with every critic it would likely hit home if every time they advocated GA restrictions or elimination if we could counter with eliminating their option for private transportation and mandate the “public” option. A cold wet walk to the bus stop could be sobering. Sadly, most critics have narrow views and fail to appreciate that a transportation machine and supporting infrastructure (be it air, land, or water) require humans to directly support design, build, operation, and maintenance. Then you have the entire ancillary industries for fuel, spares, storage (i.e. airfield construction), insurance, financing, licensing, training, etc. All of this is JOBS and tax revenue. Any pol advocating the demise of an industry (even for short-term political gain) certainly doesn’t have the best interests of the nation in mind.

  • S Lyle

    There’s a REASON bizjets are a prominent symbol of Corp. greed: they pay virtually NONE of the purchase/operating costs. The unwitting public actually finances it all via tax-breaks, deductions and the price of their products/services…
    Obama isn’t wrong to point this out. There is ZERO justification for such Corp. largesse. and IT HAS GOT TO STOP.

  • Jones

    Perhaps “It’s Time To Change Our Image-Part 2″ will investigate the claims of S Lyle. Is the “S” for “sarcastic”?

  • Eggz

    The ‘unwitting public’ pays for EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, EVERY TIME in the price of ALL products. It’s called PROFIT and without it there would no taxes from which to allow the breaks and deductions you so despise, S Lyle. In fact, there would be NOWHERE for you to RANT, except perhaps standing on a stump in the garden you’ve grown with seeds you harvested yourself. But wait… I don’t have any seeds and you have ZERO justification for all those seeds you have HOARDED, you GREEDY, evil, PRODUCER! IT HAS GOT TO STOP!!

  • Saltaras

    The problem is that kids and you adults look at general aviation planes and see basically relics that are visually unchanged decade after decade. They are uninterested in flying machines that their grandfathers would have flown, just as they are uninterested in driving a car from the 1950s or 1960s. And if they look at new GA planes, they just laugh at the ridiculous 350k+ price tag (for a Cessna 172! give me a break). The new generation likes new planes, particularly the light sport models. 100% of the time I have shown them the lineup of new carbon fiber LSA models they choose them hands down over comparably priced used Cessnas, pipers, etc. etc. But there is a dug in group of pilots that relentlessly put down LSA as “toys” , “overpriced plastic planes”, etc. that use “snowmobile engines”. If you want to attract more pilots, then let’s support the LSA side a bit more, and stop destroying the dreams of the young fliers with insults about the planes they like.

  • A Richie

    Actually, I believe I saw it written somewhere that new Skyhawks now are over 400k starting in 2014 :-(

  • http://yahoo Joe

    I don’t know about the Jet Folks, I’m not too worried about them, I think they can take care of themselves. The people I worry about are the little guys in aviation. Most of the planes I see sitting idle are not bizjets, they are cessnas, pipers, etc. Jet fuel is cheaper than avgas, and no one subsidizes my plane for me. I don’t make enough to get a tax break on my plane either. Just my feelings on the matter.

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