GA Needs a New Story

January 8th, 2014 by John Petersen

If you’ve ever worked in the White House and near national politics, as I have, you know immediately and intuitively why political leaders pick on GA in general and business jets in particular – because it works. Senators and presidents don’t single out jets as examples of “tax loopholes”, etc., without knowing, with great certainty, that there is nothing that is iconic of fat cats and the 1% as corporate jets. The research and surveys are unambiguous: it’s the big hot button that generates popular negative reaction.

Even young people, competing for jobs with aircraft manufacturers in Wichita, admit that the product that they want to be a part of producing is antithetical to their basic sense of general equity and benefit a very small number of people – but they need a job, please.

There’s more to the story than that, but as long as we let others define who we are, they will continue to magnify the differences between those who own and fly aircraft . . . and the rest of the world.

Few automobile owners, for example, realize that there is no way (unless you own a taxi cab company), that you can directly justify the economics of owning a car. Easily the second most expensive purchase after a home, we continue to buy these vehicles (how many dozen have you owned?), not because they generate more income, but because they allow us to do other things that are economically and socially beneficial.

The same can be said about aircraft. Just as your Chevy gets you to more places (like your job) much faster than walking or taking the bus, airplanes provide the same benefits for individuals and companies that effectively utilize them to increase the efficient use of the available time and leverage their ability (like cars do) to access locations that otherwise would be hard to get to. They increase productivity. They are tools. They allow us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. And the benefits are much broader than for just the individuals riding in the front or back.

Try thinking about what kind of world this would be without aircraft in general and GA in particular. What kind of things wouldn’t work? How many injured people would die? How would the whole system slow down?

That’s a story that needs to be the framework for a great movie . . . and needs to show up on the news (juxtaposed to the story about the airplane crash that producers rush to air) . . . and needs to be explained to young people so that they have a context for assessing the value of private aircraft.

We need an industry-wide campaign that speaks about the benefits of aircraft, in very sophisticated and effective terms, to multiple segments of the larger population, rather than talk inwardly to the aviation community about the gains (primarily economic) that aircraft enable.
This is not necessarily an easy sell, particularly in light of the well-established fact that income disparity is growing larger in this country. But like many other activities that are embedded within much larger trends, the benefits of general aviation are a story waiting to be told. We need to enable the storytellers.

John Petersen is a former naval aviator, a professional futurist and the chairman of The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.

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.

  • Jim

    An addition to your excellent points: Aviation is a high-technology, high labor content, multiple-engineering discipline, high value-ad industry where we lead the world. Skewering aviation whilst bemoaning the loss of manufacturing and our declining science and engineering grad rates is pure hipocrisy.

  • Fred

    If you begin anything, especially in America and it’s particular flavor of youngster, with “explain”, you’ve already lost the plot. I’m sorry to say that aviation, especially General Aviation, is too easy a target and storytelling will do nothing for you in this political climate.
    What is needed is an aviation-themed manual for attack, something that does for GA what Rules for Radicals did for politics. Unless and until we can achieve that kind of influence, GA is dead. Which means, much as it pains me to say, GA is dead. Two generations, I’m giving it.

  • Richard Weil

    Fred might be right, though it will probably survive in pieces here and there, such as ultralight use and sport piloting. (But what I’m really scared of is another collision with a commercial airliner. No matter who is at fault, GA will get the blame.)

    There are many reasons why private aviation have a worsening image, among which are the perceptions–true or not:

    1. Only rich people can afford this. Stick it to them.
    2. It’s complicated. Who wants to sit down and learn all this stuff? (I.e. You are making me look lazy and stupid.)
    3. It’s dangerous, both for the people in the air and on the ground.
    4. It’s long out of date, takes time to get to and isn’t close to where I live anyway.

    I’m not sure how many Disney movies we need to get over these mindsets. Part of the problem is a common societal attitude that things should be made “safer” and “easier”. The loathsome last Administration did a fine job of saying, “Don’t think, don’t ask questions, don’t stand up for yourself, we’ll protect you.” But this kind of thing has been going on for a long time. Years ago I tried to write an article for an airline magazine just simply explaining how an aircraft flew, what kind of radio facilities they used, etc. No editor would touch it–keep the passengers entertained and unaware was their mantra, otherwise they might get nervous. How can GA compete with that?
    But with the economy still suffering, especially for younger people, new inventive ways have to be found to reach people who may discover they want to be pilots. My other big hobby, ham radio, has been struggling with a similar problem for years and has made some inroads, although it’s still an uphill battle. Perhaps the AOPA should look at what organizations with similar issues are doing, wipe the slate clean of any presuppositions, and reinvent the entire advertising/training/public education process. Let’s face it: As in many specialized areas, most people in GA do not know how to market what they do. If you’re not a surgeon or plumber, waiting for the public to walk through the door is not a good business strategy.

  • Turlough Murchadha

    …and tell me again, why are the rest of us subsidizing your expensive hobby and the corporatist’s high priced status symbol?

  • http://Aopa R. Keeley

    Exactly How are you subsidizing me?

  • http:[email protected] Bert Williams

    What the name of he airport on the cover of the 2013/2014 Edition of the AOPA
    Airport Directive?

  • Greg Latreille

    Maintaining a healthy population of pilots is important in many ways, several of which have been mentioned above. Here is another: whenever the S hits the fan, a fleet of volunteer GA airmen comes to aid in more effective ways than a land-based group of volunteers could ever be. That contributes to the strength of our society and nation. As the number of private pilots decreases, our ability to respond to and deal with disasters, natural or otherwise, is diminished.

  • M L Moore

    GA is on the down hill slide because of excessive and over bearing government regulation and oversight. Nobody submits to such government scrutiny voluntarily, especially when it also involves the training, study and skill that flying demands, unless they have a very specific need.
    You could kill just about any industry with excessive government regulation & oversight. This may be by design, the first step all past oppressive dictators (government rulers) took to control the population was to limit their ability to freely travel within their country.

  • steve

    It all sounds good on paper and I generally agree with the article but I still think the long term prospects for GA are bad.
    There are a lot of options available these days for peoples disposable income. GA has a very steep entry price to sit in the left seat. Bi annual this and that does not help things either.

    I disagree about the car analogy. It is an essential part of my life and livelihood. Yes I could get by without it but it is not a huge drain on me financially relative to the benefit it brings. With a car there are a very affordable price points for just about everyone. GA would have the exact opposite effect which is why I do not own a plane.

    The kids today just do not have a sense that GA is needed or has any value relative the cost associated with aviation. The prices for the most part are borderline absurd. How do you sell $130 an hour for a basic VFR plane designed in the 60’s to the younger crowd? I read an article in Popular Mechanics a while back and it was complaining about too many boys 18 – 25 having zero interest in cars, either owning them or working on them. I used to really enjoy tinkering with my car and dreamed of restoring an old muscle car to drive around. Kids today have different priorities. If they cannot be bothered with cars then how would GA fit into the picture? How do you sell green, echo raised kids on $7.00 avgas? You can’t.

    I take people up with me when I go flying, they all love it when they are up there but when we land they have no desire to do anything more than be a passenger. Cost is huge contributor for these kids.

    GA will become a wealthy members only club. It is well on its way. We lose about 10K pilots a year who no longer fly for various reasons and they are not replaced. I fly with several that gave it up strictly due to cost and I know many more who cannot justify the expense and have stopped.

    GA definitely has a purpose and it is of value to some people but selling it to a larger population has proven to be an uphill battle. In 1980 we had 200 million people in this country and 20K piston planes rolled off the assembly lines. Today we have 330 million and 500 pistons are built. There is something seriously wrong with that equation.

    I will continue to fly my 2 hours a month until the cost becomes untenable for the 2 hours that I am up there. After that I will be in my shop building something for someone out of wood.

  • Jacques

    Steve – It’s very depressing to read you. I don’t fly for the economics, it’s all about passion for me. Some kids are not interested, so what. It’s nothing new. Being without a passion is common out there, adults included. You need to be passioned about it. You can’t transmit a passion, it’s a state of mind, some have it, some don’t. Flying – GA style – is also about being adventurous. I don’t care about the cost, I do it as cheaply as possible and I’m not breaking the bank.

    In have to shovel around the airplane to get it out of the parking spot. I dress well and enjoy the fresh air. I could get someone to do it for me, but I take my time and enjoy the “process” (as my wife puts it). It’s about getting out of your confort zone, accomplishing something and feel good / proud. On an open airfield it can get pretty cold, and without that passion I would stay inside on the couch playing games. While GA is not for everyone, it’s still worth the positive attitude. BTW you are doing the right thing by exposing people to GA. A passionate person will eventually emerge out of nowhere…

  • melvin Freedman

    You all have valid points, but pvt pilots, who mostly fly for pleasure and sence of achievement are gone, its like the tree falling in the woods, who cares

  • steve


    Sorry to depress you as that was not the intent at all. I too have a passion for aviation but I do so within my means. The more it costs the less I fly. Very simple economics for me. Passion only gets me so far before financial realities/obligations hit home. I would fly every day if I could but the only way for me to do that at this point in my life is to incur debt for enjoying my passion. Since I have no desire to do that I fly within my means.

    There is simply no denying that GA is on the decline. All the major alphabet groups are putting forth initiatives to increase the pilot population but it does not seem to be working. At the end of the day you need money to do this and every year it requires more of it.

    Enjoy your flying. I certainly enjoy mine.

  • Maynard McKillen


    You mention income disparity in a very incidental way. Isn’t it, in fact, central to the problem you pose?

    And those young people competing for jobs in aircraft manufacturing need to be encouraged to explore and express just what it is that makes them lukewarm to aiding and abetting a distorted aircraft market. Supply-side economics has distorted that market. Those young people should be acknowledged for reacting just the way real, ordinary Americans instinctively react to indulging the whims of a coddled, clueless, mentally diseased, money-addicted minority.

    That minority and their overweening influence on the economy and government is also central to the problem.

    It is no longer functional, accurate or useful to speak of something called GA. Better to speak of corporate aviation and private aviation as two separate entities, with marginal overlap. Apologists for corporate aviation continue to rationalize the relevance and out-sized importance of that boutique industry by tossing around big-dollar numbers which supposedly reflect the economic benefit that corporate jet manufacturing, corporate airports and corporate jet support services provide to local communities, but these numbers pale when compared to the greater economic benefit that is derived by the creation of diversified manufacturing industries that employ a far larger number of citizens in those same communities.

    Sure, the corporate jet industry/services can be a part of a diversified manufacturing/service base, and play a part in the economic vitality of a municipality or a region, but now you’ve framed such services more accurately, as incidental to an economic engine, not as the benevolent saviors of struggling communities who should trip over themselves offering unneeded tax credits and incentives to these comfortable corporations.

    And here’s the rub: when a community says, “No, we’re not going to expand our airport to accommodate corporate jets because we don’t include such a change as part of our long-term plan,” then corporate fat cats used to using any means necessary to get their way have to say, “Okay, the people have spoken,” and respect the decision. Doesn’t happen that way in this Brave New America.

    And in an age of Skype, GotoMeeting and teleconferencing, corporate travel is a quaint anachronism whose real purpose is to perfect that golf swing. Need to send engineers? Use the Beech Bonanza. Those engineers can number crunch and strategize during the flight.

  • Greg W

    All good points and I believe there is no “one answer”. As to the “utility of an airplane vs. a car I have one story. This was only one instance of course but it was only possible due to an airplane. I had a funeral that I needed to try an attend yet it was 400 mile round trip. Using my Aeronca Champ, not considered a X-Country airplane at all, I flew myself and a coworker to the service. The use of the airplane and the direct city to city route made possible by GA airports got us both back in time for our afternoon shift. The use of the airplane allowed no “lost time” at work. The cost of the airplane, 17K, the cost of my base model Chevy truck 23K, fuel mileage on both is about 18mpg average. Is the truck more useful on average yes, but the airplane does not cost near as much as most think to purchase or operate. For local fun flying by myself I use a Team MiniMax ultralight, $2,500 cost and a lot of fun, it,s like a flying dirt-bike, incredible performance, just a slow top speed.

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