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Correction “for the record”: A little righteous indignation goes a long way March 18, 2014

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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For you non-aviators out there, a flying-specific piece is probably not helpful in your everyday work.  However, AOPA – the general aviation advocacy and lobbying organization of which I am a member – has acted in a way that I think many business leaders could learn from.

The Malaysian airline accident, along with virtually every other airplane crash, gives news outlets endless fodder – some factual, some not so much – for dramatic stories and interviews.  Just within the U.S., several fatal crashes have rightfully become newsworthy and ABC in particular took the opportunity to highlight some of the danger.

Even as a casual pilot, I note a few inaccuracies in ABC’s characterization of pilot training and the connection (if any) to accidents.  AOPA, as might be expected, worked itself into a froth over the issue.  Blog posts, video responses, letters – all worthy forums for discussing the issues.  In my opinion, however, they’re missing the point.

As a pilot myself, I suffer the “curse of expertise” as much as the next guy.  It’s hard to put yourself in the position of a novice or layperson, but I believe this step is critical to making the right move when faced with some bad press.  And my initial guess is that unless a non-pilot actually lives near a general aviation airport, specifically one of those affected by a crash,

They  do  not  care.

They don’t care that there were 444 rather than 475 fatalities.  They don’t care what the general aviation flight training syllabus contains or how many hours a private pilot has spent with an instructor.  They don’t care that there are more or fewer pilots than before.

AOPA on the other hand feels that these statistics will sway the general public.  Righteous indignation that a news outlet has presented a mostly true, though perhaps factually inaccurate portrayal of their industry (is there an industry that has not experienced this?) has blinded the discussion to what it means to engage with the public.  Rather than explain how the news is all wrong (and by extension, the very people you would like to persuade otherwise), it might be better to acknowledge some of the shortcomings that allow these news stories to exist in the first place.

Like cars, motorcycles, and boats, aircraft come with their own share of risks and rewards.  In fact, the NTSB keeps track of this sort of thing:

In addition, the annual Nall Report breaks down aviation accidents and discusses causes and solutions.  In particular, we can see from the 2010 report that fixed-wing accidents are on a slight downward trend.

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

But I would not consider it fair reporting to claim that such a trend is evidence that pilots and instructors are doing everything right, any more than it would be fair to claim that 200 fatal crashes a year means you – YOU! – could be next.  Not that AOPA is quite saying it this way, but one could imagine that if a news outlet held up this chart to tout improved safety, AOPA would probably not make a peep.

Rather, this chart illustrates to me (besides an inexplicable vertical scale) that all other things being equal, we can expect to experience about 1,300 crashes a year, about 3 or 4 every day.

Our challenge as pilots is to keep things from being equal from year to year.

At worst, the ABC piece might discourage a few people who might otherwise consider flight training.  It might give more ammunition to folks who would like to close their local airfield for fear of another crash.  It might lead the NTSB and FAA to implement stricter training requirements, as was done after the Colgan crash in Buffalo.

All of these are valid concerns for pilots and other users of general aviation.  But the solution is not to explain why someone’s fears should be dismissed because the facts weren’t quite right.  No amount of good press will erase a person’s memory as witness or victim of an aircraft accident.  And for the rest of the population, aviation’s righteous indignation that a news outlet would dare publish a piece like this only further alienates the outsiders we would very much like to bring in.

The Pilot Community October 12, 2012

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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Let’s get the easy part out of the way first.

Whether you rent or own, unless you are a professional pilot (working with either a commercial or ATP certificate), flying is little more than an expensive hobby.

Many individuals and aviation-related organizations in the U.S. (AOPA, EAA, and GAMA to name the big three) have bemoaned the pilot population decline since 1980, and have periodically raised the issue to find out what is keeping pilots out of the sky.  Cost always appears at or near the top of the list, and many people speculate as to whether that is the true cause, and if so, what drives the costs so high in the first place.  From AOPA’s own student pilot survey:

Flying is expensive.  It costs a lot to rent or purchase an aircraft, obtain a student certificate, hire an instructor, purchase insurance, and finally pass a checkride for a private pilot certificate – allowing you to continue to rent or maintain your aircraft and fly when time, money, and weather combine in perfect harmony.  Many factors have conspired to raise the costs over the years: fuel, aircraft prices, insurance premiums, and maintenance and storage fees.  There are ways to make it cheaper, just as there are ways to spend whatever disposable income you have (and then some) on anything.

The initial training cost is indeed significant; a person of average ability is wise to budget around $10,000 to obtain a private certificate in the U.S.  Aside from this, purchasing an aircraft – analogous to an RV, a motorcycle, or a boat – has risen out of reach of many Americans.  Many pilots hold to the used aircraft market as being one possible solution – and it is.  But consider the product that the industry as a whole is offering compared to the alternatives.  Few other modern industries depend on secondary markets as a basis for acquiring new buyers.  From cars to computers, when people spend, they want the best possible, next new thing (or as close to it as their budgets allow).

But the general aviation manufacturers have shifted away from 30-year-old demographics, and GAMA’s own statistics tell the story:

In 1980, the industry made $2.5 billion from shipping nearly 12,000 aircraft, with about 10 piston engines for every one jet turbine.  The revenue from turbines was about double that from pistons: $1.7 billion compared to $800 million.

Today, total revenue of $8.5 billion is derived almost exclusively from turbines – $8 billion, or about 96%.  The actual production numbers are just as interesting: just 1,300 aircraft were sold last year, roughly evenly split between pistons and turbines.  Think about this – about 600 individual products earned the various manufacturers an average of nearly $14 million apiece – on par with what many defense contractors earn from the U.S. government.  That’s tough competition for the private pilot budget.

So, if flying is so expensive, why do it in the first place?

This is only difficult to answer if one tries to justify flying on an economic basis.  Like any other hobby, there are a thousand reasons to fly, but you won’t find “cost-effectiveness” among them.  Here are a few from the same AOPA survey:

To put it simply, flying is FUN!  Objectively, there are as many reasons to undertake ANY hobby:

  • Provides an alternative to your regular work
  • Boosts creativity, innovative thinking, and inspiration in all aspects of life
  • Provides either solitude or family time
  • Lets you explore your own talents, another community, or other parts of the world

If flying is just one of thousands of ways to occupy one’s non-working time, then it is clear that the cost will be a big factor.  Indeed, costs do keep many people out of the flying community, but the pilot population is not declining in a vacuum.  Organizations across the country have been grappling with the same problem for just as many years:

  • Churches
  • Labor Unions
  • Professional Associations
  • Scouting
  • Veterans Associations
  • Social and Service Clubs
  • Golf and Country Clubs

Everyone has been discussing the “problem of declining membership”…but very little has been expressed about what exactly the “problem” is.  Unfortunately, like the first half of this article, it has as much to do with money as anything else.  If money were no object, and people simply were disinterested for other reasons, flying would just be another arcane hobby like antique cars or role-playing games.

Instead, with money at stake and flying being such a heavily regulated activity, organizations like AOPA drive political decisions.  Make no mistake, these organizations represent true stakeholders in local and national decisions.  Professional groups and their representatives, be they attorneys, doctors, engineers, scientists, union leaders, or even baseball players lobby and testify whenever pertinent issues are on the table.

But you won’t often see the local stamp collecting club on the Senate floor.  Or the photography club, or the skiers, or the comic book fans.  No, you will see the ones who, for whatever reason, need the support of the federal government to continue their activities.  Pilots’ individual hobbies depend heavily on government support.

Aviation needs infrastructure.  Runways, radar, control towers, radio transmitters…and all the regulations that govern them.  Without a visible constituency, these things go away.  That is why more pilots are needed…or are they?

What if there were only, say, 100,000 recreational pilots in the U.S.?  That may not be such a stretch.  According to this article, there are only 200,000 “active pilots” today.  When we look at “personal” certificates (private, sport, recreational, and “other”) compared to “professional” (commercial and ATP) we see the following trends since 1960:

Note that the “personal” and “professional” categories are my own.  But for this discussion, we’re concerned with those pilots that choose to fly for pleasure.  Surely, there will be some crossover, but the trends are clear: those who fly professionally have steadily increased in number while the other class has declined.

Returning to the what-if question: what if there were only 100,000 pilots flying for fun?  Would they lack political influence?  What alternatives might they have to pursue their hobby with less government support?

Consider some of the memberships of some other professional and recreational organizations:

  • American Bar Association: 400,000
  • American Medical Association: 215,000
  • IEEE: 200,000 (U.S.)
  • American Psychological Association: 137,000
  • National Society of Professional Engineers: 35,000
  • American Radio Relay League: 158,000
  • Family Motor Coach Association: 85,000
  • American Motorcyclist Association: 235,000

Considering these groups’ political influence, it’s reasonable to conclude that cutting the pilot population in half would not automatically curtail flying.  However, it would surely look different than it does today.

As pilots, we need to stop worrying about whether it’s too expensive (it is) or why (pick any reason).  We should also not be worrying about the numbers in our ranks, just for the sake of counting ourselves in a bigger group.  We should seek to attract others just as we would promote any hobby: if you are predisposed to mental and physical challenges and want to do something fun with your time and money, flying is a great hobby!

In its current state, flying is a fairly exclusive club, but not as exclusive as many people would like to believe.  It is accessible, even though it can surely be made more so with a loosening of the federal regulations for aircraft manufacture and certification.  Perhaps it will be a resurgence of grass runways, perhaps an extension of the sport pilot certificate to include 4-seat aircraft, or perhaps simply a dismantling of the federal oversight of private travel, as is done with road transport.  Individual states handle licensing all the time, with federal oversight where necessary for commercial and interstate travel.  It works.










Two Flying Cars March 20, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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There is a real-time demonstration going on right now, as two separate companies strive to meld aircraft with road vehicles.  But the demonstration isn’t what you think.  It’s not about their respective projects, but about the companies themselves.

Terrafugia is a relatively well-funded startup that now has a flying prototype under its belt.  The core MIT crew has a wealth of aeronautical design experience, and is actively working with both the FAA and NHTSA to certify the Transition vehicle as being both air- and road-worthy.  They have come a long way, and there is still a long way to go.  But they are very close to having a production vehicle in public use.  Like another similar company, Icon, they are a team of quick-thinkers who have the means to rapidly test and modify the craft as the weight, balance, performance, and features are regularly traded off.  They are a team of true aeronautical entrepreneurs.

Samson Motorworks also has a prototype, just a bit behind Terrafugia’s in terms of both funding and airframe construction.  They have solid computer simulations of airworthiness, but alas, only a road-based prototype for now.  Building a roadable aircraft isn’t easy.

But when we hear about small businesses being job creators, these are the people we’re talking about.  Unfortunately, in the early stages of the game, the jobs themselves are in short supply, and they tend not to be stable.  In order to work for them, one needs to be a self-sufficient entrepreneur – tolerant of risk and uncertainty.  With time, if these designs truly take off, they will become standard outputs of an assembly line somewhere.  In many politicians’ minds, those are the jobs they’re counting on.  Fine jobs, to be sure, but not the same as the original founders and risk-takers.

The adventure wears off, the science gives way to engineers, which gives way to technicians (as Clifford Stoll might say), which gives way to mere advertising.  There is much to be grateful for in security and stability.  But there is a passion and a love of the chase in creating something new.  I hope these valuable people stay in the game and continue the pursuit of the unusual and the untried.  Not for jobs, but for the love of discovery.

Can You Beat the TSA? March 16, 2011

Posted by Jason in Uncategorized.
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The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) has reported that business aviation has experienced a recent uptick – due in part to the hassles (e.g., advanced imaging technology or, perhaps, somewhat less advanced manual “imaging”) facing business travelers who still fly commercial air.  Mostly, this refers to charter, fractional ownership, and other high-end travel options.  But some people have begun considering obtaining a pilot’s license and aircraft to be able to fly themselves to reach customers and business partners across the country.  Though I fully support anyone’s effort to reach such a goal, there are many considerations of safety, money, and raw commitment that should be part of the analysis.

I had the opportunity to talk with such a pilot, as well as a flight instructor and a charter pilot, to get their views on the subject.  If you’re interested in what general aviation can (and can’t) do for you and your business, take a look at the published stories in the Billings, MT Magic City Magazine – and happy flying!

Winging It

Making Work Fly By

Not Just USA Today… September 17, 2009

Posted by Jason in Uncategorized.
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In the spirit of national media groupthink, the Today Show also aired a companion piece about general aviation airports being somehow a waste of taxpayer dollars.  The letter below is a response to both from Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA):

USA Today and ‘Today’ show airport funding stories lack balance
A statement from AOPA President Craig Fuller

By AOPA President Craig Fuller

The September 17 article titled “Feds keep little-used airports in business” is a story completely devoid of journalistic balance that fails to acknowledge the millions of Americans who benefit from the nation’s 5,200 general aviation airports every day.

The article cites statistics on airport spending but gives only part of the story. It completely ignores the fact that Congress regularly allocates far more for air carrier airports than for general aviation airports. For instance, in 2007, general aviation airports receiving money got an average of $750,000 for improvements while commercial air carrier airports that received funding got an average of $5.5 million each—more than seven times the amount awarded to smaller fields!

The story talks about the woes of commercial travel but fails to note that the thousands of flights made each day from small general aviation airports nationwide are actually relieving those problems. In fact, if our country’s general aviation airports were to close, those flights would be forced to operate out of our already overcrowded air carrier airports, increasing delays, slowing traffic, and extending security lines.

General aviation pilots and passengers fly for exactly the same reasons as commercial travelers—to conduct business, visit family and friends, and take vacations. But private pilots and airplanes also fly thousands of hours in volunteer efforts including medical transport, humanitarian relief, and search and rescue operations.

Having convenient access to small airports in communities around the country is as vital to our national transportation system as having highway off-ramps in small towns. To suggest that smaller airports are not needed is just like suggesting that we should have a road system that connects only the country’s 150 largest cities. The truth is that small airports do bring business, jobs, and services—including disaster relief, package delivery, firefighting capability, law enforcement, and emergency medical transportation—to thousands of communities nationwide every day. And that’s good for America.

USA Today Botches the Front Page September 17, 2009

Posted by Jason in Uncategorized.
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The title of this post is my own, though the following story is taken from the Aircraft Owner’s and Pilots Association (AOPA) website.  It is reprinted here for the convenience of non-members who do not have access to the original source.

If you’ve already read the article, please note that the “big” airports (the hubs that serve the major airlines) are most similar to the old train routes of centuries’ past.  Would you favor pumping additional dollars into that system if it meant that your local city streets became crumbled beyond repair?  That is USA Today’s feeling.  Small, local airports “cater” to private aviation (per the article) the same way that your neighborhood streets “cater” to your personal automobiles.  Unfortunately, USA Today has badly distorted the facts about aviation in the United States and the benefits derived from it – even misrepresenting Rep. James Oberstar’s position on the issue.  Please read AOPA’s response below, and look for a follow up by the AOPA president.

USA Today slants coverage to favor airlines

By Chris Dancy

USA Today on Thursday published a slanted, one-sided front-page story designed to whip up negative sentiment against general aviation and to perpetuate public misconceptions about GA. NBC’s “Today” show did a companion story that also ran on the MSNBC cable news outlet which was equally as negative, although it was somewhat more balanced in its presentation.

“The story is completely devoid of journalistic balance and fails to acknowledge the millions of Americans who benefit from the nation’s 5,200 general aviation airports every day,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller.

AOPA’s media relations staff learned of the story a week before it was published and had a lengthy conversation with the USA Today reporter, but was not included in the article.

The USA Today article focuses on spending at GA airports but provides absolutely no perspective. The article does not mention how much Airport Improvement Program (AIP) money is spent at air carrier airports, or that in a typical year, Congress allocates $3 for air carrier airport improvements to every $1 to be spent at GA airports.

The USA Today article and its companion Today Show piece both entice the audience to equate airline ticket tax income with airport expenditures. Neither story makes any effort to tell the audience that GA operators contribute to the same trust fund through fuel taxes that are five times higher than the airlines’, or that the fund also pays for the air traffic control system, of which the airlines are the primary beneficiary.

So what are the facts?

Let’s look at 2007, a fairly typical year for AIP funding.

The FAA distributed $3.34 billion in AIP funds to 2,610 airports.

341 primary airports—airports with more than 100,000 passenger boardings each year—received $2.1 billion in AIP funds. That’s an average of $6.17 million per airport.

48 commercial service airports—airports with between 2,500 and 100,000 passenger boardings—received $93 million, or an average of $1.94 million per airport.

139 GA reliever airports received $214 million, or an average of $1.54 million

982 GA airports received $617 million, or an average of $628,000.

Combined, the 389 airline airports divvied up $2,199,335,046, averaging $5.5 million per airport. The 1,121 GA airports shared $831,717,227, averaging $741,942.

An addition, $310 million was distributed through state block grant programs.

Local realities differ from national “perspective”

On the same day that the two stories ran nationally, a number of local news outlets did their own versions of the story and came to radically different conclusions.

Officials defend role of small airports: Facilities open more areas to business world,” reported Nashville’s The Tenneseean newspaper.

Local airports say fed funds put to good use,” said the Greenville News of Greenville, S.C.

And, “Business taking off,” stated The Record of Stockton, Calif., simply.

Two years ago, when the Associated Press ran a similarly negative article on federal dollars going to GA airports, the same thing happened: local follow-up stories showed that the money was well spent and benefitted the communities.

“Having convenient access to small airports in communities around the country is as vital to our national transportation system as having highway off-ramps in small towns,” concluded Fuller. “To suggest that smaller airports are not needed is just like suggesting that we should have a road system that connects only the country’s 150 largest cities.

“The truth is that small airports do bring business, jobs, and services—including disaster relief, package delivery, firefighting capability, law enforcement, and emergency medical transportation—to thousands of communities nationwide every day. And that’s good for America.”

FAA as PM June 13, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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The FAA has recently been working on a plan to consolidate many of its meteorologists into two locations in Maryland and Kansas City.  This may seem somewhat benign to non-pilots, but represents a significant potential for safety degradation.  The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has called the plan “foolish” and “reckless”.

As a pilot myself, I look at the plan a few different ways.  (more…)