General aviation: An appreciation

HPC’s technical editor Sara Black says recessionary scorn of private flight unnecessarily harmed the economically vital general aviation industry.
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Nothing gives you a better appreciation of general aviation (GA) than actually flying — yes, I have been quietly taking flight lessons from an excellent instructor at Centennial Airport in Colorado (identifier: KAPA). I undertook the mission at the behest of my pilot husband, who wanted me to be able to fly our plane and land it in the case of an unanticipated problem. And I am forced to confess that our plane is not made of composites (sorry, couldn’t convince him). But, my aviation education process, as well as our flights to various airports, has driven home the reality that general aviation is a very important segment of our economy, and one in which composites plays a big role. Consider these facts, supplied by the General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA), the National Business Aviation Assn. (NBAA, www.noplanenogain.org) and other business aviation proponents:

  • GA contributes more than $150 billion to the U.S. economy annually and employs more than 1.265 million people.
  • GA now accounts for roughly one-fifth of the $100 billion worldwide civil and military aircraft market.
  • In the U.S., GA aircraft fly more than 26 million hours and carry 166 million passengers annually.
  • There are at least 4,000 GA airports with paved runways open to the public in the U.S. alone. Commercial scheduled airlines serve less than 500 of those.

But this industry suffered one of its toughest years ever in 2009, according to GAMA — not only because of the global economic downturn, but also because of the unnecessary mischaracterization and even demonization of private jet owners and users. The negative public perception of bizjets was, of course, prompted by the trips to Washington undertaken by Detroit’s auto execs seeking public bailout money in late 2008, and the subsequent fallout has been severe. Many company flight departments were eliminated, new orders were canceled and older planes were sold off. While market watchers today are cautiously upbeat, citing FAA data showing increases in business jet takeoff-and-landing activity in 2010 compared to 2009, the industry still has a big hole out of which to climb.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a defender of “fat cats” or wasteful practices. What I do want to point out are the benefits of general and business aviation. Studies have shown that the use of GA aircraft saves a lot of time. On our own recent flight from Colorado to the upper Midwest, the trip of 900 nautical miles took about five hours in the air (it’s a piston aircraft). Our destination airport supports commercial flights, but I would wager that, even without jet power, we made the door-to-door trip faster than our traveling counterparts on Frontier Airlines. For a company, it means many hours saved, particularly for key personnel in a situation such as a factory visit for a critical machine repair or a client meeting. In addition, point-to-point trips to smaller airports are often closer to the final destination and afford privacy and the ability to discuss proprietary or sensitive information with associates. Private flight eliminates time-wasting baggage hassles, security delays and any number of other potential commercial airline snafus.

Private planes are productivity tools that companies around the world have deemed key to their business strategies. Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, defends business jets (full disclosure: his company Berkshire Hathaway does own NetJets, an enterprise that promotes fractional jet ownership) and says that a company is “better off” using business aviation resources, even given the operational costs. Myriad small businesses operate jet and piston aircraft to carry passengers to less-traveled cities or towns that commercial carriers see as unprofitable; or to ship documents, freight or food to roadless destinations; or to carry patients on medical ambulance flights. Then there are the Civil Air Patrol’s search-and-rescue missions; and humanitarian aid, like Angel Flight; and … I could go on, but you get the picture.

Further, the GA sector breeds innovation. The Gulfstream 650 thermoplastic composite rudder is one recent example (see HPC’s “2010 SAMPE Europe/JEC Paris Product Showcase,” under "Editor's Picks," at right). Another is the ongoing research into electrically powered aircraft and rotorcraft, aimed at eliminating aircraft carbon emissions. Terrafugia’s flying car and ICON’s new sportplane (see "EAA AirVenture 2010," under Editor's Picks") are exemplary entrepreneurial efforts that are expanding the GA market. There are many more. The facts clearly demonstrate that GA contributes to a healthy global economy. Those who design, build and fly GA aircraft deserve respect, appreciation and support.

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