Is there a better name than general aviation?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but will flying by any name be as accepted and successful?

At a recent House Aviation Subcommittee hearing on the progress of the NextGen air traffic management system, members of the subcommittee, as well as people testifying, continually referred to “business flying” and “general aviation.”

Are they different? Do names affect understanding, acceptance and regulations? Do different names of uses for aircraft tend to dilute public and government understanding? Over the years, many have thought so.

When aviation began, it was all “flying.” After companies were formed to have aircraft carry passengers for hire, non-commercial flights were called “private aviation.”

At the start of World War II, there were some government attempts to ground all flying except that of the military and the airlines. The fledgling Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association fought hard to — as the association’s push stressed — “keep ’em ALL flying.”

AOPA was strong in this effort, as well as in the effort to form the Civil Air Patrol. Civilian pilots flew many types of missions, such as patrolling the seacoasts on the lookout for submarines, flying over forests to spot fires, and emergency medical services.

At the same time, manufacturers renamed it from “private” flying to “utility” aviation. This was to connote the wide variety of uses for airplanes. The name “utility” hung around after World War II. It wasn’t until 1969 that the manufacturers group changed its name from Utility Airplane Council to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

Although “general aviation” became the most popular title, personal, private, business, and other particular uses of airplanes were tagged on to try to explain what aviation is. Even trying to explain general aviation to the non-informed is done by saying what it is NOT instead of what it is (i.e., all aviation except the airlines and military).

By separating business flying from other types, as what was done at the recent House hearing, are we emphasizing special interests and keeping all aviation from working together? Will we have business flying, agricultural flying, emergency flying, forest fire fighting flying, vacation flying, and other activities that make up this broad use of airplanes?

Automobiles are used for many activities, but they are not segregated into classes other than busses and cars. We have airplanes and aviation busses. The use of aircraft for a variety of purposes has grown to a point where it might be practical to find a name for what it is and let others — like the airlines and military — explain themselves.

Is there a better name than general aviation to describe how we use our airplanes without separating the reasons for flight? I’d like to hear your suggestions and comments. Send them to

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.


  1. David W. Lawrence says

    I like the simplicity of Stormy’s suggestion about aviation…Rather than use the non descriptive and meaningless adjective “general” which tries to mean everything not otherwise defined (military aviation, sport aviation, agricultural aviation, etc) take the open sky approach and let each special interest group attach their adjective to aviation as they see fit. The result is the ultimate inclusiveness (and leadership) of the term “aviation” !

  2. says

    I run an advertising agency and I can guarantee that what you call something makes a deep psychological impact on how people view it.

    The problem with using the word “general” is that is can mean anything. You and I know what we mean by GA, but the rest of the world just looks at us and scratches their heads. The more you try to broadly define a thing, the less likely you are to describe it. The broader it is, the less you know about it – until you reach maximum “broadness” and just label something “everything.”

    Off the top of my head, I would advocate dropping the word “general” and just use the term aviation. In the public’s eye there are the airlines and everything else. From a PR stand point, moving toward a use of “airlines” and “aviation” makes the position of GA stronger in the eye of the uneducated public. How can you be against aviation? It is still up to the flying community to educate the public on aviation, but we no longer have the divisions. Something may be good for “airlines” but bad for “aviation.”

    As I see it, we have been trying to use the word “general” to describe all types of aviation but what we are really doing is trying to affix some sort of scale to aviation – airlines being aviation and police, rescue, hospital, recreation, business, historical, experimental, training all being “general” aviation. I really think we have been using general aviation to describe small scale services and operations similar to “business” vs. “small business” and think for aviation it is a mistake.

    Crazy FAR proposals? Bad for AVIATION.

    Outlandish airspace requirements? Bad for AVIATION.

    Airport closures? Bad for AVIATION.

    Ok, now I am rambling.


    Storm Bear Williams
    CEO/Group Creative Director
    Nimbus World Group, Inc.

  3. says

    Good point, Charlie. When I first started in this business, in 1985, it seemed that everything other than the airlines and military was referred to as general aviation. Over the years two distinct categories have developed, business aviation and general aviation. Given the recent negative image of corporate jets that has been portrayed in the media, it’s my feeling that we are all better off sticking together and flying under the same banner of general aviation. All forms of flying offer their advantages and there is a common benefit derived from unification.

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