Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.
Recently, the regional authority for long-beleaguered Queen City Airport outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, committed to fixing problematic underground fuel storage tanks but refused to say that investment guaranteed the airport’s long term survival.
Despite being named FAA Eastern Region GA Airport of the Year in 2006, this large, close-to-downtown reliever for airline hub Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE) has been threatened before. It’s a familiar story.
Pennsylvania has long been known for a fine system of airports. Industry executives would remark on it and use it as a national example. Recently, I found a Harrisburg Telegram front page from 1945 that dramatized the state’s strong support for a system of airports post-war.
There amid the war news (“Yanks Bag 223 Jap Planes,” “Planes from Iwo Jima” in action, “Churchill asks Commons Vote…”) was headline news that Pennsylvania lawmakers would seek 30 new airports for post-war aviation – four in one local county alone. Post-war aviation was the ticket to the future. Business and government were on board.
Contrast this with post-war aviation at 65 – proud of its growth and maturity but uncertain of its future.
Sure, infrastructure stimulus spending will include aviation projects. Good for jobs. Better for crumbling highways and bridges. Airline airports will get needed help. Some local airports will expand to accommodate business jets, where the money is. But does the “average” GA airport still have the right to ask for help?
Industry executives have long believed that basic General Aviation is key to industry health. The more Americans exposed to aviation, the better. More pilots, friends of pilots, family members, etc., mean GA will be understood. Surveys showed a huge proportion of new student pilots were influenced by word-of-mouth from a friend or relative who flew.
Landmark AOPA research in the 1990s also revealed a “generational echo” from World War II, recurring every 20 years as the sons and daughters of wartime Americans started flying. Each generational spike decreased with the following generation, however. One wonders just how big our next new pilot generation will be.
Learn-to-fly programs, hand-wringing over the declining pilot population, et.al., are about diminishing business, sure. But of significant concern is GA’s diminishing political power related to our smaller numbers. Once hopeful for a million licensed pilots, we peaked at 827,000 decades ago and fell below 600,000 more recently. With new pilot licensing regulations and aircraft re-registration, a shake-out of inactive pilots and aircraft may again cut industry numbers drastically.
While the current real estate crisis has cooled developer demand for suburban airport land, taxpayers may well be the next and most potent threat. And with fewer pilots and aircraft, decidedly reduced activity and a perception of irreversible decline, tax dollars and political support will wane.
Our representative organizations have their work cut out for them. Accordingly, they are relatively more politically and less operationally focused these days. Despite big public bucks for NextGen and other marquee programs, the battle remains for GA to be relevant and valued in changed times.
Post-war America was a time of prosperity, growth and optimism. This new century may offer victories and economic advantages like those of the America we enjoyed in our lifetimes. However, another “American Century” may be unlikely. Things will be different. Some of the handwriting is appearing on the wall.
General Aviation and its people will have to be prepared for a new ballgame, in Washington and around the country. Times are, again, changin’.