WASHINGTON, D.C.—“Private Plane, Public Menace” is the title of a feature article written by Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic magazine. How did an article with such a title appear in such a prestigious magazine?
As the magazine is published here in Washington, I decided to try to determine why. After two and a half days of trying to reach Mr. Goldberg on the telephone and getting no calls returned, I asked to speak to an editor. I spoke with Alex Hoyt, who told me the magazine checks accuracy before publishing an article. That afternoon Mr. Goldberg called, obviously nudged by editor Hoyt. He told me he was merely relating a personal experience and was surprised that he could get into an airport and in an airplane with none of the checking he and others go through when boarding a commercial flight. Although the title of the article and its tone questioned the security of general aviation, I took Mr. Goldberg at his word that he was recounting only personal experience.
The article included comments from his friend who offered the ride from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to Washington, D.C. When Mr. Goldberg asked if he had been a terrorist what would stop him from using a general aviation aircraft, his friend replied: “Nothing would stop you. All you need is the money to buy a plane or a charter.”
Before writing the article Mr. Goldberg spoke with John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), who told him he sees less substantial threat from general aviation than he does from the commercial realm. The author added in the article a statement from Pistole: “Clearly the general aviation community has a lot of equities and interests in our rules, he told me, delicately.”
Mr. Goldberg has been with The Atlantic as national correspondent since 2007. Prior to joining the magazine he was Middle East correspondent and Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Atlantic Monthly is rich in tradition. It began publishing in 1857. Among its founders were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, who was first the magazine’s editor.
Having been involved in media and communications since 1938, I wanted to know why a publisher and writer with such distinguished records would see general aviation as a “Private Plane, Public Menace.”
I learned what I had expected: If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught. A writer or reporter is only as good as the sources. Mr. Goldberg had not spoken with general aviation organizations or companies that use business aircraft, although many sources were available not far from his office. If the media doesn’t know what general aviation is, who uses it and why, what security measures are in place, or even where to get the information, the teacher hasn’t taught.
As far back as the early 1960s, a few people in general aviation recognized that “keeping a low profile,” as some top industry leaders wanted, was an incorrect approach. A few wanted to raise GA’s profile and gain public understanding. The latter group held the position that the first step would be to thoroughly inform the media about general aviation. This meant more than just identifying who to contact for information. It meant continuing, long-term education. The Utility Airplane Council — predecessor of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association — began running paid advertising in publications aimed at media. Before the program gained more than limited interest however, it was cancelled.
Yes, general aviation interests responded to the Atlantic Monthly article. Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), was quick to send a letter to the editor explaining some of the security measures of general aviation. As I write this, officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) were preparing responses.
General aviation interests try to respond to negative information about personal and business flying. But each of these is like pouring water on a small blaze instead of clearing the brush to prevent fires. As GA’s alphabet groups strive to increase public understanding of what general aviation is, they find themselves so busy fighting off the alligators they don’t have time to drain the swamp.
The mainstream media needs to be thoroughly informed so they, in turn, can inform the public. It’s a never ending project. To gain public understanding means talking to a passing parade, not to an audience.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.