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.
My General Aviation is for everyone — or at least for a lot of people of varying wealth and incomes. What inspired me in the 1960s was that firemen, farmers and school teachers in my town were flying. What a wonderful American story. But now?
A recent series in Slate examined the change in U.S. wealth distribution. Recall the Gilded Age and The Robber Barons when captains of industry lorded over the economy. The middle class was small, while tens of millions worked in factories or fields for a desperate living wage. By 1915, a landmark study calculated that the richest 1% of Americans held 15% of all wealth. Now, it’s 24% — despite the remarkable mid-century emergence of a robust middle class. Today, the middle class is generally squeezed and some (among others) are again desperate. Implications for GA abound, but first some details.
Turns out, 20th Century wealth shifted in three phases as detailed in the Slate series. The Great Depression (1929-1941) was followed by The Great Compression (1941-1979.) Compression? The gap between the richest, the middle class and lowest wage earners narrowed. Familiar to my age group were the increasing incomes and opportunities of World War II’s “Pax Americana,” our technology leaps and our global market supremacy of the 1950s-1970s. Writing for Slate, Timothy Noah says, “There probably was no better time to belong to America’s middle class.”
The Great Compression ended in 1979, Noah says, when wages stagnated and inflation raged. The Great Divergence began in 1980 and, except for 1990s prosperity, continues today. Through 2005, Princeton economist Paul Krugman says more than 80% of income growth went to the top 1% of Americans. Virtually none went to middle and lower incomes.
“The Great Divergence may represent the most significant change in American society in your lifetime,” says Noah.
I’d say that trend can be seen in General Aviation in spades. And it didn’t begin yesterday.
I started working in GA full-time in December 1980, right between GA’s Go-Go ‘70s and its miserable ‘80s. Rust Belt manufacturing jobs were decimated; farm sector wealth crashed. (Back then, GA veterans told me 50% of recent new pilots were Blue Collar workers who enjoyed motor sports, hand-eye coordination and machinery. Rural and farm customers were major buyers of aircraft.) Broken only by a 1995-2005 intermission after this 15-year downturn, the Divergence trend re-emerged during the past decade (although perhaps blamed on post-9/11 effects.)
Today much of GA looks like a Rich’s Man’s Game, as it did in the 1930s. I think most of us strain to avoid the admission. Economic historians say don’t be surprised. According to one, “The share of national income going to the top 1% more than doubled during The Great Divergence.” Moreover, they now cite three categories of “rich,” topping out with “The Stinking Rich” who enjoyed “truly dizzying gains” since 1990. Imagine that group! (Gordon Gecko, enjoy your sequel!)
We have witnessed vast growth in business jets and VIP transportation. Big money has flowed into bizjet sales, corporate aviation, fractional ownership, jet charter and the like. GAMA’s annual billing numbers (driven by jet deliveries) astounded us at $2 billion in 1980. In 2009: $20 billion (down from $25 billion in 2008!) The problem for everyday GA? The really rich don’t generally fly. They are flown. And their expectations and demands for convenience and seamless service are a world away from what we put up with to fly ourselves.
The Great Recession has put much of the middle class out of work, into marginal employment and out of flying, for now. But long-term trends can’t be passed off on just a recession — or apparently race, women in the workplace, computers, immigration or other classic socio-political targets. (Read the Slate series for full details.) It seems that the macroeconomics have changed as well as the price of a Cessna or the cost of avgas. There are bigger forces at work, at least if you believe in The Great Divergence.
I long for the “good old days” of busy, friendly airports and admiring neighbors who want to join in. Will they return? There’s another factor. The Great Divergence also brought on significant debt for those of us who continued to live as we had before. Cynically, it was “Let ‘em eat credit.” Now, with a tremendous debt overhang, the “piper” must be paid before my group buys a new Piper (or learns to fly one.)
I hesitate to raise such incendiary issues, perchance generating partisan blame and revisionist history. I offer only a heads-up to oft-overlooked macro factors affecting GA. Read up and draw your own conclusions, but look around. The bizjets are still flying and keeping some of us (and our infrastructure) in the game. And thank heaven for those many pro pilot jobs. But there aren’t many school teachers and firemen out at the airport on a Saturday morning.