Recreation time?

Strange as it seems with many millions jobless today, it wasn’t so long ago that theorists pondered what Americans would do with all their free time. The idea played its part in the 1970s transition of at least one pioneering GA brand from family ownership to conglomerate subsidiary.

The ever-more-prosperous 1960s meant good times for a growing number of Americans, including more pay for fewer working hours — which translated to more disposable income and more free time to use it. The “Think-Young” ethic of the 1960s, backed by growing public infrastructure and new consumer products, focused on fun, living life and expanding horizons. Did it all begin with The Beatles and the Ford Mustang? I don’t think so.

I remember the words of my former political mentor chiseled into the clubhouse hearth at a new public golf course he built in 1958. The place was dedicated to citizens’ growing need for recreation – a notion raised in a 1956 study by the National Recreation Association. This “visionary” initiative would “serve, promote and stimulate interest in leisure time activities for the benefit of the common weal.” My, they used high-minded language back then!

By 1969, corporate conglomerate Bangor Punta had seen the business potential in “lifestyle” and created their “Leisure Time Group.” Acquisitions such as Smith & Wesson firearms, Jensen Marine (Cal and O’Day sailboats), Luhrs Marine and Starcraft boats all served “the leisure time industry.” Thrust into this happy mix would be Piper Aircraft, another Bangor Punta subsidiary “serving the growing recreational market.”

That acquisition would not come off as hoped. For one thing, Bangor was saddled with an eight-year legal battle over Piper with another seeker of recreational critical mass, Chris Craft Industries. Moreover, the early 1970s saw economic recession followed by the first energy crisis, surely suggesting the party might be over.

Of course, the second half of the 1970s saw GA’s biggest boom. “Big Three” OEMs engaged in a remarkable war of volume sales to meet soaring demand as travelers eschewed a national 55 mph speed limit and Baby Boomers spread their wings. Volume production led to fantastic prices.

A flight training boom led to lucrative lease-back opportunities and – with end-of-decade inflation – great resale values encouraging repeat buyers. (Many complaints about airplane prices thereafter perhaps unfairly referenced this unusual period as a basis for comparison.)

One can but laugh now at the idea we’d all have money in our pockets and too much time on our hands. Productivity pressures, technology advancements (read computers) and stronger overseas competition meant that soon we’d all be working harder and doing more with less. Long hours fed the family or enabled a trip up the corporate ladder. Fewer searched for what new “lifestyle” activity we could spend money on this weekend.

Airplane marketing changed, fast. By 1982, it was all business aviation and travel productivity. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association pondered a name change to Business Aviation Manufacturers Association. (I pointed out that abbreviated as BAMA!) By mid-decade, a single-engine Mooney was on the cover of Business and Commercial Aviation magazine.

Today it’s still about business, mostly, although the LSA movement is here to talk about having fun. And EAA has risen to prominence on recreational flying, a backlash over ever-rising OEM prices, the affordability of keeping older planes flying and the greater performance of kitplanes and new designs. EAA’s most valuable intangible: Remembering the camaraderie that for so many made GA meaningful, not just a UTILITY.

In the short term (2008-201?), there will be millions with TOO much time on their hands and not enough money in their pockets. What a cruel comeuppance, but one not totally unexpected “someday.” But how things do change! And how do we face that change to win back our time in the sun?

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.

© 2012 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved


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  1. Rod Beck says

    Nice article – but NOT on the mark! The biggest issue facing the “recreational segment” of GA is simply this; It’s called “cost/benefit”; does the cost,i.e aircraft rental ($100+/hr) or aircraft ownership (put any $$ number here) = the benefit derived? And there, Mr. Steketee, is your answer! There are just to many ALTERNATVE recreational activities that are LESS costly with an “emotional” benefit GREATER than flying an airplane!

    The fact of the matter is this – why is it that only about ONE in1,400 of the population have an interest in aviation – they just don’t have a NEED or WANT for it- sorry,but that IS the REALITY!

    And here’s where your really off big time – the very fact is UTILITY isn’t being SOLD enough – I suggest you go and find or dig up a few Flying or Private Pilot magazines from the mid-60′ and 70’s; Cessna WASN’T hipping the “fun” to promote flying – their theme was the ULTILITY value wheather for recreation; going to the beach 100-200 miles away with the family or meeting a business contact 200-300 miles away to conclude a “deal” of sorts – an efficient means of travel and transportation!

    Why are so many 40-60 year old “out of annual” derelict airplanes sitting around – they just weren’t being ULTILZED - did the “fun” ultimately wane – possibly?

    Yes, there may be a place for the “social avaitor” – perhaps forming a county style club 50+ miles from a major metro center where real estate can be had reasonable enough to purchase, assuming the “neighbors” allow it, of 15-20 or so acres (grass) for a 2-2,400 ft runway and a 2 story 2,000 sq ft meeting facility.

    A “mini-movie” theater where “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” can be seen on those non VFR days, ping-pong, a pool table, and a 50’s vintage record machine playing Rock N’ Robin or Glenn Milllers “In The Mood”; ladies, please don’t take offense!”

    A condo type association is formed, sorry, this will cost MONEY – no free cookies and coffee here! And you DON’T have to be a”pilot” or even have ever flown an airplane to belong – just an “interest” in aviation – young, old,YES, AARP members this means you, male or female (or a combination of both) are welcome!

    Just think of it – 500+ plus annual memberships – and the good part is this – you be looked at as the “enemy” any longer by your near bankrupted Flight School/FBO!

    • Drew Steketee says

      Rod: Good comments, and some aspects I may be addressing in the future, but you (and others, sometimes) misperceive that one article in this continuing series is presented as the only, definitive reason for GA’s decline. There are many, and most articles are keyed to a certain issue and a certain time period in our post-WWII history. Each subject is not my sole estimate for the reasons GA is where it is — just part of a very complicated mix of factors at various times in our history.

      Otherwise, thanks for adding your good thots to the discussion.

      -Drew Steketee 2/23/12 

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