Bowling alone

The new flying club proposal from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is news, but the association has tried it before. Moreover, Americans generally (pilots in particular) are individualists – even more so recently, says a unique thesis titled “Bowling Alone.” But now GA’s survival is at issue, or at least the ability of “average Americans” to fly. Can new flying clubs help save GA?

Drew Steketee

Bowling Alone was a 2000 book (and 1995 Journal of Democracy paper) by Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam. He made big waves illustrating his thesis in the decline of bowling leagues, once so popular in post-war America. The author detailed “sudden, substantial and nearly simultaneous” declines in the civic, recreational and fraternal organizations that contribute to community cohesiveness and social interaction. The change struck institutions from the Red Cross and Boy Scouts to the Elks, Lions, Masons and Jaycees – the latter down an astounding 44% from 1979.

I can relate. Dad was a Lion. I wouldn’t be caught dead. My generation was busy peddling fast to build a viable career in the new post-1970 economy, competing against a huge cohort of college-educated achievers (including the new contenders – millions of women now in the professional workforce.)

Sound familiar? It’s the TIME thing. As AOPA discovered in its 1990s research (and the aviation media found so stunning recently in a new study), the barrier to GA flying is not only money but the time commitment. And — beyond work, career and family demands — there’s another opponent. Putnam called it “the technological transformation of leisure,” that is, how you spend your free time.

I saw it in my lifetime, transformed as it was by television – the interloper my father resisted until it was needed (demanded?) by two frequently sick-at-home kids. The classics on his bookshelf went unread by this father’s son. And Americans by the millions planned their life according to TV Guide. But today, the power of the Tube is dwarfed by personal computers and the Internet. Newer generations have made that their thing, sealing off the wide world around them with earbuds, cell phone texting and closed bedroom doors. Expensive, internal combustion-driven outdoor activities are way lower on their list.

Of course, Putnam’s critics maintain that technology-driven doom is often overstated – including a 1920s study blaming every woe on the new popularity of radio. But times do change.

Will flying clubs help us? Will pilots sacrifice individuality and convenience for cheaper access? I think cost now trumps other considerations. For the tens of thousands who can no longer fly or fear they’ll soon join THAT club, joining a flying club seems a small price in personal freedom.

One more thing: AOPA says pilots surveyed want the increased social opportunities that flying clubs can offer. Our post-recession lifestyles may now finally defeat the decades-long “Bowling Alone” model of cash-rich-but-time-poor pilots rushing through airports for their quick one- or two-hour “flying fix.” Perhaps today, we true believers can be more ready to relax and relate to fellow fliers, and do so more than just once a year at Oshkosh. (There was a quality of life enjoyed by those airport bums that my generation raced past en-route to “bigger and better things.” I’d like to find it.)

Can AOPA do it? Can AOPA do it right? The GA world will be watching. AOPA tried to launch a flying club program in the 1980s. It was a great idea. Enthusiasm was strong, I was told, but their research overlooked a deal-breaker: Pilots objected to a requirement that every club member be an AOPA member. The initiative was allowed to die, quietly. Will AOPA impose that requirement again? If so, would pilots again see it as a marketing ploy or this time accept it? Or will AOPA be investing in GA’s future with no strings attached? This will be interesting!

Whatever AOPA does, I’m glad they’re planning such a down-to-earth program that fits their audience and their capabilities. It serves the everyday pilot and the grassroots of GA. And perhaps in changed times, our organizations and publications can also finally quit the decades-long fighting over scraps and support everyone’s good efforts to seek GA’s fuller feast.

Yes, all this would be representative of boosting the “social capital” that author Robert Putnam sees as crucial to our society, lest as a nation (or as a GA community) we all go our separate, hard-bitten ways and “bowl alone” right into relative oblivion.

 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.

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