Many factors have challenged the typical GA airplane as a transportation mode.
I recall the early-1960s debate at my home field whether the new Interstate Highway System would be boon or bust for General Aviation, at least for the average Cessna or Piper. My conclusion then, as now: Both.
Although still a teen, I had already seen technologies change and transportation modes fade. Our town’s little train station had deteriorated, welcoming only daily Philadelphia commuters and the occasional “Iron Horse Ramble” steam train excursion celebrating past glories. Little did I know that our “also-ran” Reading Railroad had once hosted the B&O’s indirect but upscale “Royal Blue” Washington-to-New York service, the preferred choice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But all that ended in 1958 with the withering of intercity passenger rail except on the faster, more direct “Northeast Corridor” route.
Along with modern airliners, post-World War II road building and modern automobiles diminished most train travel by the 1960s. But post-war roads were congested, under-engineered and badly lagging behind unprecedented demand. And they were dangerous; the highway carnage was legend.
So in 1956, the National Defense and Interstate Highway Act began a national system of fast, safe limited-access freeways. It’s said President Eisenhower’s experience with both the Army’s nightmare 1919 transcontinental road expedition and Germany’s Autobahns were the genesis. At first, the Interstate Highway System was cloaked in Cold War defense terms: quick wartime military movements (and the hope of civilian escape from nuclear-targeted urban areas.)
By the 1960s, beautiful new freeways crisscrossed the land, combining with state turnpikes to slash intercity drive times. Would such convenient and affordable car travel hurt GA, we wondered? Most thought so.
Others saw benefits: Broad, straight roads (no curves tighter than 3,000-foot radius) with near-level routings through hills and mountains. In other words, GA could now enjoy endless ribbons of concrete below for navigation reference and emergency landings.
Flying across mountainous Pennsylvania in my youth, Interstates were warm comfort. Decades later out of D.C., I offered thanks many times for the new Interstate 68 through rugged West Virginia. Flyers out West blessed the wide new highways in mountain passes (while also thanking FAA planners for aligning their VOR airways there.)
Quicker door-to-door drive times did offer competition, especially against GA’s particular inconveniences: Getting to the airport, pre-flight, tie-down, acquiring ground transportation, weather delays. GA still appealed where good roads didn’t go or where cities and water crossings cut traffic speeds. Yet the new web of Interstates meant fewer routes where flying at 100+ knots trumped the door-to-door convenience of high-speed driving, at least over then-typical single-engine trip lengths.
Flying does still win where Interstates are indirect or congested. Example: Between Denver and Wichita, where there is no Interstate. GA wins again where Interstates crawl with rush-hour commuters. We pilots can “jump” traffic jams and congested water crossings. Ask any Washingtonian who gleefully flies over the chokepoint Chesapeake Bay Bridge to a beach weekend or any New York-area pilot zooming past clogged bridges and turnpikes to reach New England.
Did competition from the Interstates (or the DC-9 short-haul jet or the post-deregulation airline) put our segment of GA out of business for travel? Not completely, and none of them alone. A myriad of demographic, economic and technical factors worked us over — as they always do. Just ask the old Reading Railroad, the makers of pay telephones or the Remington typewriter company. The challenge is to reachieve relevance through new products and capabilities, and fresh marketing approaches.