After the Interstates, it was low-fare post-deregulation airlines that challenged the economics of travel by everyday GA.
In part, trips were getting longer. Baby Boomers ranged far and wide, leaving hometowns for nationwide opportunities. Americans saw a weekend jaunt of 500-1,000 miles as an appropriate getaway or dutiful return home. After airline deregulation, these trips could be taken “for a song.”
But GA’s earlier challenge had been airspeed, the divergence between airline speeds and typical GA travel. Our GA being largely a regional travel mode, Dick Collins’ thumbnail 140-knot criteria for useful cross-country speed stood up well against local service airlines and 160-knot, multi-stop DC-3s. But as turboprops and DC-9 short-haul jets came into regional service, even short airline trips began leaving us in the dust.
GA could still sell itself to places without good airline service or to out-of-the-way spots. Mostly, though, GA business travel migrated to faster turboprops and corporate jets. Others continued to travel in slower GA because 1) their heart (and investment) was in it, 2) it was fun, 3) the family (or multiple associates) traveled for one price, and 4) multiple stops en route were almost free.
The utility of light plane travel did increase as more pilots earned instrument ratings in the 1970s and 1980s. And in the 1990s, new offerings from Cirrus and others got you higher cruise speeds without the retractable gear and costs of a Bonanza. Tax deductions for the self-employed are still attractive, but efforts by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association to cure risk managers’ aversion to employee private aircraft travel had limited results.
A driver of GA travel today is the morass of airline flying post-9/11. (So often did I hear former AOPA President Phil Boyer take joy in being able to travel without removing his shoes in airports!) Airfares still may be low, but they are less often the bargains of a few years back – especially with today’s nickel-and-dime add-ons that allow airlines to recover the billions they lose competing with each other for the lowest airfare on the Internet.
Those who can travel productively by light plane (and the fewer still doing it for their job) enjoy a great capability. But as economics and alternatives change, it’s clear why some elements of GA now eschew the “utility justification” used for decades to counter resistance to rising costs. “Sport Aviation” now emphasizes fun flying for what it is (and no more) as businesses and corporations cut costs and reduce travel.
I hope you find utility in some of your flying. But for most, the fulfillment and psychic payback is justification beyond words or dollars. That’s why many of us today sacrifice for every hour we can get and still fight to preserve our rights and infrastructure for the future.
Next time you travel, perhaps you can save a few bucks on a cheaper airline ticket (or by not checking a bag), then just spend the savings on a joyful hour around the patch some pretty afternoon this spring. OK?
© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved