While at SUN ’n FUN this year I stumbled one morning into the SAFE breakfast for a bite to eat and a bit of social engagement. SAFE is the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators, a group dedicated to improving safety in aviation through improved educational options for pilots. Their goals are as noble as their efforts are noticeable in the industry.
While prowling the room I came across the boss, Ben Sclair, publisher of General Aviation News. We chatted, exchanging pleasantries and bringing each other up to date on what we’ve been up to. And then it happened. In the midst of making a point about something or other I used the phrase, “and it’s free!” Uh, oh. That was a mistake. Ben, who is always sharper than I am, pointed out that the service I was raving about wasn’t free at all. “It’s at no-cost to the user,” he corrected me, “but it’s not free.”
He’s right, of course. Like so many of us, I too get caught up in the excitement of my own bombast from time to time and overstate my position on this or that topic. So I thanked Ben for setting me right. We continued to converse happily and SUN ’n FUN went on to be a great success, as it has done for 39 years. The experience left me thinking, however. Ben’s point is no small thing. It would be wise for the rest of us to consider the finer points of the lesson. There ain’t no free, boys and girls. Somebody has to pick up the tab for everything.
That’s an especially important lesson for us who are aviation enthusiasts, because as so often happens, the federal government is once again considering user fees being placed on the industry we love so much. It could be said that pilots and aircraft owners should pony up and pay the bills for their use of the system. Then again, it could just as accurately be posed that users already pay for the system through taxes and fees currently in place. The distinction between those two points may well lie in the question, who is a general aviation user?
It’s not an idle point. General aviation plays an important role in our national economy. Increasingly, we will see it make inroads into the international economy. With that being the case and fees being proposed once again, it’s important to define who the users are. After all, if we’re going to redesign our billing system, it would be reasonable to put some effort into identifying who those bills go to, and why they are being sent.
So what is general aviation and who uses it? General Aviation includes emergency medical evacuation flights. If you’re in a wreck on the highway and need a medivac helicopter to a trauma center, you’re flying GA. It also includes the helicopters and fixed wing aircraft flown by law enforcement at the city, county, and state levels of government. GA provides the tool that makes possible real-time traffic reports in and around congested cities. This civilian branch of aviation also performs pipeline patrols and puts firefighters right where they’re needed to fight wildfires most effectively. Agricultural flying also falls into under the big GA umbrella, which ties GA directly to the safety and the viability of the nations food supply.
Consider this if you will: Roughly 75% of flights made by major airlines serve only 46 airports in the United States. The vast majority of those flights serve just 30 large hubs. That leaves GA to serve nearly 20,000 smaller publicly or privately owned facilities where the average man or woman on the street can benefit from air service as a passenger, or to ship or receive freight. That freight includes financial documents that often travel at night on small GA aircraft – a process that speeds up financial transactions and reduces the float time when your money is committed to a use, but the transaction has not yet been completed and your money hangs in temporary limbo.
In short, the GA user is virtually every adult human being in the US, and at least a significant percentage of the children. Admittedly, many don’t see themselves as users of general aviation services. But the fact that you don’t recognize yourself as a user of nuclear power doesn’t mean you aren’t. The principle is the same.
Imposing a user fee on a GA pilot for making a flight is somewhat akin to charging a school bus driver for the privilege of pulling out onto the road to run his or her route. The passengers who hop aboard during the ride may not be paying a fare, but that doesn’t make them rich, entitled brats who live a rarified existence at the expense of others. It just makes them kids on their way to school, where they can prepare to fill their roles guiding their future and ours.
GA is similar in the sense that it is the largely unseen, unconsidered workforce that makes the larger more obvious system work more effectively, efficiently, and without undue congestion at those 30 hubs, or 46 larger facilities scattered across the land. But as my friend Ben says, it ain’t free – it’s just at no apparent cost to the end user. The irony is that the end user often doesn’t perceive themselves to be a user at all. The sadder commentary is that their representation in Washington, who routinely use GA to their own advantage, don’t perceive themselves to be users, either. They’re so focused on making sure the bus driver pays his fair share they fail to notice they’re sitting just two rows back on the same darned bus, and that the only reason the bus is rolling at all is because they needed a ride.
Interesting, don’t you think?