WASHINGTON, D.C. — After several years of making forward steps in building public and government support for general aviation, a single act by a disturbed individual saw the industry lose some ground and, again, bring the alphabet groups into an all-hands-on-deck mode of damage control.
The individual who deliberately crashed his Piper Cherokee into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, caused the news media to rehash general aviation’s possible threat to security. Efforts by the industry seem to have paid off in lessening the blow.
The Washington Post led its report on the incident with the headline, “Texas plane crash exposes gap in US air security.” In its report, MSNBC said, “little has been done since 9/11 to guard against attacks with smaller planes.” These media outlets were just two of the many that used a report of the incident filed from the Associated Press. In that report R. William Johnstone is quoted as saying the security gap is “a big one.” Johnston is an aviation consultant and a former member of the commission that investigated the 9/11 terror attacks. He added that it wouldn’t take much — even a minor incident involving two simultaneous attacking planes — to inflict enough damage to set off alarm bells and do some serious harm to the economy and national psyche.
Balanced reporting in the AP article showed that the efforts of the alphabet groups — on their own and in conjunction with other parts of the industry through the Alliance for Aviation Across America — reduced the damage the incident could have brought. In the same AP report, an aviation security consultant, Tom Walsh, declared, “I do not see a gaping security hole here. In terms of aviation security, there are bigger fish to fry than worrying about small airplanes.”
The AP story carried by so many news outlets added another favorable comment, this time from a government official. The AP story quotes Richard Skinner, the Transportation Department’s Inspector General, who last year reviewed security at several general aviation airports — including three in the Houston area — and concluded that general aviation “presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security.”
Another factor in the damage control was the quick and common sense response immediately after the incident. Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), first expressed concern and sadness for the loss of life and structural damage and then cautioned about overreacting to “this isolated act of suicide.”
A similar note was struck by Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), who said, “The actions of a troubled individual should in no way reflect on the general aviation community as a whole.”
Doug Macnair, vice president of government relations for the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), noted his association was keeping in close contact with federal authorities in an effort to keep the incident in its proper perspective.
As serious as this incident was, it so far has not had the negative results that drastic incidents of the past have had for general aviation. This is visible evidence that dues-paying members of associations are getting their money’s worth — and more — in gaining public understanding of general aviation. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without public sentiment, nothing can succeed.”
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.