WASHINGTON, D.C. — On June 18, the national publication USA Today published an article titled Unfit for Flight. It painted general aviation as a dangerous activity and the manufacturers of aircraft as contributing to general aviation accidents. This is not new.
Anti-general aviation material has been printed and broadcast in the past. Two things make this time different. First, aircraft manufacturers, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), and Textron, parent company to GA giant Cessna, had provided information to the writer, who chose not to use any of the material. Second, increased concern over more congestion at major airports labeled this as a possible early shot in what could become a major battle.
Neither of these two points is new. After a mid-air collision at San Diego in 1978 between an airliner and a single-engine GA aircraft, major media spewed material about the dangers of “those small airplanes.” (It was finally determined that the airline pilots were busy talking among themselves and after sighting the GA aircraft had supposed they had passed it.) This accident set off a storm of anti-general aviation reports in print and on-air media.
This was just what the FAA was waiting for to establish then-called Terminal Control Areas around every airport in the United States served by a scheduled air carrier, even if it was just one or two flights a day.
Airlines favored the idea because it would mean limited numbers of general aviation aircraft getting near the airports the carriers used.
It was obvious the media was not getting such a wide range of anti-general aviation material without help. The president of American Airlines openly pushed for restricting general aviation operations at airports. (American Airlines has since become much more understanding and tolerant.)
At the time I was vice president of public relations at AOPA. We took on the fight. I had an undercover person on the staff at American Airlines so we knew what the airline was pushing to the media and able to counter it, often before it was published.
The AOPA PR department also took on the FAA’s efforts to establish restricted zones around every airport. For this, we tailored information to the individual publications in each city, pointing out the damage to that area that the FAA’s plans for terminal control areas would bring. There was no mention of the accident. This received the kind of support intended.
Local leaders, reading of the damages to the economy of restricting movements at the town’s airport, contacted their members in Congress. The war was not won, but the battles were. Instead of terminal control areas around every air carrier airport, Class B airspace rules were established at only the few where they now exist.
As a long-time newspaper man, I can tell you a reporter rarely comes up with such a story idea unless there is a personal reason or it is suggested by an outside source. Without any direct finger pointing, one must wonder what prompted that USA Today piece.
GA’s alphabet groups, including AOPA, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), were all quick to counter the USA Today piece with accurate information. But response is always behind, with opponents always ahead.
The best defense is a strong offense. But it takes planning. A top executive in an international corporation gave me some great advice as I discussed taking on another large industry in the struggle for general aviation’s position in air traffic movement: “Don’t take them on directly,” he said. “They will squash you like a small worm.”
I learned. Take on the big ones, but do it a smart way.