President's Position

Public perception

July 1, 2005

AOPA President Phil Boyer and his wife own a 1977 Cessna 172.

Most of us in aviation have become familiar with the NASA-FAA-Industry partnership called SATS, the Small Aircraft Transportation System. Looking ahead to 2025 the stated purpose of this endeavor is to revolutionize transportation: "American citizens will enjoy an improved quality of life, and communities and the private sector will reap significant economic benefits." The objective is to encourage new technologies that will allow small aircraft to transport passengers from the 5,400 general aviation public-use airports, versus being tied to the 29 big city airports that capture 75 percent of today's airline passengers. A little-known fact is that 98 percent of the U.S. population lives within 20 miles of a "community airport." One of these, the GA airport in Danville, Virginia, was host in early June to a SATS event to demonstrate the technologies designed to make small aircraft and GA airports more accessible to more people. Among the dignitaries attending were FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and newly named NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, AOPA 965891 and a Grumman Tiger owner.

As far as the technology of SATS is concerned, your association has worked with all of the agencies and manufacturers responsible for the high-tech products and systems that give the SATS program its basic foundation. To my knowledge we are the only aviation membership organization that devotes a full-time person to "advanced technologies."

However, there is a key ingredient missing in the Small Aircraft Transportation System, which I pointed out when it was my turn to speak at the event. To me, it is an extremely important one, perhaps superseding all the technology we are working so hard to perfect.

The problem involves the general public's fairly negative feelings about small aircraft — those "little airplanes." In the title of the forum, organizers used two words that outside of the aviation world have a negative connotation — "small aircraft." One has to wonder if we were preaching to the choir at this event. The huge task ahead of all involved is to guarantee that if we build SATS, they will come. The media certainly haven't helped; they've beaten up our small airplane community severely and with great injury since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

This is a general public that thinks of a Beechcraft 1900 commuter turboprop as a "little airplane." How squeamish will they be with the sort of small aircraft displayed at the SATS event? Can the general public accept what we in general aviation take for granted — the single-engine propeller airplane? How many of you have offered an airplane ride to a friend, only to have them turn you down with a response like, "You're not going to get me into one of those little things." Or perhaps you have heard the words, "You mean it only has a single engine?" Or better yet, "Where's my parachute?" At AOPA events the number-one concern I hear among those who are pilots is, "How can I get my wife to fly with me?" Often when one's partner doesn't want to fly in a small airplane, they will not allow the children to share the joy of a spouse's achievement of being a pilot.

This negative public perception also is perpetuating a decline in the pilot population. In the last 20 years FAA statistics show a 20-percent drop in active pilots. As fewer and fewer seek the left seat as a career, or for personal and business purposes, will we have the qualified pilots to manage the advanced flight systems of aircraft in the future?

And, ask yourself this question, where are all these small airplanes going to land? We've lost more than 1,000 public-use airports in the last 25 years — down from 6,500 to about 5,400 today. If we consider both public and private-use fields, that's about one a week. AOPA — with compliments to the FAA — has in recent years saved scores of airports from the wrecking ball. The threat is always there and, like land values, it's mounting every day. That's because this is a general public that also looks at local airports with great skepticism.

If SATS is to succeed on a national scale as planned, the industry needs to wake up to the fact that passengers, pilots, and landing facilities for small aircraft could all be in short supply. Everyone has a lot of work to do to educate the general public about general aviation, and I would maintain that since 9/11 we are actually losing, not gaining, ground because of the paranoia about aviation. That's why your association established and continues to give media support through the General Aviation Serving America Web site ( www.gaservingamerica.org).

This will be a long and difficult journey — much more difficult than the technology advancements that make up the wonderful SATS program. Rest assured that while I challenged all in attendance at the Danville event to invest in the critical aspect of the "people" perception, I also pledged that your association will spend considerable time and resources on this very issue. We have to! It is vital if small airplanes, their pilots, and the community airports they now use (and SATS hopes to use in the future) are to survive.