Waypoints

The ‘meaning’ of aviation

February 1, 2011

Tom Haines This is not a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy column about the philosophical meaning of aviation. Nope, this is about how “mean” aviation has become. Let me explain.

Unlike the general public, general aviation pilots used to be more civil. The fraternity of pilots enjoyed robust discussions in person, in print, and online, but, for the most part, respect prevailed. However, somewhere along the way, pilots have become as mean-spirited and spiteful as the rest of the population. I find that disheartening.

Over the decades, I’ve developed a thick skin as people often disagree with things we write, but the recent trend toward personal attacks and the destructive nature of comments is wearing. A few examples:

One member took the time to write an e-mail decrying the hairstyles of several AOPA staff members pictured in the magazine—his only reason for the e-mail. One woman’s hair he described as “a cross between an Alabama trailer mom on welfare, a Puli [I’m not sure what that is], and [a] wig….” According to this member, a senior executive here has a “1975 SuperCuts hackjob, likely inspired by Sal in the film Dog Day Afternoon.”

Thanks much for the constructive comments….

Personal attacks are not limited to hairstyles. Another member wrote in to complain that several people pictured in various articles in a particular issue were overweight. I guess we should only feature thin, handsome, well-coiffed pilots going forward. And white, well-groomed ones too.

An ad in this magazine for one of AOPA’s products included a photo of a dark-skinned man who was not clean shaven, causing one member to call AOPA President Craig Fuller’s office to complain. He felt we were presenting a poor image of general aviation with such an image. Apparently, in this member’s mind, general aviation consists only of clean-shaven white men.

Another “instrument-rated long-term member” (no name given) was selected to participate in an online survey after AOPA Aviation Summit. Rather than complete it, or simply stop, he took the time to write us a letter in which he said he started the survey: “I answered two screens full of pages, but then said ‘to hell with your survey,’ because: [this in 48-point bold, underlined capital letters] Your survey is just too damned long!”

He continued: “Hope this feedback helps. You’ll get crap from your survey, and you’ve shown your discourtesy and thoughtlessness.” Really? By asking for your input?

In response to us replacing “Test Pilot” with a staff-developed quiz, a member who describes himself as a middle school special education teacher wrote in to tell us to “take that staff-developed quiz, print it out, and shove it squarely, yet ever so firmly, up your rear end.” The member later wrote back to apologize and acknowledge he had crossed a line. Still, I’m not sure I want this guy educating my kids.

As with online forums in many locations, the AOPA forums attract plenty of people with strong opinions. They make for entertaining reading, but it’s a shame when people spout off without even bothering to gather any facts. One member on the AOPA forums started a new thread called: “AOPA beats the hell out of sweepstakes airplanes.” The poster eventually deleted his initial baseless comments and replaced them with simply “never mind” after other posters reminded him about all the productive ways we use the sweepstakes airplanes over the course of the year. Occasionally sanity reigns, even on the forums.

Toni Mensching, who heads up the team of AOPA specialists who answer the technical questions in members’ e-mails and calls, summed up the mood recently in an internal e-mail: “General member frustration and intolerance is beginning to seep into everyday contacts. The cause seems less to do with AOPA specifically and more to do with upcoming elections, economic turmoil, and an overall stress on aviation from all directions. There is increasing pressure from members contacting us venting about problems very distantly related to AOPA. This is an unavoidable result of high AOPA accessibility. Easily getting a live, caring person on the line at AOPA gives members the ability to immediately share their frustrations with us, when they would otherwise hit a few barriers at other companies. Compassion is the only product we have for these members.”

It’s a new year, so how about we all take a deep breath and recognize that no matter how difficult today’s general aviation situation, we are still so much better off than pilots in just about any other country. Careless and destructive comments only tend to divide our ranks. Instead, we should be providing constructive comments that help us all get behind the big issues that threaten to derail GA as we know it. User fees have gone quiet, but not away. Avgas faces an uncertain future. Airport funding at the federal and state levels will be thoroughly challenged in coming years. Our aging air traffic infrastructure is stuck in the 1940s. The pilot population is in decline. These are all issues that require focused, creative solutions. Together we can solve these problems. Or we can bicker among ourselves about hairstyles and the length of surveys. I’d rather work together to assure a positive future for GA. I hope you will join me in attempting to create a more positive 2011.

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has covered the aviation industry for the past 25 years. E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.