Dr. Bruce Holmes, Assoc. Dir. Airspace Systems, NASA Langley, discusses SATS with AOPA President Boyer (left).
Nose art on a SATS research aircraft says it all - "The car of the future is an airplane."
AOPA President Phil Boyer today reminded aviation leaders that the greatest technology in the world will fail unless the people who would use it understand and accept it in the first place.
At a special ceremony in Danville, Virginia, to publicly unveil NASA and the FAA's bold technology initiative, the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), Boyer said, "If SATS is to succeed on a national scale as planned, this industry needs to wake up to the fact that passengers, pilots, and landing facilities for small aircraft could all be in short supply. We all have a lot of work to do to educate the general public about general aviation. This will be a long and difficult journey - I would maintain much more difficult than the technology advancements that make up the wonderful SATS program."
SATS would create a transportation alternative to crowded highways and commercial airports by leveraging the nation's thousands of general aviation airports, using new technologies to make GA aircraft easier to fly and providing advanced instrument approaches - without the need for radar or controllers - into more airports.
But Boyer noted that the promise of SATS is offset by two simultaneous uphill battles: improving the general public's perception of GA airplanes and airports, and ensuring that there are enough future pilots to make the system viable.
Boyer noted that 15 years ago, when AOPA proposed to Congress that the then-new Global Positioning System (GPS) be made available for civil aviation, many in the industry said it would never work because aircraft owners would never spend the money to install GPS receivers. Now GPS is the backbone of the United States' future aviation system. AOPA continues to lead in this area, as the only aviation association with a staff member devoted full-time to advanced aviation technology.
"Remember one thing from this talk," Boyer said. "And that is that AOPA is fully committed to working for the technical success of SATS."
The problem, he went on to point out, is not the technology but the perceptions of the people who would use it.
"The problem surrounds the general public's fairly negative feelings about 'small aircraft' - those 'little airplanes,'" Boyer said. "So in the very title of this forum ["Small Aircraft Transportation System 2005"] today we are using two words that outside of [the aviation] world have a negative connotation. Are we preaching to the choir at this event? Are we ignoring the huge task ahead of us all: to guarantee that, if we build it - SATS - they will come? Remember - this is a general public that thinks of a Beech 1900 commuter propjet as a 'little airplane.'"
Boyer said the continuing negative public perception is having a real effect on the pilot population, as fewer and fewer people seek to learn to fly. In the last 20 years the FAA statistics show a 20-percent decline in active pilots. And Boyer called on the aviation industry to take stronger steps to reverse the trend.
"The Be-A-Pilot effort started almost a decade ago wanes for financial support," he said. "AOPA, as the largest supporter and financial contributor, fails to understand how any company involved in aviation can ignore what is the lifeline to continued growth - a growing student pilot population!"
Another dilemma facing the survival of the SATS program is the ongoing decline in the number of the GA airports upon which the entire system is predicated. In the last quarter century, more than 1,000 public-use GA airports have closed - down from approximately 6,500 to fewer than 5,300.
"Like an iceberg heading for the equator, it's been a slow, constant diminishing of our most critical resource: the GA airport," Boyer said. "In fact, there has never been year-on-year growth during that period."
Boyer pledged AOPA's ongoing support and outreach efforts to help the general public understand the benefits of GA and the promise of the SATS technology being demonstrated.
"It is so important we recognize that the general public holds the keys to the SATS program - and their attitudes about 'small planes' must change for SATS' ultimate reality," he concluded. "It's taken 100 years for the public to lose interest and understanding about small planes. We need to get the nonaviation-oriented public to return to that desire to fly in small aircraft in the next two decades if all we are demonstrating today is to become a reality."
[See also Boyer's written remarks.]
For more information, see GAServingAmerica.org.
June 6, 2005