The Conundrum of General Aviation

It will come as no surprise to you, a general aviation enthusiast, that the United States contains a considerable number of airports. Even so, the actual number of airports may be higher than you imagine. Higher by quite a bit, frankly.

Our non-aviation enthusiast counterparts may feel differently, however. They may learn that in 2004 the United States Department of Transportation listed 599 certificated airports in its tally. If that number seems low to you — and it probably does — consider that the term “certificated airport” relates to only those airports that serve air-carrier operations with aircraft seating more than nine passengers.

When we aviation enthusiasts picture an airport in our head, it is likely that we are imagining a very different facility than the one your non-aviation oriented neighbors are thinking of. You may be thinking of a quiet place, with wide green expanses of grass, perhaps a cozy restaurant, and the occasional buzz of a low horsepower engine nearby.

Your neighbors, on the other hand, are thinking of something else. They’re imaging an almost incomprehensible facility that includes massive parking garages where you can easily get lost on the way from your car to the gate. They’re imagining TSA checkpoints, surly fellow passengers who are in a rush, disinterested employees, bad food, overpriced gift shops, crowded restrooms, and interminable delays.

These people, our friends and neighbors, have no idea that the total number of airports in the U.S. Is a bit higher. Significantly higher, in fact. Because that same Department of Transportation counted up the full number of landing facilities in the United States back in 2004 and came up with 19,820. Yes, you read that right. There are nearly 20,000 landing facilities in this country.

The vast majority of them are general aviation airports that bear almost no resemblance to the big Class B airport they’re most familiar with. These fields do not serve commercial carriers operating aircraft capable of accommodating more than nine passengers. Rather, they host Cubs, and Champs, and C-172s, and Bonanzas.

They welcome individuals and families who park near their hangar, or the FBO, walk casually into a comfortable, friendly environment, and exchange pleasantries with friends and stranger alike — because general aviation is a social activity as well as a method of transportation. It’s a recreational activity as much as it is a method of getting from Point A to Point B.

Yet general aviation is a mystery to our friends and neighbors who think all aviation can be neatly tucked into the one-size-fits-all picture they have in their minds.

This is your chance. You, and I mean you in particular, not some nameless, faceless individual reading this column three states away. Nope. I’m specifically and honestly referring to you. No kidding.

Imagine the possibilities if we each took it upon ourselves to expand our friends’ horizons by introducing them to general aviation as we know it. By my count, which is coincidentally exactly the same as that done by the DOT, we have 19,221 general aviation destinations available to show off. That’s a lot of airports. With that many to choose from, the odds are good you don’t have to travel far to find one, or two, or half a dozen.

All this occurs to me because of an email I got last week. A gentleman wrote to let me know how disappointed he was that his local airport is surrounded by chain link fencing, with barbed wire on top. The fence is festooned with “No Trespassing” signs that are numerous and unattractive. He took all of this into view and came to the conclusion that general aviation is not a welcoming environment.

He’s right. Sometimes general aviation is not a welcoming environment. But then, one airport does not represent all airports. If your friend finds the first airport uninviting, take them to a very different one on your next visit.

The airport I fly out of has high fences, barbed wire, loads of no-trespassing signs, and badge-only access to the field. Even then, my badge only gets me access to specific parts of the field. I can’t go just anywhere. That would raise a red flag and earn me a visit from management.

That’s fair. It’s the personality of that particular airport. But it if I want to experience a more relaxed atmosphere, I don’t have to go far to find it.

I’ve also got airports nearby that are not surrounded by fences. Some have paved runways, others sport grass strips. Some are municipally owned while others are in private hands, yet they still open their doors, hangars, and runways to the public.

Just this past weekend I landed at a fly-in that was well attended, very casual, and welcoming to even the least aviation-oriented visitors. The runway was grass and there were hotdogs on the grill. It was a comfortable, thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the day, whether you fly or not.

Let’s get pro-active. Let’s make it a point to introduce some of our non-aviation oriented friends and neighbors to general aviation as it is – unique in every way.

Walk them inside the fence when it’s appropriate, so they can see why the fence is there and that it is not an impenetrable barrier.

Take ’em to a cook-out or a pancake breakfast at a small airport and show off the social aspects of general aviation.

Let’s transform our home-town foreigners into true locals by taking them to a real airport and showing general aviation off for what it is — and it is whatever you want it to be.

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