The Spirit of 1903

Posted by in Blogging in Formation, Economy/Finance

While waiting for a (delayed, of course) flight at LAX recently, I passed the time perusing a new tablet-based aviation magazine called “Airscape”. If there was ever a perfect subject for a multimedia publication on the iPad, it’s got to be flying.

Airscape’s first issue was chock-a-block with gorgeous photos and engaging articles (including one by a Sam Weigel, a writer whose blog I’ve followed and commented on for years; incidentally, Sam’s stuff recently started appearing in Flying magazine). The Airscape feature which most interested me, however, was excerpted from Wilbur and Orville Wright’s account of the days leading up to their historic first flight in 1903. We all know the story, of course, but it’s different when you’re getting it from the horse’s mouth. It’s the little things that grabbed me, like their unwavering practicality, the way they always referred to their aircraft as a “machine”, or the perfunctory writing style which impeccably complemented the sepia-toned, Instagram-esque photos of their experiments.

So there I perched, stuffed into that miserable little chair amidst a stifling, overcrowded, and purely unromantic environment which can only describe in terms of Dante’s Inferno. And I realized that if the Wrights were around today, they wouldn’t recognize this brand of “aviation” at all. In fact, they’d probably hate what it’s become: a grind, a pain, something to simply be endured. Likewise, the joy and wonder of flying’s early years would be completely foreign to a typical 21st century American. “Enjoy flying? You’ve got to be kidding…”

If I had just one wish for aviation, it’d be to put the spirit of 1903 back into it — that sense of excitement and accessibility. We need the industry to be healthier, more vibrant, prosperous, and the key to doing that is getting more people involved. A lot more! The question of why there aren’t more people involved right now is one that gets asked frequently. The blame has been foisted on medical certification hassles, high dropout rates among student pilots, poor service from CFIs, the proliferation of cheap, high-fidelity simulators, the foreboding security surrounding airports, and dozens of other reasons.

My experience leads me to believe that the root cause is financial. It’s also what pilots have told me when I’ve asked them why they left GA or never went after the dream even though they obviously had interest. It’s all about the cost. Make flying cheaper and it will grow. Look at places where flying is pricier – Europe, Asia, just about anywhere else in the world, come to think of it – and you’ll find a smaller aviation community. Even here in the U.S., as the expense of taking flight has risen, the pilot population has fallen in both real numbers and, more dramatically, as a percentage of the overall populace. It’s all about money.

Even among those who realize it’s about dollars and cents, they often focus on how to make flying more affordable. That’s the wrong question. We need to think about what’s making it so bloody expensive. This isn’t limited to aviation, by the way. What’s making healthcare, business, and life in general more costly? It’s the legal perils, insurance expense and limitations, and regulatory compliance. Take a look at the exponential growth in the size of the Federal Register and you’ll see the root of our problem:

The researchers, economists John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State, constructed an index of federal regulations by tracking the growth in the number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations since 1949. The number of pages, they note, has increased six-fold from 19,335 in 1949 to 134,261 in 2005.

As of 2011, the number of pages had risen to 169,301.

There’s an inverse relationship between regulation and the economy’s ability to innovate, grow, and prosper. General aviation didn’t cease manufacturing in the 80’s because people suddenly lost interest in flying. It was the legal burden that killed it, and only relief in the form of the General Aviation Revitalization Act allowed production to restart. On the flip side, check out the homebuilt industry today. A relatively lower level of regulation has led to phenomenal growth.

Over-regulation is an anchor we’re all dragging and unless something changes it will eventually sink our collective boat. I could fill page after page with examples from my own life.

  • You can’t even go to the airport without violating one law or another. At SNA, I once received a speeding ticket from a sheriff’s deputy for going 7 mph in a 5 mph zone. Even other deputies couldn’t believe it.
  • The EPA came after me and my family for Superfund clean-up costs on a landfill near Pomona because a company my father was once a part-owner of deposited muddy water (runoff from washing their trucks) – completely legally, mind you – more than 40 years ago. I never had any ownership in the company whatsoever.
  • A good friend had her classic aircraft impounded during a restoration at Chino Airport because the airplane had original instrumentation installed and the dials contained minute levels of radium. Read the whole story on AVweb, it’s quite ridiculous.
  • Every day I deal with TSA “security theater” nonsense. Need I go into the details on this?

If I was king for a day, I’d tackle the problem with three actions:

  1. Rewrite the FAA’s mission statement to, first and foremost, emphasize the promotion and growth of aviation.
  2. Institute major product liability reform.
  3. Roll back Title 14 rules on non-commercial GA so that it operates with the freedom of the Experimental-Amateur-Built category.

I’ll freely admit this would have a somewhat detrimental effect on general aviation safety, but it would be well worth the trade off if we could avoid regressing to a time that the Wright brothers would also recognize: a time when men looked skyward at the birds and wished they could soar, but knew it would never be possible.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.