Battling the Hydra

Hydra

You don’t have to earn a B-school diploma to know stability is tremendously important for a business. As Thomas Jefferson so famously wrote, it’s self-evident.

Absent any government distortion of the marketplace, companies are infinitely more likely to bring goods and services to market if they sense the proper conditions and have at least some assurance that the environment will remain favorable. The larger the financial gamble, the more assurances are required. No one invests millions to design and build products for a niche market if they might not sell.

Sounds a lot like general aviation, doesn’t it? From FBOs to aircraft builders, GA is a truly American industry and one of the only high-tech manufacturing segments of our economy still located almost entirely in the United States. Yet it also has a history of littering the countryside with the carcasses of firms and products which never made the grade. It’s a dicey business — ask anyone in Wichita.

Jeykll & Hyde Writ Large

You’d think even the thick heads in Washington would, at the very least, want to avoid damaging a valuable industry of skilled, high-wage labor, especially when it was already beset with so much downside risk due to certification requirements, liability considerations, and most of all, the small size of the market.

Unfortunately, government is proving to be a huge impediment to general aviation even when they try to help. Just as one hand extends to lift us out of the mire, the other threatens to club us over the head. For example, one FAA rule making committee recommends allowing non-commercial aircraft owners far more latitude in how they maintain and upgrade their aircraft. That’s good.

An Aviation Rule Making Committee (ARC) issued a 346 page report to the FAA on how to streamline small airplane certification in ways that maintain and improve safety while cutting costs. In that report is the recommendation for a new certification category called Primary Non-Commercial (PNC).

An airplane in the PNC category could be maintained by its owner, and would not need to use FAA certified equipment or replacement parts. A PNC would be very much like a homebuilt in terms of maintenance and equipment requirements.

At the very same time, the FAA is proposing draconian restrictions on two burgeoning market segments that would undoubtedly kill them off completely. That’s bad.

The FAA is proposing banning passengers from flights in electric-powered aircraft and ready-to-fly Light Sport aircraft (SLSA) that have been converted to experimental Light Sport (ELSA) aircraft and stopping the aircraft from flying over built up areas or at night.

GA powerplant technology has not advanced much for half a century, while electric engines solve many of the problems we face today. They’re simple, quiet, efficient, and emission-free. Banning passengers from electric light aircraft assures that this technology will never get off the ground.

Another example: one set of regulators elects to weed out pilots through invasive medical certification, while other members of the elected royalty craft legislation to eliminate Third-Class medicals altogether.

So what’s going on here? Who are we to believe? Right now all these ideas are just that: ideas. But this Jekyll & Hyde shtick is not helpful. If the government is going to regulate the general aviation industry, they have a legal and moral obligation to do so responsibly. Instead, we are faced with a Lernaean Hydra, a multi-headed organism essentially at war with itself.

This is not limited to general aviation; from the IRS scandal to foreign policy, you can see this phenomenon everywhere the Feds have their hands. And that’s… well, everywhere. But you’d think GA would be something everyone could support. It’s an apolitical business that provides the things all sides say they want: good jobs and a manufacturing base. The bipartisan makeup of the Congressional GA Caucus proves it. This isn’t an issue of political ideology.

Legislator vs. Regulator

The real battle here seems to be between elected representatives, who are at least beholden to the voters every few years, and regulatory bureaucrats who are accountable to nobody. The evidence? Just look where the adversarial proposals originate: the regulatory bodies. Research shows that many — perhaps most — industries are beset by this problem:

Research conducted by the ERM Initiative at NC State University in partnership with Protiviti finds that executives across all types and sizes of organizations that span a number of industries believe risks related to regulatory changes and increased regulatory scrutiny represent the greatest threat to growth opportunities for 2014, reflecting a general concern that broader government and regulatory interventions may have a significant effect on profitability.

The apparatchiks have their fiefdoms and are not eager to give them up, least of all to some elected representatives who dare step on their turf. Oh, they may pay lip service to those they regulate by soliciting comments which are then ignored, but it’s merely a box they must check off on a form. These functionaries have job security the rest of us can only dream of, and have learned that the easiest word in the English language is “no”.

That doesn’t work for an industry like general aviation. Airplanes involved risk, and we’re overseen by regulators who don’t have much risk tolerance. It’s hard to envision a scenario where the many heads of this monster will provide the clarity and stability GA businesses desperately need. But since they are at odds, it’s worth considering what will happen if one side prevails.

If this battle continues to be won by the regulators, who feel they are experts in the trenches and should operate free of influence from elected representatives, there’s no question GA will continue to spiral downward. On the other hand, should Congress take bold, aggressive action to reform the bureaucracy and pay more than lip service to the concept of self-determination, happy days could soon be here again.

The Answer

Regular readers are probably aware of my definition for “bold, aggressive action”: drastic reduction in limitations with a commensurate expansion of freedom. Specifically, we need the following:

  1. Change the FAA’s mission statement, replacing enforcement and safety with “promotion and growth” of aviation
  2. Extend the E-AB freedoms to all non-commercial aircraft
  3. Eliminate medical certification for non-commercial operation
  4. Hard-core liability limits for non-commercial operations
  5. Strict, detailed Congressional oversight of the FAA on a continual basis

There are many other ways the GA Caucus (which, as I noted in my previous post, now comprises half of the entire legislative branch) could help save the industry: divert NextGen funds to construction of new GA airports and runways, task NASA with helping develop new technology and products, legislatively prohibit closure or mismanagement of any public-use GA airport, tax credits for GA businesses, etc.

It sounds very pie-in-the-sky, I know. Part of this Hydra is eating us alive — but ultimately we control the other half through the ballot box, and there’s an election in 219 days.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

gulfstream-centerline

For as long as I can remember, “no news” has been “good news” when it comes to rules and regulations in the world of aviation. From field approval policy to sleep apnea to CBP searches and security theatre, any diktat emanating from Washington or Oklahoma City was sure to involve increasing demands of time and money while diminishing the usefulness and enjoyment of general aviation. That was the trend.

What a breath of fresh air it is, then, to hear of a well-suported and coordinated effort in both houses of Congress to enact legislation which would eliminate formal medical certification for many aviators.

Like the House bill, the new Senate legislation would exempt pilots who make noncommercial VFR flights in aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with no more than six seats from the third-class medical certification process. Pilots would be allowed to carry up to five passengers, fly at altitudes below 14,000 feet msl, and fly no faster than 250 knots.

When the bill was first offered in the House of Representatives as the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act, it seemed like a long shot. Congress is not a known for acting boldly to free Americans from the heavy yoke of regulation, so one could be forgiven for not getting their hopes up. But now things are different: there’s a matching bill in the Senate, the House iteration has 52 co-sponsors, and the Congressional General Aviation Caucus has grown to more than 250 members.

Is it a done deal, then? Not at all. There’s no guarantee of passage or that President Obama would even sign the bill into law. But the sponsors and caucus members represent a good mix from across the political spectrum, and there are no special interests of any significance who benefit from the medical certification machinery, so I believe the prospects are encouraging.

This Pilot Protection Act is exceptional for several reasons. First, it goes far beyond even the historically pie-in-the-sky proposal fronted collectively by AOPA and EAA. When was the last time that happened? I can’t recall a single example. Typically we’ll ask for X and end up feeling extraordinary fortunate to get even half of it.

That AOPA/EAA submission, by the way, has languished on the FAA’s desk for two years and has yet to be acted upon by the agency. If one needed proof of just how sclerotic the bureaucratic machine has become, this is it. The delay is egregious enough to have warranted an official apology from FAA Administrator Huerta.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that this is a legislative move rather than a regulatory one. It’s an important distinction, because regulations are instituted with relative impunity by agencies like the FAA, while Congress passes laws that are not nearly as vulnerable to bureaucratic vagaries. In other words, if the FAA instituted the very same change in medical certification through regulatory channels, they could alter or reverse those improvements just as easily. A law, on the other hand, should prove far more durable since the Feds must comply with it whether they like it or not.

It’s a shame that this common-sense change requires a literal Act of Congress. And what does it say about the FAA that a body with 9% approval rating is coming to the rescue of the private pilot? Were it to remain in the FAA’s corner, this medical exemption would probably never see the light of day. I don’t just mean that it would not be approved, I mean it would never even be acted upon at all.

There is a certain schadenfreude which comes from watching the FAA, which is known for soliciting comments from the aviation industry only to ignore that input, suffer the same fate at the hands of the House and Senate. My only question is: what took so long? The last time Congress lent the industry a helping hand was with the General Aviation Revitalization Act. That was in 1994 — twenty years ago. While I’m thankful they’re finally getting off the bench and into the game, this boost is long overdue. I sincerely hope they will not only see it through, but look for other ways to help bring a uniquely American industry back from the brink.

An easing of the medical certification requirements will not fix all of GA’s woes. But if the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps this will at least get us headed in the right direction.

One final note: if you haven’t called your Representative and Senators to express strong support for H.R. 3708 and S. 2103, respectively, please do so! Unlike FAA employees, these folks are up for re-election in eight months. The closer we get to November, the more likely they are to listen.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2014/03/19/journey/.

Fighting Back at SMO

Which is better, kids enjoying the miracle of flight, or another strip mall?

The Santa Monica city council voted unanimously yesterday to increase the landing fees at the airport by about 250%. Even some based at the airport feel the battle is trending badly for SMO’s continued viability.

I agree with them. The biggest bite doesn’t come from the fee itself as much as the fact that aircraft based at Santa Monica are no longer exempt. So a student learning to fly at the airport will now have to pay thousands of extra dollars to achieve PTS-level proficiency as they get dinged for every single landing. A typical GA pilot or owner at SMO who flies, say, twice a month will face a similar financial burden. And that’s to say nothing of the precedent this sets for other airport operators. You can bet every one of them is watching the SMO situation closely.

The future for Santa Monica?

The future for Santa Monica?

These new fees are sure to weigh heavily on flight schools, if not cause their outright failure. Without them, the maintenance shops, restaurants, and other tenants will suffer as well. With traffic at the airport already down 50% from last decade, it’s hard to see how a steepening downward spiral could be avoided. I’m sure the Santa Monica council members will watch gleefully, awaiting the day when they can bulldoze large X’s in the runway, Daley-style.

Aviators may not like paying more, but we’ve been known to accept the hit if it’s for a good cause. Look no further than Catalina Airport, which currently socks visitors with a $25 landing fee. The airport is located in a remote area and is owned by a non-profit organization. Maintenance is frequently required on the runway, and it’s not cheap to get people and materials in and out to do that work.

Compare that with the situation in Santa Monica, where AOPA claims the city is justifying the need for yesterday’s massive fee hike with dishonest accounting.

Here’s a letter from NBAA to the city of Santa Monica detailing specific legal issues with the landing fee hike. And from AOPA:

The city says the higher fees will cover the airport’s operating expenses, including those for city-provided services such as insurance, risk management, and accounting support; and capital expenditures that are allocable to the airfield area.

But the financial data provided to the aviation community is unclear and does not appear to validate the need to increase revenue, said Bill Dunn, AOPA’s vice president of airports. “The city is not including income from ground leases, fixed-base operator fees, tie-down, or hangar fees as airport income against costs of airport operation,” he said. “And since Santa Monica has decided to not accept future federal grants, all runway, taxiway, and airport developments are now self-funded.”

Another problem with the proposal is that it removes the exemption in place for aircraft and businesses based at the airport, including flight schools, said Dunn. Local tenants already provide significant financial support to the airport though payment of taxes, hangar rents, and land leases, as well as fuel flowage fees. Transient operators do not, noted Dunn.

The city has a long record of seeking ways to restrict and reduce operations at the airport, said Dunn. “The record of city efforts to restrict is in the form of public meetings of city council and the Santa Monica Airport Commission, as well as reports in local newspapers and anti-airport groups,” he said. “Therefore, it appears to AOPA that the city is undertaking a very specific plan to create an economic disincentive for operators at the airport, including flight schools that will be charged for every touch-and-go operation.”

It makes me wonder if there is anyone outside the aviation industry who recognizes the importance of America’s aviation infrastructure. While China is busy building airports as fast as they can, we occupy ourselves by closing down runways in the very places they’re needed most.

Which is better, kids enjoying the miracle of flight, or another strip mall?

Which is better, kids enjoying the miracle of flight, or another strip mall?

This should concern every American, whether they’re directly involved in aviation or not. A municipality choking a vital reliever airport like Santa Monica is no different than tearing out a section of interstate because they don’t like the noise, pollution, or traffic it generates. It simply makes that entire transportation system less valuable for everyone, regardless of where they’re located.

A town’s decision to rip out chunks of a railroad or national highway would not be tolerated. Why is it allowed where runways are concerned? Just as cars are useless without road, airplanes are worthless without airports.

On paper, Santa Monica should not be able to close the airport at all. The land the airfield sits on was deeded to the city by the Federal government under the Surplus Property Act. The land grant contains a clause which states that the city must continue to operate the airport in perpetuity. Should that ever fail, the land automatically reverts to the Federal government. In theory, this clause should keep the aviation infrastructure intact by preventing random airport closures.

If only the reality matched. One needn’t look any further than Chicago’s former Meigs Field to see that enforcement has been lacking, and now the city leaders in Santa Monica are talking openly of using Chicago’s lawless, gangland-style disposal of Meigs as a brilliant example to follow.

It seems clear that if SMO and other airports are to be preserved, those who recognize their worth must fight back against this precedent. Far from being powerless, there are many things that can be done. I’m sure some of these ideas are already in progress, but here are just a few:

1. First and foremost, legal action by the FAA is needed, backed up by the California Pilots Association, AOPA, the Association of California Airports, the Friends of Santa Monica Airport, and others. Also, the city should be made to understand that any attempt at closure will result in the land reverting to the ownership and control of the Federal government under the Surplus Property Act.

2. I would love to see a serious recall campaign against city council members. Keep them looking over their shoulders rather than attacking one of the truly great and historic resources their city has to offer. If they want to play politics with the airport, why shouldn’t it return the favor?

3. The Freedom of Information Act offers a fantastic way to dig up the real financial statistics for Santa Monica Airport, making it easy to prove that SMO is not the drag on the city’s coffers that the council claims. From there, is it much of a leap to questions about the honest performance of their fiduciary duty?

4. The Socal aviation community is a large one. Rallies — big ones — at the airport on a regular basis would be an ideal way to raise awareness of what’s going on there and just how much the city stands to lose.

5. The Hollywood types who fly (Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, etc.) should be appealed to directly for their personal assistance at council meetings, in the media, and elsewhere throughout Santa Monica. I’d love to see them go door-to-door if necessary. Their faces on billboards, meet-and-greets with them at SMO. You get the idea.

6. Major financial support is needed from AOPA’s political action committee to help fund the above. In the same vein, boycotts of Santa Monica businesses by those who support the airport should be considered. Let them see how important and beloved SMO truly is.

7. Educational efforts toward the Santa Monica community about the benefits of the airport in the form of op-eds, flyers, public forums, and so on. Polls show that most residents of the city aren’t opponents of the airport and don’t rank it as a top issue. They’re not the enemy. Once they understand how curfews, noise abatement flying, specific adherence to departure procedures, and other efforts are being made to minimize the impact of airport operations, they’re likely to be even more supportive. The move toward quieter, more fuel efficient aircraft will only lessen that impact going forward. Quieter Stage 4 jets, hybrid and electric aircraft, new propeller designs, and LSAs help reduce the noise footprint of airport activities. Leaded fuels are on the way out — do they know that? Funding for housing upgrades (improved windows, soundproofing, etc) has been used around other airports, it might help at Santa Monica as well.

It would be a shame to see one of America’s most historic airports fall by the wayside. That’s where we’re headed at the moment. Reversing the tide is possible, but it will require enough political pressure to make the city council see that their fortunes are better served by embracing SMO than digging it’s grave.

FAA Tower Closures

tower

A few days ago, the Federal Aviation Administration published a list of air traffic control towers which are slated for closure now that the sequestration-related budget cuts have kicked in. Looking at the list of Southern California facilities, one sees quite a few busy airports which sit under multiple layers of airspace.

At times like these, it’s important to take a deep breath, remember that the vast majority of airports are already non-towered, and as always, cast a skeptical eye on the antics of those in Washington.

I’ve been monitoring the hue and cry from aviation magazines, organizations, and bloggers and have been impressed by how many have refused to adopt a hysterical “the sky is falling!” attitude. It’s also worth noting that the cut extend beyond tower staffing. For example, the FAA does not intend to repair all navaids when they fail, only those that are part of their minimal network plan.

My take? The degradation of ATC services isn’t the end of the world. I view it as somewhat akin to “partial panel”: not an ideal situation, but definitely flyable.

We do need to do some educating, though. The general public must understand that we can fly at non-towered airports. Few outside of the insular aviation community are aware that only a few hundred of the nearly 5,000 paved airports in the United States have ever had a control tower. Taxi, takeoff and landing without air traffic control assistance is the rule, not the exception. I can’t tell you how many non-flying friends are floored by that revelation. “No tower?! How will we know what to do?!”

Of course, there’s a big difference between flying around, say, Santa Monica, California and… well, just about everywhere else. After reviewing the expected closures, my eye was caught not by what was on the list, but rather what wasn’t. There are quite a few low-traffic, rural towers that are somehow escaping the axe.

Example: last month I flew coast-to-coast in a DA-40 DiamondStar and we stopped at seven towered airports, the majority of which are in far less densely populated areas that Los Angeles and only one of which has anywhere near the traffic of the SoCal area airports whose towers are slated for closure.

I used the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System (ATADS) to compile a list of all the towers in the United States for which data was available and requested the number of tower ops (takeoffs, landings, and transient operations) for the last twelve months. They were then sorted by number of operations. See the full list (.xlsx format).

On my transcon last month, we stopped at:

*12-months ending March 31, 2012, data from Airnav.com

Based on the closure list and comments from FAA officials, it seems that everything with less than about 150,000 operations per year is on the table. That means only White Plains would survive. But when I look for these identifiers, I only see two — Rosewell and Lewisburg — which are actually scheduled for closure.

Compare the above list to the number of operations taking place at Los Angeles area airports which are going to be shut down:

So what’s going on here? Why is Camarillo, with 146,000 operations per year, being closed while Greenwood, with less than 42,000 ops annually, remains open? It seems airports with U.S. Customs service are being spared. Morristown and Knoxville are airports-of-entry, so they keep their tower. Greenwood’s tower is owned and operated by the city, so the FAA doesn’t save anything by closing it. As far as Henderson is concerned, I cannot see any reason that it escaped the axe beyond it’s status as a reliever for McCarren Int’l Airport. But if reliever towers were to be left open, surely Santa Monica and Hawthorne would be safe. Those airports are just a couple of miles north and south, respectively, of LAX.

Speaking of Santa Monica, a controller there provided some specifics to illustrate why fields like SMO would not necessarily be able to operate as other non-towered airports do:

Safety would be compromised, if by nothing else, the mix of aircraft (A/C) that use the airport. Combined with frequency congestion, this could put fast moving A/C in conflict with slower, less experienced A/C with little time to respond.

That does not even address the difficulty that would be experienced trying to get in or out of SMO on an IFR flight plan, due to the fact we are not procedurally separated from LAX. Even our arrivals are not separated from LAX arrivals due to the circling approach. When the tower is open, we can instruct A/C unable to land straight in what to do; without a tower, you either cancel IFR by BEVEY, or get taken off the approach. If they let you circle, you are in conflict with the LAX arrivals and they would have to build a 20 mile or greater gap in their arrivals, and time it perfectly with your circle.

Airspace?  Piece of cake.  Especially when you get rid of all the towers!

Airspace? Piece of cake. Especially when you get rid of all the towers!

Obviously I’m not privy to the inter workings of the FAA, but the list of L.A.-area towers being cut seems excessive. These towers not only see a lot of traffic but serve other purposes, such as special flight routes across the Class B airspace, handling continual Medfly overflights, complex IFR traffic coordination with LAX arrivals and departures, and dense layers of helicopter, fixed-wing GA, and corporate & airline flights.

Rather than just close a tower because is has an arbitrary number of operations per year, wouldn’t it make more sense to look at the type of activity, the airspace being controlled by that tower, and so on? Fullerton, for example, is a Class D tower with Charlie airspace nearby and Bravo above. That’s got to be more complicated than a Delta tower in the middle of nowhere. You’ll see this reflected in the discrepancy between tower ops and airport ops. The larger the difference, the more likely it is that the facility is handling a significant transient aircraft load. From a safety perspective, that’s a big red flag. The tower is handling a lot of traffic which did not takeoff or land from that airport. Translation: busy airspace, and a potentially legitimate need for that control tower.

Sadly, the current administration strategy lends credence to those who say the directive from the top is to create as much pain as possible. It makes sense from a political standpoint as well. They want more money and fear what will happen if the sky doesn’t fall over this minor cut. It’s human nature and not government-specific.

Think of any office department you’ve been a part of. The end of the fiscal year is typically accompanied by a spending spree to eliminate any leftover money. And why? Because if you return a surplus to the general fund, it might be assumed that your department can get by with less.

The FAA’s finances are worth looking at while we’re on the topic. Their budget for 2013 was $7 billion and the sequestration cut is $600 million, or about 8%. In real dollars, the 2013 sequestered budget of $6.4 billion is still $500 million higher than their 2008 spending allotment. Why can’t they survive on that, especially considering traffic levels have fallen from their 2008 highs?

If the FAA’s primary concern truly is flight safety, then it seems to me there are many alternatives to tower closures of this kind. For one, start by slowing or halting NexGen development. A year ago, Congress approved $63.4 billion for the program. That’s enough to keep those towers open for the next 100 years.

Restrict administrative expenses like travel costs. Use videoconferencing. The agency budgets $2.7 billion just for supplies and travel expenses for its 48,000 employees. That’s $56,250 per person. I know they’re in the transportation business, but isn’t that a bit much?

Reduce controller salaries at the high end. It stinks to have a $140,000/year salary reduced, but doctors, lawyers, and other highly-educated member of our workforce are taking their lumps these days, too.

How about reducing staffing hours at those towers? Most are closed at night anyway. Shut them down an hour earlier and/or open them later during the week. The Delta towers are most needed on the weekend.

How about eliminating the 3rd class medical? Downsizing the Aeromedical branch and changing policy to presume medical certification is acceptable until they get around to reviewing a deferred application? Statistics show that pilots who fly under Sport Pilot rules using medical self-certification are no more prone to incapacitation in flight than those with traditional AME-based certificates.

Should an 8% budget cut close this many towers in a region with good weather year-round, many airports in close proximity, lots of airline and corporate jet activity, and some of the most densely packed airspace in the country? I don’t think so. They can do better than this.

And if they don’t? We’ll keep on flying anyway.

Those Fat Cats

money

Normally I’m a fan of the JetWhine author Scott Spangler, but a recent article lamenting how much worse off we are than 40 years ago is truly perplexing. While I certainly understand his frustration at the high cost of flying, I’d expect a better understanding of economics from those who are involved in the expensive end of business aviation.

We demand a level of safety, comfort, and security today which far exceeds that of the early 70s. Between litigation, regulation, and new technology, the cost of flying was bound to be higher today than it was in the foggy memory of the so-called good old days. As for middle-class incomes, his argument centers on the detrimental effect of “rich people”, something I can’t help but take issue with.

What pulled me under was the realization that, for the most part, rich people don’t invest the time and effort needed to truly accomplish something hard, like climbing Mount Everest or flying a plane. They hire someone to take them there by the hand or in the back seat. This confirmed a dark notion that’s been lurking in my subconscious, unless we revive the middle class and restore the economic vigor it exercised three or four decades ago, general aviation as we’ve known it is doomed.

First of all, “three or four decades ago” was the 1970’s and early 80’s — the era of Vietnam, high inflation, the energy crisis, Mideast turmoil, political upheaval, the long decline of the American steel industry, and more. Is that really what we want today? Spangler is the first person I’ve ever heard refer to the 70’s as an era of “economic vigor”.

Secondly, general aviation is not doomed. It’s simply changing. Instead of a certificated aircraft, people are voting with their wallets and moving into the Experimental-Amateur-Built category of GA aircraft. Van’s Aircraft designs alone account for as many airplanes produced each year as all the commercial builders combined.

It’s not by mistake that this is happening. Aviators are realizing that can get better performance for far less money when the government stays out of it, and the result is 500 new airplanes produced this year, one by one in garages around the country. That’s the product of a middle class he denigrates as un-thinking.

As commenters have mentioned many times here in JetWhine, GA flying is too expensive. That’s one way of looking at things.

It’s definitely too expensive. But then again, if JetWhine had existed in any other decade of the 20th century, a poll of readers would have revealed that it was too costly during that period as well. As I’ve previously noted, aircraft have been expensive to operate since the day the Wright brothers invented them.

Another perspective is that the cost of flying has increased like everything else in life—except middle class incomes. Those have been essentially stagnant since the late 1970s, when the middle class stopped thinking things through and bought into the trickle down delusions that have made rich people exponentially wealthier.

Maybe it was fate, but after reading the Times travel article I stopped by my favorite (and most literate) blog, The Rumpus, which says, “Inconsistency is human, but try to be nice.” In The Week in Greed #13: The Speech Obama Didn’t Give, Steve Almond outlined a workable plan for restoring the middle class. Not that it will ever happen, mind you, but it was nice to dream for a second.

But you never know. Maybe there’s enough residual critical thinking among us to ask not if we’re better off now than we were four years ago, but whether we are better off today than we were 30 or 40 years ago. Back than I was in the Navy, before it went all-volunteer and started paying real money—and before the trickle-down delusion started siphoning off its purchasing power. Back then I could afford to fly. Now it’s still a dream that will probably never be realized again.

If that’s his mindset, then yes, he’s probably done flying. On the other hand, I’ve known individuals who overcame heart transplants, serious brain surgery, the loss of multiple limbs, an eye, even their sense of hearing, and who got back into the cockpit. I had a student who literally had no address — he couch-hopped and rode a bicycle in order to save enough to fly. Later on he got hit by a car on his way to the airport, and even that didn’t stop him.

I’ve known a wide variety of individuals in my life, many of them through aviation. The most dedicated and hard-working among them were also the most successful financially. I’ve also found them to be some of the nicest and most generous people I’ve encountered. Even among those who were light on the yen, with enough determination I’ve seen them accomplish amazing things.

Harrison Ford, rich guy… and pilot.

From manufacturing to finance to doctors to engineers, it runs the gamut. I’ve trained dot-com legends, brain surgeons, entrepreneurs, titans of Wall Street, Hollywood directors, and plenty of people who were “ordinary Joes” like you and I. I’ve never gotten the impression that rich people — regardless of whether I’ve known them in the aviation world or from “the outside” — didn’t work damn hard to build their success. And lately, that they haven’t worked even harder just to keep it afloat.

I’ve gotten to know many of them on a personal level, and they get up earlier, work later, stress more, and sleep less than I do. They take critical phone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night. I don’t envy them at all in that regard. Their lives are complex, myriad people depend on them, and they seem to work 24 hours a day.

Finally, I look at the fact that I wouldn’t have a job without them. I don’t understand the vilification of these individuals. They hire the Gulfstream I fly. They indirectly employ the mechanics, charter personnel, line guys, flight attendants, pilots, catering companies, airframe manufacturers, outfitters, flight training companies, and many other people. Because of them we use hotels, eat at restaurants, rent cars, buy fuel, pay taxes, hire handlers and drivers. And those aren’t even their direct employees.

When one takes the time to add up the economic effect of just one of these flights, it’s astronomical. The dollars are flying out all over the place, and some of those greenbacks literally put a roof over my head.

I read the Rumpus article that Spangler references and it’s hard to believe anyone would champion those ideas. Triple the salaries of teachers? Please. The Chicago strikers, who make an average of $76,000 per year already, come to mind. While I have the greatest respect for educators, isn’t $228,000 a year a bit much for nine months of work? No matter what I fly, I could never approach that level of income and get a quarter of the year off.

The last time I checked, the state of California was already spending the vast majority of it’s badly overxtended budget on education.

I’ve known a few pilots who make that kind of money, but they do other things in addition to flying. They’ll broker trips, manage aircraft, assist in the sale or purchase of an aircraft, and so on. They are entrepreneurs themselves, in fact.

As for the proposed 90%+ tax rate, that would assuredly put me — a pilot — out of work. It would destroy the business aviation sector and the millions who depend on it for their livelihood.

Perhaps instead of calling for the financial heads of those “fat cats”, we should be looking closely at their success to see how we can replicate it. At the end of the day, though, it’s probably a message many Americans don’t want to hear: decades of hard work, unstoppable determination, years of experience and learning from a variety of inevitable failures, continuous networking, better-than-average creativity and problem-solving, and yes, a fair bit of luck.

Is it possible there’s another reason that our economy is suffering? Another cause for the middle class malaise? I try to avoid delving too much into politics here; there are plenty of other places on the internet for that sort of thing. I can only say that when it comes to the wealthy, my family and I do not see them as the enemy.

From my days in the opera and theatre world to my time as a full time CFI to my current job as a charter pilot, they’ve been a critical part of putting food on the table and keeping the lights on, and I say thank God for ‘em.