It seems like everyone is worried about the state of general aviation today. The decline in student pilot numbers, the lack of affordable new airplanes and the high price of avgas usually top the list. But one of the most serious problems is hiding in plain sight: the average general aviation airport is one of the least welcoming businesses you’ll ever visit.
On a recent trip, I stopped for fuel at a small country airport with a single runway and perhaps 8 T-hangars. It hardly looked like a hotbed of terrorist activity, and it wasn’t close to a city of any size. But in spite of its innocuous appearance, the level of security theater at this airport would have made the most gung-ho TSA agent proud. Tall fences surrounded the entire airport, barbed wire had been added for effect, threatening signs covered every fence and door and there were gates everywhere. I couldn’t understand why the two semi-abandoned Cessnas parked in the grass needed this level of protection.
Sadly, this airport is not an outlier. Almost every airport these days–regardless of size or location–is locked up, treated like a dangerous weapon instead of a community asset. As pilots, many of us probably don’t even notice this anymore, but the message our airports are sending out is clear: stay away. It’s a message that we send to every prospective pilot or airport neighbor every day, and it’s doing lasting damage to general aviation.
Here’s a frightening suggestion for your next cross-country flight: compare a federal prison and an airport from 3,000 feet and see if you can tell a difference. It’s harder than you might think. But at one of these places we’re supposed to be attracting the next generation of passionate aviators! Can you imagine if the Boy Scouts held their meetings at psychiatric hospitals?
The point was really driven home a few days later as I walked past an Apple store and felt the buzz of energy that surrounds these places. There’s more than enough Apple-worship in the world today, but even the most jaded observer has to admit that their stores are impressive and inviting.
Thousands of older pilots, many of them self-described “technology idiots,” have embraced the iPad over the past few years, and you can see why when you visit an Apple store. The company goes out of its way to welcome these outsiders, including dozens of friendly staff on hand to answer the most basic questions. Training manuals emphasize time and again that customers should never be made to feel uninformed or like they don’t belong–everyone is welcome. Many airports fall far short of this.
Undoubtedly, the TSA and FAA deserve a lot of blame when it comes to unfriendly airports. In their post-9/11 zeal, these two agencies have used their blank checks from Congress to smother aviation with one-size-fits-all regulations. Anyone with a brain knows that treating GA airports the same way as LAX is foolish, but that’s exactly what happens. There is no attempt to balance cost and benefit, just a single-minded focus on “security” in all its forms. So even if that fence only improves security 1%, it gets built because there’s no opposing force.
The absurdity of these security plans was recently made clear when a man on a jet ski ran out of fuel in Jamaica Bay, right next to JFK airport. He swam ashore, climbed a fence, walked across two runways and showed up at the terminal unnoticed. This in spite of $100 million worth of surveillance cameras and motion detectors.
But while the TSA is rightfully made out to be the bad guy here, airport businesses don’t get off scot-free. Too often, airports look like private clubs reserved only for those who know the secret handshake. Simple things like signs out front and well-maintained landscaping can go a long way towards welcoming new customers. It takes a fair amount of courage for a non-pilot to drive out to the local airport; flight schools and FBOs need to reassure visitors that it’s OK to drive through the gate and that businesses await on the other side.
We can do more as pilots, too. The atmosphere and culture of an airport is often as important as the physical facilities, and these are things that all pilots contribute to. Some megachurches greet visitors in the parking lot, figuring the front door is too late to say “welcome.” That may be a bit much, but there’s a huge gap between this approach and the cold shoulder on offer at most airports.
Obviously, every flight school does not have Apple’s budget for new buildings or a megachurch’s army of volunteers. But general aviation has always been held together by camaraderie and a can-do attitude. There are plenty of smaller-scale activities that can take the edge off the TSA’s efforts: host an event at your airport, say hi to the next stranger you see walking around or paint the faded sign out front that says welcome. It may not turn the tide overnight, but a little positive energy can go a long way.
Let’s open up our airports.