Our airports look like prisons

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 the

Airport fence no trespassing
What message are we sending about our airports?

ater 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.

Prison fence
Is it a prison or an airport?

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.

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60 Comments

  • I would offer that while that is definitely one way to look at it (and I do sympathize), perhaps the fences are more to keep random animals and folks off the runways and to protect property.

      • 47 years as a pilot, many as a professional and flight instructor. It’s horrible to see what has happened to GA since 9/11. The TSA overkill destroys business without regard to anything except Security, and they see nothing else. FBO’s and other businesses on airports have always acted like private clubs though. I was trying to visit the Eagle Creek Airport and the FBO recently, by auto, and that was almost impossible. Very unfriendly. Customer service is DEAD. Our industry and nation needs to have a national dialog about aviation, it’s positive aspects as well as negative. The media also needs to brought up to speed, because it seems that even the smallest accidents are reported as though it was a Boeing 747 crash. But, the business is being decimated by the TSA and a very bad press, as well as “it’s impossible to even find the flight school, and when we get there we’re often treated like interlopers.”

    • That doesn’t take barbed wire or (at our airport) keycards.

      The theatre aspect is highly pronounced at our airport because there are fences and gates on the side of the access road but on the far side, where a very shallow, narrow river borders the airport, there is no fencing at all. All an intruder has to do is walk over from the far side.

  • And if some guys want to learn to fly a jetliner in a full size flight simulator and aren’t interested in landings who are we to say “no”, right? You evidently have the luxury of ignorance regarding what bad guys may want to do to with the assets available at an airport. Flying aside, there are evermore expensive avionics and other aircraft parts to be stolen as well as all the material that the average meth addict will walk away with to take to the local scrap dealer for quick cash. As for the JFK incident; yes, failures of security do occur: should we stop bothering to lock our doors because burglars sometimes still manage to get through? You do GA a disservice by deriding the need to provide secure environments; we don’t want to see our vocations/avocations legislated out of existence because we failed to take reasonable precautions. Having to remove our shoes at checkpoints and not being able to take a bottle of water on a jetliner – now that’s something to be pissed about!

    • I don’t doubt there are bad guys in this world. I do doubt that some expensive fences and nasty signs will do anything to stop them–just like I doubt the charade we all go through in the TSA line at the big airports. It may make us feel safer, but we’re not.

      I’m 100% in favor of reasonable security measures that actually work. And until we put up Keep Out signs in front of Ryder Truck rental locations, the security experts can lay off airports.

    • “You evidently have the luxury of ignorance regarding what bad guys may want to do to with the assets available at an airport.”

      You evidently have the luxury of ignorance regarding effective security. Let me remind you, since you brought it up, the shoe thing is completely reactive on the part of TSA–a guy walked through TSA “security” with a bomb in his shoes. Another guy torched his crotch trying to ignite the bomb he walked through security. Still another guy got through security an on a plane with no boarding pass. A popular television presenter made it on a plane with 12 inch long razor blades in his pocket. These are just a selection of incidents from the popular media, do I really need to go on? The largely reactive “security” measures put in place under the guise of not letting September 11th, 2001 happen again amount to little more than security theater. If they really are out to get us again, as you seem to feel, it’s only a matter of time until they do.

      Fences and signs, especially at GA airports, are half-hearted measures at best that give the illusion of security. They only serve as a temporary barrier to entry (or exit) and rely on someone discovering and reporting intruders in order to have any security benefit at all. The only possible reason to have a fence at an airport is to keep animals/unaware (honest) persons off the runway.

    • Too bad. This is what happens when you let the “bad guys” in and/or don’t secure your borders and in our case, even teach them to fly for the sake of the “bottom line”.

      We’ve taken the fun out of our lives accordingly by way of ignorance, complacency, lack of S/A & plain old irresponsibility.

      30 years in the biz, 23k hrs. mostly as a regional airline captain fly propjets and regional jets …. and I want nothing to do with airports or airplanes todat=y though I can fly American for basically free.

      Damn shame.

    • While you are indeed correct, your basic premise is flawed. While security should always be a concern at airports…ALL airports…We as a community need to realise that if we are to continue to be a viable entity in aviation, we need to begin to work on attracting more people to our ranks. We are dependent upon a continuous influx of new blood to keep our sport/hobby/vocation alive. If our “gene” pool becomes stagnant due to uninviting facilities, or overzealous security measures, that are in alot of cases, unwarranted, then our community dies, and it will not be a pretty, nor an easy death if and when that happens. I remember that day 33 years ago, when i made my first flight in a 172. It was a ferry flight from capital city airport in lansing, mi to mackinac island. It was unbelieveable…it was just as the trees were coming into full foliage and the views from 5500 feet…breathtaking…and all we had to do was drive to the one gate on the ga side, my cousin showed his i.d. and we drove to his hangar and flew out…today that same trip, from highway to flyway would probably take more than the 30 minutes it took us then…any people willing to sacrifice freedom for security deserves neither one.

  • I think its about accessibility. For the longest time for aviation was out of my reach because there didn’t seem any way to get into the “club”. That tall fence is just one more metaphor supporting the “private club” persona that plagues GA IMO.

    So how can you make supposedly “PUBLIC” airports more accessible to the public? Maybe drop all the “Keep out” and “Authorized Personnel Only” signs and instead direct the public to appropriate viewing areas. If a father wants to take his son to the airport to watch the planes take off, where does he go? If he read the signs, he’s not welcome. I’d like to see bold signage at airports for that dad or that pilot-wanna-be that drives to the airport with his lunch, parks, and watches the planes from the drivers seat so he can make a quick get away if he’s approached or questioned (this was me 2yrs ago).

    • I am one of those people who likes to watch planes,gliders etc… I felt alittle out of place at first but am right at home now. Pilots love to fly and seem really happy other people enjoy watching.

    • I used to fly but lost my medical due to health issues. I used to go to the local airport & bum rides or offer to pay half the rental but a bad experience chased me away. Sitting in an observation area at an airport where I got my ‘wings’ & watching what I love, an airport police vehicle pulled up & I was questioned. I produced more than enough ID and we had a nice talk even letting the officer search my car. Within a few minutes another airport police unit pulled up & the two of them questioned me further. They gave no reason other than airport safety as the concern. Then a 3rd unit pulled up and the 3 of them began to interrogate me with questions to try to trick me up. Thanks to that experiance I won’t go to an airport to watch or fly. Enough is enough.

      • sorry for your experience. we have people watch us all the time but we are a smaller airport in Ludington, Mi. Yes we have a large fence, mainly to keep animals out, I almost hit a deer coming in for a landing one night. I suspect your officers were bored with nothing better to do. come to a small airport and watch all you want, come inside and chat with the pilots, we’re here everyday at 10am.

      • I have been a pilot wanabe sense I was about 7 or 8 yrs old. and would walk the 6 miles out to our local Airport and look at airplanes, and long as I didn’t touch any nobody would say anything. and once in a while a pilot would say hey kid wanna go for a ride and i was in seventh heaven. sometimes even to fly a little, and I know I was not the only kid to do that.! some of the old pilots I know tell the same story about when they were kids!.
        just where will the future pilots come from, except the ones whose daddy has deep pockets and flies. With all the fences and keep out signs at “OUR” public airports have today.

  • Between the ages of 14 and 18, I would ride my bike, or drive, the less than 10 miles across suburban Los Angeles, to the closest airport for the purpose of hanging around the picnic table under a tree, in front of a flight school, watching takeoffs and landings, listening to tower frequency and talking to anyone who would talk to me about “flying”. Many decades later, I’m an active commercial pilot and flight instructor at a lazy, towered airport in Central California. I’ve never seen a kid on a bike at our flight school or around the airport. Over the past 10 years, the Federal government has offered local governments many millions of dollars for security related projects and services. Disregarding any input from airport tenants in the name of “security”, local bureaucrats proceeded to think up millions of dollars worth of ways to discourage the general public from even looking at the airport as they drive past. Now, there are no business signs visible on the sides of buildings, because it might show the bad guys where to go. Business entry doors are behind camera-controlled security gates. Access to the ramp is controlled through security doors. If you park any place around or within several blocks of the airport to watch landings and take offs, listen to tower frequency or (gasp!) take photographs, you can expect to be talking to a representative from any of five different law enforcement agencies within a few minutes. Did I mention I’ve never seen a kid on a bike around our airport. How do you welcome the person who shows up on Saturday morning to talk about flight instruction, or the businessman who is tired of driving six hours round trip to the Big City to work, the high school kid preparing for the Air Force Academy, the retiree who’s looking for something to do with this time, or the veteran who wants to relive old times? These folks, and hundreds of other examples, are the core of a flight training business. They are more than “discouraged” from coming to the airport, and they are hassled in all kinds of ways every time they do. When they finally walk through the door, they find a business that is so close to collapse, it can’t serve them effectively anyway. Have I mentioned, I’ve never seen a kid on an bike at our airport or flight school. Hate to harsh your buzz. There is a connection. Our little back-water of the world can’t create and value a “user-friendly portal to the sky”. I hope you still have one near you. If you do, protect it!

    • On the comment about no kids riding their bike to the airport. I suspect that a lot of these kids are so protected and coddled by their parents that a ride on a bike isn’t even allowed. Even with the mandatory helmets. Too many child abductions to risk it, they parents probably stay. When was the last time you saw kids playing in their neighborhoods until dark like I did as a kid. But, I get your point about the lack of new students and future students at airports. Know many 18 year olds that afford a Cessna 172 at $125/hr. and a $40/hr instructor? I’d like to see more community college programs for aviation to make learning more accessible. Young Eagles EAA is a great program, as well.

      One bright spot to promote aviation at my airport-F45 North County Palm Beach, FL. One of the flight schools hosts a Saturday pizza day-every week-rain or shine-for us to get together. Visitors are encouraged to attend. The 2nd story patio overlooks the ramp and there’s a few minutes where we’re all connected. We should see more of it. Don;t make it an Annual Open House at the airport. Make it a monthly event.

    • I knew a few kids who got to work washing, covering and cleaning up for nothing just for maybe a ride. and one who I know got his pilot license that way, working for flight time.

      Anybody else one here done that??

  • Terrific article, John!

    I’m intimately aware of how much effort AOPA has invested – and continues to invest – in divining the reasons why the ratio of student completions to student starts is so low. Nothing wrong with that, and I commend them for their efforts. But your piece highlights one contributing reason why the number of starts is so low. Until we address the denominator in that fraction, GA faces creeping extinction. Why do I suspect that the extinction of low-end GA would bring relief if not outright satisfaction to a lot of people?

    Your analogy about airports and prisons is apt, and my eyes popped open when I saw the photo of the guard towers looking amazingly like a control tower. I think that another (maybe even better?) analogy would be nuclear power plants. The public’s attitude pretty much is “can’t have too much security around ‘em, and the only real solution is to shut ‘em down and plow ‘em into parks.” I wonder to what extent that captures public sentiments about local GA airports.

    I vaguely remember a little Chicago lakefront airport, too… I also remember when a mayor of that fair city asked the federal government to impose a permanent “GA no fly zone” over his jurisdiction and that of other US cities. I guess “real airplanes” use O’Hare, and those noisy and dangerous toy airplanes that the fat cats fly don’t belong in or over the Windy City. Or any other city. (And how long would it be until the mayor of Smallfart asserted that his fine city deserved the same “protections” afforded to bigger cities?)

    One encouraging approach is the flight-schools-in-shopping-malls phenomenon, as recently highlighted in the aviation press. Anecdotally, the best promotion that my flight school ever did was to put one of our Tomahawk trainers into the food court of a major New England shopping mall, and staff it heavily from open ‘til close, for ten days. The traffic wasn’t as heavy as I expected it to be, but our conversion ratio was amazing – we filled that flight school with dozens of paid-program students for over a year! Maybe it was the lack of barbed-wire-topped chain-link fences and “deadly force is authorized” signs around the perimeter of the food court!

    Here’s a piece of irony: how difficult is it for anyone to waltz into a gun store and find out all about firearms or ammunition? They don’t seem to have as many tall fences or warning signs as the local airport does.

  • Tom. ….. Amen!!!

    I fly in the Chicago area and used to fly both Angel Flights and Young Eagle flights out of Meigs. Angel Flights because of the proximity of the many hospitals to downtown Chicago and YE flights made up of mostly South Side kids who had never seen an airplane and sponsored by the local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen.

    What a waste!

  • I miss the days in the late 40’s when as a kid in Kansas I could go out a see the airplanes … if lucky I would trade a wash for a ride.

    In the 60’s I could fly to LIT and just about any other airport, land and just walk around.

    Our local airport is like trying to visit a prison … I have doubts that any one from the “sand counties” really give a damn about it.

    Yes, I know the world has changed … However, if a kid can not be around airplanes. The why would they ever have any interest to learn to fly!

  • As a pilot of 20+ years I grew up, standing along a fence watching airplanes take off and land for hours on end.

    While at an airport with my son not to long ago, we maneuvered around the OUTSIDE of the field to get a good spot to watch arrivals. Standing along the fence in an area out of the way, Airport Police showed up and questioned us as if we were doing something wrong.

    It’s not hard to see why our kids are not as interested in flying as WE were…

    • I fly from Stearman Field in Benton, Kansas. 1K1 is a privately owned and operated field.Even though there are many on-field homes and hangar condos we still encourage the public to visit and observe. We Hold Young Eagles rallies (via EAA chapter 88), there are car and motorcycle clubs that frequent the on-field restaurant and participate in open house days. When a security fence becomes mandatory I will probably relocate my plane. I am part of an active airport community and it pays it’s way through community service and friendship. More power to the common man. So let’s keep barnstorming and informing the curious public.

  • In case you’ve not noticed, the USA has enemies, our borders are not secured and in any event, we’ve allowed the “Trojan Horsing” of our nation by people who enter illegally and those who enter legally as “peaceful” immigrants from certain ME nations, who are anything but. And today, “homegrown” Islamic radical terrorism IS a reality.

    Thus … enhanced security is necessary for obvious reasons. And I hate it even more than you.

    But …. WE DID THIS TO OURSELVES!! WE …. HAVE SPOILED OUR OWN “FUN”.

    We’ve failed to safeguard our house and yard. The Piper WILL be paid accordingly.

  • Yes of course we have to keep our planes, equipment, fuel and so on secure. And yes we need to keep potentional terrorists from gaining access to anything that might be used to further their causes. But at the same time we need to be inteligent about meeting those needs and allowing access to our airports for those people with innocent intentions. We don’t shut down our highways and restrict access to autos because of drunk drivers. Forgive me for butchering Ben Franklin but didn’t he say “People who sacrfice liberty for freedom deserve neither.”? We are the country that put Neil Armstrong on the Moon and taught the world to fly, surely we can come up with an intelligent answer to this problem without treating everyone who comes to the airport as a terrorist.

  • Off topic but here I go.
    I take exeption to your Apple analogy. As a self confessed GEEK (I went to that small tech school in Cambrige, MA). I find the apple store intolerable. If you just peek below the surface you find no level of understanding of the products except at the most basic level. The software offered is also fluff — look for a CAD program and you will be out of luck. If you are looking for programs that locate restaurants or otherwise places to spend your money they have lots. Support, hummm, again I am not impressed other than the most basic. How about if you have a problem with the app store, I got several you are important to us messages but not resolution. Important to us?
    On the otherhand I use my I-pad and Wingx evertime I fly.
    And yes airport are in lockdown.

  • Florida has numerous flight schools teaching mostly students from the middle East. They have no trouble getting into the airports but the locals seek flight training in remote areas since the deal is that
    someone is paying 40 thousand for 40 students every 40 days. (that is the rumor) do the math. Locals are not wanted in many parts of Florida
    due to the big bucks .(and what are we training them for?)
    Personally I prefer to fly a seaplane as it is quite difficult to put a fence around a lake or ocean.
    Thank God i lived in an era that was pilot friendly at all airports.

  • I’ve been flying since 1973, own 2 1/4 planes, regularly fly the 1/4 partnership and the other 2 are in restoration. Few airports in my experience have ever been set up ergonomics wise to invite people in; to the unfamiliar colleges are the same way. The latest round of security measures just makes it next to impossible for us that fly to figure out how to get in at an unfamilar airport; don’t know how people wanting to get into aviation view it. The bad guys will figure out a way no matter what but we are killing ourselves, our freedom and aviation with the fences and the way the terminals are laid out. Almost every terminal I visit is laid out so that you have to ask where to find the flight school and other things for sale. Often times the people you ask are less than informative. It is like walking into a store and having to ask where the products are and where to pay, if you can find someone. The airport I’m currently based at recently did a beautiful job of remodeling the old terminal. It’s beautiful but it is not obvious that there are 2 flight schools there; the TV screen with the current weather is now on the back wall of the FBO counter where you can’t get close enough to read it, the linemen are in the room behind that and if their Boss is not there (often) they are often inaccessible. I see this type of stuff all the time; it would be so easy to fix I don’t understand where the Leaders heads are at.

  • Can’t say that I’m impressed much by the argument that terrorists or avionics thieves are detered by chain-link fences. If you can’t cut or climb a fence, you’re either very dim or very out of shape. If you intend to steal a plane to crash it, having your image recorded by the security camera wouldn’t be much of a threat, after all, you’re going to be dead so why do you care?
    For that matter, a locked hanger is like a cheap padlock on a plywood storage shed: it’s just there to encourage honest people to stay honest. I once watched an I.A. retrieve a tool from a locked hanger by simply backing out some of the screws holding the sheetmetal on the hanger wall and walking in through the gap. When he was done, he replaced the screws and it was impossible to tell where he had “walked through the wall”. I can’t help but think that we’re just kidding ourselves with all this “security”.
    On the other hand, if we were to put regular “Observation Areas” where the public was allowed to drive up to the fence and watch the planes take off and land, perhaps with a small clear plastic topped container for local FBOs to put their advertizing materials in, we might get a few more folks to take that first flying lesson. Jackson Airport (JAX) in Michigan not only has the observation area, but they have a row of businesses with airport access along one side of the airport. Originally, they were all storefront FBOs with street addresses. When the FBOs closed for lack of business, they were rented to other enterprises and the new tenents simply locked their back doors. Since the buildings are occupied, they have more eyes on the perimeter than most other airports of their size, and they still collect the rent. Perhaps we need to be more aggressive about integrating ourselves into the community in order to keep people aware of the benefits of General Aviation. Of course, our pals at the FAA would have to change their minds about “throught the fence” operations but if we framed the argument in terms of “more people = more security” they might listen.

    • Concord, CA has a really cool observation area right at the intersection of the runways. Complete with picnic tables and a mini-playground with a “control tower” jungle gym (with windsock) and a toy airplane. There are 2 FBOs a short walk down the street. True, it’s on the street side of the fence, but I wouldn’t want the general public wandering around the taxiway and runup area anyway.

      If I think about all the airports where our family has based our planes over the years or ones that are regular destinations , some are just horribly designed, with the runway far from any streets, no real terminal building, and practically inaccesible to the general public (Palo Alto, Van Nuys). The ones that are accessible all have a great restaurant with a runway view (Santa Monica, Santa Paula) or a nice friendly terminal building with a great runway view (West Houston).

  • I have to admit, I had been wanting to learn how to fly for 30 years. I started earlier this year at age 52. My wife and I would drive around to airports within 110 miles of our house. Each time we felt very intimidated by the fencing, signage and lack of welcome. Sometimes were couldn’t figure out where it was legal to park just to come in and say hello. We did not belong and we did not want to get into trouble. Luckily our home airport, HWY, is the friendliest airport this side of the Pecos. We lucked out.

    But most importantly, it seems FBOs forget that the most important person at the airport is the person at the counter they hire for minimum wage. I can’t tell you how many times we have irritated the poor fellow because we took him away from the internet with our bubbly smiles and “hellos” and “I’m a student pilot” and “what can you tell us about the airport”. They just aren’t happy and they want you to go away. Quickly. This person is the most important profit generator for the airport and FBO and most FBOs just throw that away.

    By contrast, there is a fellow at Currituck who made us feel like family in 2 seconds. And then there was Charlie at Williamsburg Regional, a veteran of the fire on the USS Forrestal who welcomed us with open arms and camaraderie. We will be back to these places and fly in again and again once certified. They will get our business. The others can pump what dwindling revenue they have into their internet watchers, ’cause we won’t be dropping dollars there.

  • I give plane rides year round to promote the young eagles and flying. I also give rides to adults that have never flown in a small aircraft. Most airports love to have people come out and ask questions about flying. If you’re treated badly at one airport or scared to get to close, go to a smaller airport. Most don’t mind you sitting inside and watching, asking questions and enjoying the atmosphere. We pilots enjoy talking about our planes and taking people up for rides, this is why we have a young eagles program for kids 8 to 17 and now a Golden Eagles program for adults. Any place there is an EAA chapter you will find friendly people just waiting to talk with you and show your around.

  • Many of you may remember one of Richard Collins’ first questions in the revived AFJ last year when he asked “what was the Golden Age of aviation”. My answer then, and now, is that the Golden Age was when anyone could ride their bike down to the local airport and sit in the grass at the end of the taxiway and watch the action. Let’s be honest, that started to change well before 9/11. I used to be able to do it in the late 80’s, but even by then only at airports where I knew the gate code – by then pretty much all airports in larger metropolean areas were fenced in. (That’s not to say that the TSA hasn’t gone completely overboard: they have!)

  • A very well written article. I used to be one of the thousands of student pilots from India, luckily I always felt welcomed and was never treated like an outside during my time as a pilot in USA.

    I really hope more Americans would realize what a unique and wonderful opportunity they have in their home country to enjoy the GA. In spite of being a licensed pilot in my home country, there is no way I could take my parents for a joy ride in a Cessna.

    It is upto to dedicated stalwarts of aviation to preserve and maintain the glorious GA culture of America, while making sure that the new people feel welcomed at the same time.

  • Totally agree with the article. I’ve been put off by airport signage, fences, etc. And the trashy little airport at Sebewaing, MI, has a certain charm for me, but for a normal person the glitzy marina across the street looks WAY more appealing.

    No solutions (we need some), but I can say this. From what I’ve seen of Europe, the airports are far less accessible.

  • Probably the easiest, most realistic change we can give the general public is to just put a sign on every FBO door at every little airport that says this:

    “Did you come to watch the planes taxi, takeoff, and land? We built a viewing area just for you and we’re glad you dropped by. Come in and ask us where the viewing area is.”

    Just as simple would be to schedule an “Airport Day” with the Chamber of Commerce and to notify the papers. Also, put a sign along the main street that says “Special Plane Viewing this Saturday, weather permitting.”

    This isn’t rocket science; it’s just that guys aren’t really that good at this kinda stuff…

  • Fences can be used while still maintaining an inviting atmosphere.

    The finest example of this is at Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix Az, (KDVT).

    While the entire property is surrounded by fencing and ramp access is controlled by security gates,our terminal building provides an area where people can see airplanes come and go closely. Additionally, people can use a stairway and sit on an outside deck to watch the planes. Ground control and Tower control radio receivers supplement this environment as visitors can hear the controllers and pilots while watching the airplanes and hearing great airplane noise.

    Our restaurant in the terminal building also offers seating outside for guests and while this area is fenced, it is still located within 50 feet of the transient parking spaces providing a welcome feeling and closeness to the transient aircraft.

    It is fortunate that our terminal building is located right in the middle of the property, South of the two parallel runways.This provides a complete view of both runways, the taxiways and the ramps.

    Unfortunately, we must live with fences these days, but Deer Valley is an example of the happy medium in that visitors are restricted from secure areas, but at the same time can see, hear and smell the experience of the airport’s operations.

    • Deer Valley is a terrific place to go and watch the aircraft on the ramp. They have a speaker that broadcasts radio activity with the landing/departing tower. (I went this Summer-if I may make a suggestion to Deer Valley-a shaded area upstairs would be a big plus-It was 106 when I was there!)

      I also, agree with comments that more signage inviting visitors in o flight schools is needed. Or how about inviting clubs to bring their members to the airport, as well?
      For example, as a motorcyclist as well as a pilot there are many bikers that would jump at a chance to take a discovery flight. These kinds of groups are where a lot of our new students will come from.

      How many airports have flight schools that advertise that they offer discovery flights? Most, see it as a loss-loser, just a way to get a potential student into the first lessons.

      As pilots, we all have a responsibility to share our enthusiasm with those who take an interest in aviation. Let them know it’s accessible. Let them see how much fun it can be. I’d like to see an “I’m a Pilot” campaign from AOPA and/or EAA. God knows we love talking about it when encouraged, right. We can all be ambassadors for GA.

  • I made an unplanned landing at Bartlesville OK to checkout the fuel system. The airport was closed and no way to get out. Looking through the FBO window I saw a phone number for the TSA. I call it and they sent a man out to unlock the gate. He drove me to a hotel in town then the next morning took me back to the airport. Their office was across the street from the hotel. Airports can be prisons.

    • You mean to tell me my tax dollars pay for TSA to drive out to an airport, play chauffeur out and back…all for one pilot who is perfectly capable and certified to do these things himself? No wonder I’m being taxed to death. You experience, no fault of your own, is a complete waste of dwindling taxpayer resources.

      • Airport closed, it’s likely the end of the business day and the TSA guy was dedicated enough to drop off and pick-up a fellow tax-payer; we are all tax-payers after all, even the TSA guy. There are still people who are polite and don’t mind helping other people. Those of us who fly (I’m assuming you don’t), pay an extra tax on fuel (about 19 cents a gallon) to pay the FAA fund for public airports and the infrastructure required to run it all. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we pay for part of the TSA. You may not think so but you are paying for things that are much less beneficial to you then your local airport.

        • Thanks Hugh, but Buddy’s post did not read that way. I’m a student pilot and pump fuel into my Warrior every other day. If the TSA guy did it out of the kindness of his heart, off Govt. time, that’s wonderful. But I read Buddy’s post to read a requirement which I interpreted as wasteful burden.

          The requirement was that a pilot had to call TSA to let him out of the airport he just landed in. That seems quite unreasonable to me. Regardless of how kind the TSA guy may have been. It was pretty cool that he drove him around but I have to wonder that this not the TSA role – assuming the TSA guy did it on Govt. time.

          There is no reason to complicate and incur taxpayer burden on what has traditionally been a very simple exercise. Leaving the Airport.

          I agree with Rodger, that fuel tax money should go to approved and funded services that are continually on the chopping block. All this story tells us is that TSA inserted themselves into the loop to make themselves indispensable before a pilot can even exit an airport.

          • John, I’m tracking with you and can see your point. I have landed at several airports this year after hours and no two were the same. In many cases getting in requires a code but getting out just a push of a button; two were code both ways one of which we didn’t know and one recently was a backwards/upside down padlock. In that case I had called ahead of time and got the combo otherwise I indeed would have been stuck. My home airport has a brand new system where everybody with an aircraft on the field has their own code. The gate was struck by lightening before it went active so it’s still wide open it is however quite a walk from the ramp. The point that I wanted to make is that airports are not the tax burden to the general public that a lot of people think they are. No doubt there are many badly managed airports that are costly to townships and countys but even then I would make the case that they bring more to the local economy then they cost; or they could.

  • Bravo, Hugh!
    And John… I miss the days when my tax dollars were used to fund flight service stations and air traffic controllers. After laying out of flying for twenty years, I got recurrency training and a fresh medical so i could share the miracle of GA with my kids before they greww up and left the nest. As I am taking my thirteen year old son aloft retracing the routes of my student cross countries, I find myself apologizing to him. “Geez, Ben…this place is a ghost town! When I learned to fly in the 80s this was a controlled field and there were always a few planes in the pattern. Sorry you didn’t see it then.” So now I am taking young eagles up as often as I can afford to fly. We can turn this around, people…

  • Hugh, I agree with you 100%. Most of the tax burden is paid by the pilot in fuel and other fees. You’re right. As a student I have learned from you and will be sure to coordinate before landing at an unknown airport. Thanks!

  • There was “security” around GA airports long before TSA installed physical barriers. Mainly the egomaniac flight school owners and instructors who run off prospective pilots, who don’t solo in 10 hours, or otherwise illustrate they don’t have the “right stuff”. How many students have been traumatized in their youth, never to return to a cockpit again?

  • I can’t agree with much of what you say. In todays world security is essential. Fences are one thing but is there any security around these airports such as cameras or guards. Aircraft get stolen every week. ‘Unfriendly’ small airports are due to lack of proper signs on roads indicating the various businesses operating there. This leaves the visitor or person seeking to do business there wandering around. Most small airports are improperly organised or set out anyway, they just seemed to have developed haphazardly over a period of time..

    • “Most small airports are improperly organized or set out anyway, they just seem to have developed haphazardly over a period of time..”
      Well, that’s because small airports are developed haphazardly over a period of time as matching funding and business allows. Until and unless someone with really deep pockets starts to develop new airports that address marketing, safety, security and technical demands with a “clean sheet of paper” approach, we will continue to have what we can afford.

  • This article is almost a repeat of one of my soap box diatribes. Thank you for getting it published. One comment above suggests that the fences are to keep animals out. A simple fence can do that, but the locked gates and razor wire on top are not aimed at keeping animals out. How many of us started our dream of flying by going out and watching airplanes come and go? You can’t get close enough to watch them any more. If you are parked outside the fence at the end of a runway, it doesn’t take long for the cops to show up and run you off as though you are holding a SAM waiting for the next C172 to depart.

  • I agree with what many posters have said above. The barbed wired, padlocked gates, patrolling cops and “go away” signs are overkill. A low, simple fence around a runway makes sense to keep animals and clueless humans out of jetblast range is a good idea, but all the other security is silly. We need to find a way to push back against some of the security rigamarole and make airports a more warm and welcoming place for folks. If people could see an airport like a city park, with fun things to watch and do, that might make an airport less of a “NIMBY” thing and more of a welcomed place in a city.

  • When I returned to the airport, (where I was ground ops supervisor,) after 9/11, I couldn’t even get onto the airfield, as everything had been locked down. In the twelve years since then, (and my retirement,) it has just gotten worse. Friends have planes I used to help them work on, and now, I can’t even get on the airfield.
    There needs to be some reasonable, sensible, middle ground whereby we can actually attract people to use our airports and facilities.
    Until we actually learn from the mistakes of others, and instead of overreacting, solve these problems, it is just going to get worse.

  • The city of Tavares Florida has a unique airport with no fences. It is a public seaplane facility welcoming Pilots from all over the globe to
    enjoy it’s beautiful City. Back in the early days of Aviation history
    shows that most cities provided with open arms services catering to the
    aviation community. Some in winter plowed the ice for real snow loving birds. Think about it !

  • After spending most of my 60 years + in, on, and around aviation, it is getting to seem more and more unfriendly and restrictive, not just because of TSA and the FAA, but even communities that actually want their airports gone, (for various reasons.) Until we, as the aviation community, can get our acts, collectively, together, it is only going to get worse.
    After 9/11, it has just gotten worse. And the root causes, there are many more than one, seem to originate with us. What are our REAL interests? Only interested in flying as a hobby? A few business flights, maybe? Or are we serious about solving the problems, and let our elected officials know what we are thinking, and seeing?
    Most community news organizations have “Letters to the editor” type contacts, where we can let the general public know what is happening. Public opinion seems to matter more now, with our government, than any time in our history. Use the media, social, visual, and printed. Get the story out there. Talk to neighbors, friends, old, and new, acquaintences, even church, social, groups, schools, wherever and whatever.

  • Blessed to have learned to fly in northern Michigan where access to friendly FBOs and open fields still welcome curious minds.

  • Informative analysis – I learned a lot from the insight , Does anyone know where I might get access to a fillable DA 31 example to use ?

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