One Year Later

Get set for another “one year since 9/11” retrospective … but this time, from the point of view of a pilot.

Almost this time last year aviation in the U.S. was facing a dichotomy. Airlines, from regional “puddle-jumpers” to the very heavy iron, were snatching up pilots as fast as they could. Business and recreational airline travel was at record levels … and increasing. A whole new industry had sprouted to take low- or even zero-time clients and prepare them (albeit at great personal expense) for an almost guaranteed job in the right seat of a regional airliner. The job waiting at the end of that short road — as little as a year and a half after the applicant’s first flying lesson was often, in the pointy end of a pure jet. Aspiring airline pilots weren’t even earning their instructor certificates (long the stepping stone to a commercial flying job) because there was seemingly nothing between the 250-hour commercial/instrument/multiengine pilot and a fast-track to airline seniority. Those working certificated flight instructors (CFIs) that were out there didn’t stick around the ol’ FBO long, because (potentially) lucrative airline careers beckoned.

Corporate flying was suffering because the economy was already in a downturn. But again, the airline boom made it easy for a downsized corporate flier to step into an airline seat. New jet and turboprop sales were slackening from their best years ever; fractional ownerships (co-ownership pools where persons or corporations buy into professionally managed and operated airplanes) were a healthy option, and they provided another employment avenue for the displaced corporate throttle-jock.

Private flying, too, was facing a downturn. Prospective pilots had trouble keeping a CFI around long enough to make progress toward their checkrides, and many students quit in part because of the hassle. Airplane owners worried about the looming maintenance technician shortage, the cost of services (especially insurance), and the long-term availability of piston airplane fuel.

Sales of new piston airplane were down. Cessna had scaled back piston production and laid off workers; Piper was nearing another bankruptcy and Mooney was already over the edge; and Raytheon’s Beech piston line was (and reportedly still is) up for sale — though some bidders have been turned away. Part of the downturn, to be sure, was the result of the spectacular new Cirrus SR20s and SR22s that were beginning to take over the market along with Diamond’s Katana line. The boutique experimental industry was holding its own.

But despite all these negatives, almost any developer who put new hangars on an existing airport could sell them out before construction even began. Personal and business (owner-flown) airplanes, although affected by the teetering economy, continued to fill the skies.

We all know what happened next. As a result, first we were all grounded. Then we entered an uncertain era where Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) came and went faster than we could land and re-check Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs). A few among us did stupid things (busting airspace because they failed to check NOTAMs; buzzing high schools or nuclear powerplants without thinking or “just because they could” in the face of authority … and the usual collection of poor decisions that lead to accidents). That only made it worse for us all. Slowly it seemed at the time, but really after only a few weeks, life in the air returned to pretty much like it was before. On the ground, it’s been a very different story.

The booming airline economy is gone — almost all the carriers (Southwest Airlines a notable exception) have suffered massive losses, cutbacks and layoffs, and the trend continues. The inconvenience and unpleasantness associated with post-9/11 commercial air travel has led to a relative boom in corporate flying, fractional ownership and new turbine airplane sales. All have bounced back. In fact the major airlines are in recession, but regional carriers are still hiring and expanding, as smaller, regional jets are brought in to serve markets that have lost “major” airline service.

Private flying and the infrastructure that supports it have taken a big hit, but they seem to be recovering. TFRs aren’t a factor for most pilots, unless they happen to live near one, but everyone had better check NOTAMs before every flight, even in the airport traffic pattern. Mooney has new owners and has resumed production. Avionics retrofits into existing aircraft panels is still big business. The Eclipse jet, which may revolutionize personal and business aviation, has rolled out its first aircraft and fired up its engines … though, as of this writing, the two had not done so together and the aircraft had not yet flown.

But… transient pilots still can’t fly into three Washington, D.C., area general aviation airports. Pilots based at the three fields must file flight plans using Personal Identification Numbers (“PINs”) specific to the airplane and the pilot and one of those airports was recently “temporarily” closed to all general aviation traffic … again. Airline captains flying into the D.C. area must use “challenge and reply” code words to be cleared to enter the airspace, similar to techniques we used to control nuclear warheads when I was an Air Force officer. A Scandinavian instructor pilot I know has had to turn down repeated job offers to fly jets, because the FAA won’t allow non-citizens to train in airplanes weighing more than 12,500 pounds. TFRs continue to be activated with no clear delineation or even coordinates to identify them on a chart or with a GPS.

So the flying world has changed as a result of 9/11. Watch out for negative effects from:

  • The public perception of “little” airplanes as a threat. As if we didn’t have enough public relations trouble before September 11th…
  • The poor design and dissemination of TFR information. We need downloadable maps with software to program them into GPS systems, if we’re to be expected to avoid rapidly changing, sensitive airspace. The current system is far better at punishing the innocent than dissuading the evil.
  • Background checks. Although the Federal government has not made a significant move in this direction, several state governments (at least eight) have or are considering criminal background checks, at pilot expense, before receiving instruction — in some states the wording would include an hour “refresher” prior to a biennial Flight Review.
  • Other state and local attempts to regulate aviation. Although none to my knowledge have stood yet, there have been numerous local government initiatives to restrict aviation in the name of Homeland Defense.
  • Our own actions. As is the case with aviation safety, adverse security requirements often come as a result of the actions of a few “bad apples” either negligently or deliberately flying in the face of regulations.

Let’s take back the sky. If weather and safety allow, go flying on September 11, 2002. Spirit Airlines gave away all 13,000 seats available that day — and filled them in seven hours. One woman’s vision organized Flight Across America in an effort to log at least one departure and arrival at every public airport in the continental U.S. So far, 1,400 flights have been registered. Your contribution doesn’t have to be so grand, but you can still take a non-pilot friend, business associate or reporter along to show just how delightful and non-threatening personal aviation can be. Call your local media and elected officials and describe the positive safety and security measures you take in exercising this most wonderful expression of America’s freedom. Fly safely and responsibly. Take warnings from the Transportation Security Administration seriously, and let them all know we can coexist with our neighbors and cooperate with legitimate security needs.

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