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General Aviation vs. the Airlines - the Misguided Debate

By Bruce M. Curtis
March 1, 2008

Congestion relief and ATC upgrades are significant and relevant issues currently being addressed by the industry. Too often the guilt is erroneously placed on General Aviation. Bruce M. Curtis warns us of the consequences of proposed legislation being passed, of power falling into the hands of an unelected body, and of General Aviation taking the fall for it all.

Here on Airliners.net we hear about how U.S. air traffic control is broken and needs reinvention, and often, supporters of legacy airlines place the blame on General Aviation. That blame is misplaced, and I felt compelled to clear the air, so to speak.

In a 35 year flying career, Ive been an airline pilot and a business pilot for my own company. Ive been on both sides. Airliner enthusiasts, and I am one, need to know there is an industry agenda; U.S. airlines are in the process of engineering a hostile takeover of the U.S. national airspace system. If they're successful, the result will throttle competition, add delays and raise ticket prices.

There have been a lot of articles in airline magazines blaming light planes and business aircraft for the ATC quagmire, most of it generated by Air Transport Association (ATA) press releases. The ATA is quietly supporting a political plan that triples fuel taxes on General Aviation while eliminating their own fuel taxes, while charging huge user fees to small plane pilots using air traffic control services.

More ominous, the plan gives airlines control of a powerful, new non-elected federal board that would lock down access to our national airspace. Imagine giving a truck industry lobby the power to close main highways to all but large vehicles, or eliminate "congestion" by letting truckers charge private autos hundreds of dollars each time they use congested urban highways. That is what the ATA is working toward.

The airline industry has found it useful to make General Aviation (GA) a scapegoat. GA is made up of non-airline, non-military aviation, including small planes, recreational flyers, air ambulance, law enforcement, business, air taxi, agricultural air, firefighting, charter and corporate users. Yet while the airlines have an easy mark in GA to help drive their agenda, in reality their problems are largely self-inflicted.

Passengers want to leave and arrive at the same peak hours, so the very nature of airline scheduling creates delays. Simply put, when carriers choose to schedule too many airplanes into too few urban hub airports, they overwhelm ground support facilities and runway capacity. Let's say an airport can only handle 100 flights an hour, but airlines schedule 120 flights per hour. When inevitable delays occur, "air traffic" is blamed. Airline managers don't seem to understand that a runway can only handle so many Boeings or Airbuses per hour, so when flights are delayed, air traffic control delays are targeted, and General Aviation singled out for a target.

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Photo © Justin Hicks
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Photo © Matt Barnette - IAH Spotters
Most congestion, especially during peak hours, is airline congestion

What the airlines aren't saying is that General Aviation has actually been part of the solution. Airline-generated gridlock long ago drove GA aircraft from large airports and today less than 1% of all hub takeoffs and landings are small aircraft. Instead light aircraft and bizjets utilize non-airline routes and altitudes and fly to under-used regional airports that are often closer to their final destinations. That advantage has drawn hundreds of thousands of air travelers to General Aviation. Some choose to fly themselves to escape airlines' routine abuse and inconvenience and the exodus hasn't gone unnoticed by industry executives.

General Aviation has quietly served as a safety valve, relieving congestion created by the airlines'hub and spoke octopus. GA diverts millions of air travelers from busy airports each year. If the airlines successfully take control of airspace access, expect them to put the entire GA industry out of business. As hundreds of thousands of former GA flyers are grounded, they'll need seats aboard airliners and the result will be gridlock at places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, New York and Boston. The handful of hubs that handle 98% of all US airline arrivals and departures will be on instant overload.

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Photo © Paul Aranha
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Photo © Nick Onkow
GA planes are already re-routing to smaller airports like these

There's no mystery why the ATA wants to shut out GA. GA offers an attractive alternative to air travelers. For example, in less time than it takes to drive to a metro airport, wade through security and board a flight, a general aviation pilot and three passengers will be nearing their destination. GA aircraft include high-efficiency aerodiesel-powered planes that meet or beat the fuel efficiency of most large jets. For example, one Canadian-built 4-seat carbon fiber plane can exceed 100 seat-mpg, besting even a fully loaded Boeing 777. How can that be? Light aircraft fly more slowly and that uses less fuel, while utilizing reciprocating engines and propellers, which, HP for HP, are inherently more fuel-efficient than turbofans.

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Photo © Bruce Leibowitz
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Photo © Brandon Thetford - IAH Spotters
Some typical GA aircraft - smaller, lighter, and sometimes even more fuel efficient than widebodies

By flying point-to-point instead of a terminal-hub-terminal-commute ordeal, air travelers in high-tech light aircraft burn fewer gallons of fuel apiece, create far less noise and leave a smaller carbon footprint than airline passengers. Given a choice, how many of us would rather simply walk out to a light airplane, throw in our suitcases and go, instead of spending hours in security and check-in lines, enduring contempt from surly airline personnel only to face the possibility of hours of delays trapped on an airport ramp in a delayed aircraft with no food or water and restrooms overflowing? It is any surprise that the ATA would like to snuff out GA competition?

Don't get me wrong; I love to fly by lightplane, but I also love to fly as an airline passenger on transcontinental and international routes where light aircraft aren't practical. Indeed, all airspace users have common ground; we agree that U.S. air traffic control badly needs updating, but what the ATA doesn't mention is the surplus billions of dollars available today for that purpose in the U.S. Federal Airways and Airports trust fund. By U.S. FAA accounting, current funding mechanisms will easily pay to update air traffic control. That fact destroys the airline's chief argument and leaves questions about their true agenda, which is to shore up their bottom-line by eliminating all forms of competition.

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Photo © Agustin Anaya

ATC updates are already fiscally feasible

The answers are available today: new computer systems and software, running automated aircraft-GPS/TCAS-based separation. New runways at hubs and auxiliary metro airports are needed, as is runway capacity-based arrival and departure slot assignments. If an airport is at capacity and an airline wants more seats, it has to wait until a slot is available, or move to a larger aircraft. And airspace needs to be controlled by elected officials who are accountable to voting airline passengers, so everybody gets a fair say and has equal access.

Many of us fear what would happen to an air traffic system run by the same folks who have turned air travel into a nightmare. We want to keep U.S. national airspace under control of elected officials. We also need passenger rights legislation similar to what New York State enacted. Freedom, liberty and competition are all best served when airspace is accessible to all users. Service will only continue to deteriorate if controlled by an industry that daily demonstrates it can't be bothered competing for business and uninterested in offering passengers reliable service and a quality product.

Bruce M. Curtis
2208229, ATP/CFI
Los Osos CA

Written by
Bruce M. Curtis

Bruce M. Curtis is a 4,000 hour flight instructor, business aviator, and former airline pilot. He has written for Flying, AOPA Pilot, and Plane & Pilot magazines.

10 User Comments:
Username: NWA ARJ [User Info]
Posted 2008-03-14 11:26:52 and read 32768 times.

As an Air Traffic Controller I could not agree with you more. Your article fits the description to a T. GA is not the problem. Its the airlines and how they schedule the routes. Take a look at O hare or JFK, even on nice days they still have delays becuase they could get in 100 ops an hour and the airlines schedule 120-130. After that you add in weather, and some other factors and delays are inevitable. Well written article!

Username: KhelmDTW [User Info]
Posted 2008-03-15 10:37:19 and read 32768 times.

Great read, The more I look into things, the more I dislike the ATA.

Some say Regional Jets are more to blame; more planes, less pax at different times. Put them on one big plane you get less congestion and only one flight.

Any thoughts?

Username: FlyingCrown [User Info]
Posted 2008-03-23 16:50:41 and read 32768 times.

One Airliners.net member wrote to me, questioning some of my fuel economy calculations, deducing that I was comparing the fuel economy of a Lancair. I tried to write back, unfortunately he had blocked my email before I could reply. Since he did bring up some legitimate questions about the fuel economy observations in my article above, I did some more calculations:

Dear ____ Thanks for writing. Regarding your comments; I wasn't comparing a 777 to any Lancair, I was comparing it to a Diamond DA 40 TD, powered by a 1.9L Theilert turbodiesel. The Canadian-built carbon/composite 4-seater cruises at 135 KTAS, (155 statute MPH), while it's 135 hp high-tech turbocharged, intercooled, direct-injected aerodiesel sips 6 gph of Jet A (or diesel #2) per hour for an aircraft total of 25.5 mpg.

You compare a 777 to a Lancair that burns 39 gph at 300 KTAS> There is no such aircraft; the closest are two current production kit Lancairs, the IVP piston, and a Walter M 601E turboprop powered version. The piston version burns 18 gph at a true book airspeed between 290 and 300 KTAS. The turbine Lancair burns between 35 and 45 gph and turns in 340 KTAS. Remember, ____, The math is only as good as the numbers you put in to start with.

Using Lancair's own figures for the IVP, powered by the standard turbocharged, fuel injected Continental TSIO-550, burning 18 GPH at 295 KTAS (340 SMPH) at flight level 290, and using your math to calculate the fuel economy of a 777 flying at a typical True Airspeed of 540 mph, the actual numbers from real aircraft show a decided advantage to the light aircraft, in terms of fuel used:

IVP: 75.6 seat-mpg
777: 69.8 seat-mpg
DA 40: 103.3 seat-mpg

Though you can see that the newer-tech Boeing widebody does quite well, the small aircraft win hands-down, not only in fuel economy, but in reduced noise and carbon footprint and support infrastructure. In reality, the numbers would be stacked even more heavily against the 777 because airliners rarely fly with all seats filled while light aircraft often do. Even the high performance pressurized Lancair would complete a 500 mile trip within 5 minutes of the Boeing, block-to-block, (including taxi, takeoff, maneuvering, landing, and final taxi).

In reality, 500 miles by 777 would take much longer, once you add the longer drive to a metro airport, checking baggage, standing shoes-off in a security queue, baggage collection, ride to parking, etc. In fact, in real world travel, the Lancair might even beat the Boeing, coast-to-coast, if you factor in travel to a metro airport and add a 2-4 hour layover at some hub. For instance, I live a 4-hour drive from the nearest major airline terminal, and that's only if traffic is light.

I had the fuel economy equation illustrated vividly in 1985 when a friend passed away unexpectedly; the cheapest airfare to his home, 750 miles away, was $695, and including stops and changes, took over 7 hours. I ended up flying my 120 mph Cessna trainer because it was quicker and only cost me $60 of auto gas round-trip.

I know it's hard to accept, in fact I'd bet few people on the street would believe a small aircraft gets better fuel mileage per seat than a large one, but the numbers are what they are. The reason airlines fly less fuel-efficient aircraft is that they can leverage their investment more profitably by carrying more passengers per day, while at the same time, passengers seem willing to pay more to get there faster. Would there be a market for a 150-seat, 375 MPH diesel-powered prop plane needing 7 hours to make a transcontinental US flight, if a ticket cost, say, 30% less than today? Sounds like a good topic for an A-net debate.

Interestingly, a Bombardier Q 400 flying at 425 MPH gets 30% better fuel mileage per seat than an equivalent regional jet, which accounts for the recent surge in airline interest received by the two remaining regional turboprop makers.

With fuel prices driving flying costs, these equations aren't likely to change, until bargain fuel from something like engineered algae lipids is produced in million-gallon quantities to compete with petroleum.

Bruce Curtis
2208229, ATP, CFI, CGI

Username: CDreier [User Info]
Posted 2008-03-31 15:01:31 and read 32768 times.

Thanks for this post. As a private pilot I know the truth as you stated it. Unfortunately, the ATA and airline lobby have truly misprepresented the facts. I'm glad you're getting the true message out to the Airliners.net readers.

Username: SB [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-08 10:11:57 and read 32768 times.

Though I agree with your sentiment that airlines are trying their best to lock out GA (and they have more or less succeeded here in the UK) I must say I'm not completely convinced by your take on fuel efficiency.

Firstly a Diesel DA40 is quite rare, most pistons still run on 100-LL and guzzle fuel as if it were going out of style. Secondly you fail to take into account cargo carried by commercial jet transport aircraft which is substantially greater than that carried by a DA40, for example.

So fuel mileage per seat alone may be better on a DA40, but I would be very interested in seeing how it worked out once you add cargo capacity to the equation.



Username: LVA146 [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-13 06:54:23 and read 32768 times.

Cargo aircraft are not really an issue when discussing airport congestion as most cargo operations take place at night.

Username: FlyingCrown [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-14 23:47:33 and read 32768 times.

SB, in the US, we're pushing to kill the ATA's user fee agenda, because user fees appear to have much to do with GA tanking in the UK and Europe, sadly.

You're right about GA freight. While light aircraft do haul freight in scheduled service, they generally serve outlying airports and fly at off-peak hours. The closest I personally ever got to hauling freight in my old Cessna T-210 was a load of dental equipment the accompanied medical relief workers on a trip to an orphanage clinic in Baja California, Mexico.

The DA 40 tdi is not common, true, but Cessna 172 diesels are now available from the factory, and diesel conversions are available for older Cessnas and Pipers, with additional models being added.

Most contemporary light aircraft do indeed burn 100LL, which is a killer for non gov orgs that operate them in mercy/relief duty in developing countries where avgas is disappearing. In central Africa and Irian Jaya, for instance, MAF has to haul it in by the drum, costing upwards of USD $20/gallon...ouch! In those cases, it really is a shame smaller regional airlines, with their turbines and economies of scale cannot do more aid/relief flights. On the other hand, the Cessna 206--a common workhorse in developing countries--has a supplemental type certificate to use a 350 hp Thielert aerodiesel which burns commonly available Jet A.

But freight still is a big moneymaker for airlines, with the quantity inversely proportional to passenger load. Anybody know the rough percentage of total payload freight constitutes in a 773 or A330-600 with a typical load?

Username: SB [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-06 02:19:36 and read 32768 times.

Freight carried will vary immensely by operator and route and type. For a scheduled airline operating a B747-400 approximately 50% of the traffic load (revenue generating weight) is cargo, the other half being passengers + their luggage. That's how airlines can still fly an "empty" airplane economically occasionally.

Obviously the balance will vary depending on the ruote duration and amount of passengers carried. Ultra-long-hauls will generally have a lower cargo figure as more fuel is required (could this be an argument against non-stop 18 hour flights?)

Apologies for the delay in answering.


Username: Rv6aPilot [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-16 07:18:01 and read 32768 times.

I very much agree with the tenants of your article.

How is the "Us Vs. Them" motif useful when economists recognize both corporate and commercial aviation play a critical role in the US Economy. Corporate executives traveling to 16 cities in 4 days cannot maintain their level of productivity by utilizing commercial aviation due to security procedures and chronic delays created by over-scheduling of flights on overtaxed runways.

This system is broken. Commercial aviation needs to partner with Corporate aviation & address the pressing issues- flight delay, runway expansion, scheduling, foul weather automation of scheduling systems, tech upgrades needed by both commercial and Corporate to get to next gen (or now Gen).

Commercial aviation lobbyists need to focus in the longterm. Its a strategy question. How can we expand the system safely where all players can profit?

The ATA has been reaction driven, positioning on legislation issues without considering the negative impacts their decisions will have on symbiotic relationships. (ie user fees) They need to take action on a long term vision with all the players. They need to explore partnering for a solution.

More runways are needed. The VLJ is coming. Perhaps with it's very own airspace. But no matter how the FAA slices up the sky, we still have to solve the airport runway issue. Why not work together for a solution?

Perhaps push for land use changes around airports- push for incentives / tax credits for technology upgrades in all cockpits to allow for safe reduced separation standards. Now the ATA wants General to foot the bill for the entire next gen while commandeering the runways. Thats just not going to happen.

We've all got to work together because of the economic importance of all these industries.

Username: Raptor258 [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-26 13:42:27 and read 32768 times.

Three things are going against general aviation besides the big airlines.

The cost of fuel is way up. With av gas at $5.50 to $6.00 a gallon, the 182 I fly gets used less and less.

The other two problems are the Congress and TSA.

Most members of congress have no clue about general aviation and take the party line from the ATA. But that is our fault because we keep voting them back into office.

The TSA also has no clue. I work at an airport with TSA and most do not know how an airport works and the effect their operations have on the air industry. But TSA is a new government fiefdom doing what ever it can to secure its power in the federal bureaucracy inside the beltway.

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