Blogs and Public Menace

By James Fallows

Note from your host, James Fallows: The Atlantic is a big-tent operation, with writers and editors here disagreeing over the years on issues large and small. To illustrate the large questions: before the invasion of Iraq, some members of our staff strongly advocated the need for war; others of us argued that it would be a mistake. These days opinions obviously vary about the Administration's health-care plan, the right way to think about the budget problem, many aspects of policy in the Middle East, and so on.

I appreciate Jim giving me a chance to participate in his multiple author blogging sessions.  I've enjoyed reading many of the other blogs and hope that people will enjoy reading these as well.

 
Of course we should all recognize that a blog is simply a collection of opinions, some more informed than others.  As I talk about general aviation you can assume that after working in this industry and being a pilot for over 35 years, I have some basis for what I think.   As I stray away from General Aviation it becomes "just" my opinion.  Having said that I think that well thought out opinions have tremendous value in this discussion of the world around us. (More about opinions vs facts later.)

On a less cosmic level, while my colleague Jeff Goldberg and I see eye-to-eye on most matters involving airport security and the TSA -- as shown here in our joint interview with John Pistole of the TSA -- we disagree affably but fundamentally about the "menace" posed by small airplanes. He made his "they're a big threat!" case in the magazine here. I explained why I thought he was wrong here, and Lane Wallace, in a guest-blogger stint, did so here.

Alan Klapmeier, who has flown airplanes since he was a teenager and was a guiding force in creating what is now the world's most popular small propeller plane, begins his guest stint with a similar argument below. Jeff Goldberg is a tough guy and can take disagreement, but I'm sorry for the unintended appearance of piling on. Jeff would no doubt say that the three of us are biased, since we enjoy the freedom of the small-plane aviation system that he considers threatening. Biased we no doubt are. But this "bias" could also be called "familiarity," and in different ways we have been saying that if you know how the small-plane system actually works, you realize it has many safeguards not apparent at first glance. That is, its defenses are "security stealth," rather than "security theater."

With that prelude, I give you Alan Klapmeier. Happy to hear responses from Jeff Goldberg at any point.

Since I work in the aviation field, it's seems natural that I would begin these blogs by discussing Mr. Jeffery Goldberg's article "Private Plane, Public Menace" in last month's Atlantic.  It also won't surprise anyone that I take great exception the piece.
 
 I don't have my copy of the magazine with me (yes, I am a subscriber) to refer to, but I don't remember it being labeled as satirical entertainment.  Instead, I recall an unfortunate hatchet job on an entire industry with hints of jealousy and class warfare thrown in to add flavor. 
 
"Public Menace"  -- Really?  Does Mr. Goldberg actually mean that General Aviation is a "Public Menace" as in recklessly endangering the public.  I hope not.
 
The definition of General Aviation is everything that is not military, scheduled airline service or regular air cargo flights.  Thus the word "General".  It includes the Goodyear Blimp, medical flights, law enforcement, sailplanes, forest fire control, flying to see your grandparents, banner towing,  parachuting and power parachutes, bush flights, sightseeing flights, traffic watch for your local media, flight training, personal transportation and, of course, business aircraft.  It does not include private cars, private seats on the train (you know, the one you paid for), private bicycles, private skateboards, private shoes, etc.
 
Personal transportation aircraft and business jets are two of the more common types of general aviation aircraft.  They both provide a level of flexible, time efficient transportation that many more people should experience.  They provide value.  Yes, business jets are more expensive than most airline travel.  Yes, personal transportation aircraft (think propeller) are more expensive than most automobiles.  Yes, automobiles are more expensive than bicycles...  you get the idea.  
 

Value is not just about cost.  It is the relationship between cost and benefit.

Mr. Goldberg's style to describe "general" aviation as a "euphemism" for private is his first attempt to play class warfare to get the reader emotionally ready for the "menace" that is general aviation.  It is a purely pejorative use of the word "private" that is meant to indict an entire industry as an unnecessary perk.  (More on General Aviation later as well.)
 
But of course buried behind the style is Mr. Goldberg's assumption that what General Aviation is a potential threat (Really?)  that needs TSA guards and metal detectors at every GA airport.  Would this be practical?  Would it be effective?
 
As unfortunate as any accident is, we have been able to see the results of several General Aviation aircraft crashes into buildings through the years and the lesson is that little damage can be done and while nearly always fatal to the occupants of the airplane, few lives are lost on the ground. 
 
Bigger, faster, GA aircraft exist, but they are few, and the security is progressively tighter with size.  Yes, I have seen screening at GA airports as the local university football team awkwardly lines up through a small office lobby before being allowed out to the charter flight for the big game.
 
The opposite approach, where "one size fits all" for transportation security would destroy our economy and our freedom.  One could make the argument that to be truly secure from the threat of terrorism we must remove all potential threats (where "potential" means hypothetical).   The result would be no trucks on the road, guards and electronic controls on all trains, check points every few blocks for automobiles, and random searches of anyone seen walking.  And of course, anyone means everyone since the security forces would not be allowed to use any judgment... I mean profiling. 

Yes, I know this is all ridiculous, but I thought one good hatchet job deserves another.

Since I have never met Mr. Goldberg, and generally don't follow his writing,  it is just as likely that he is smart guy who cares a lot about his chosen profession and the world around us, and just missed on this one.

The news media has tremendous power in our society.  They should show tremendous responsibility as well. 

Alan Klapmeier is founder of Cirrus Design Corp co-founder and CEO of Kestrel Aircraft.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/02/blogs-and-public-menace/71503/