Amid challenges to aviation, resiliency is a constant
by Mark Baker
AOPA President and CEO
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2020 issue
The human body is incredibly resilient. With the ability to respond to a variety of changing environments, be they biological or cultural, our species is said to be the most adaptive. For centuries, humanity has been able to acclimate to various regions and changes over time. Adaptation is especially important today, as this year has proven to be quite tumultuous and uncertainty still lies ahead.
Before anyone ever heard the term COVID-19, the aviation industry was thriving—so much so that we were in the midst of an unprecedented pilot shortage. Aircraft dominated the skies with some 8,000 to 20,000 flying at any given moment; an average of 2.7 million airline passengers passed through our nation’s airports every day. Glancing at FlightAware, I was never surprised by the enormous cluster of icons slowly moving about the map—it was normal, and it was routine, but it was also then.
In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, and at its worst, the picture looked drastically different. Air traffic was down dramatically, aerospace industries were cutting staff, and even fuel sales were tanking compared to one year prior. If you turn on the television, chances are you’ll hear media personalities referring to our time now as the “new normal.” Like a lot of industries in 2020, aviation has been turned on its head. We’re waiting to see what happens next, but there may be reason for optimism. In fact, experts remain bullish on the state of the industry, and general aviation has fared much better than our commercial counterparts overall. GA operations at the top 77 airports continue to increase and are averaging less than 10 percent below the seasonal norm.
I’ve been fortunate enough to stay safe, maintain social distancing, and still spend some time in the sky—although late July just won’t be the same. It’s a strange feeling to be social distancing at home instead of surrounded by hundreds of thousands of pilots and aviation enthusiasts at the annual EAA AirVenture gathering. But despite having to miss the world’s greatest aviation celebration this year, I am glad to see so many of us continuing to get airborne.
In fact, many of you have taken advantage of some unique opportunities. Videos of single-engine pistons landing at Class B airports, news of more Skyhawks in the sky than Boeing 737s, and Alaska’s Anchorage International Airport briefly designated the world’s busiest airfield feel like some sort of parallel universe, albeit one tailored for a GA pilot.
Sure, flying may look a bit different now as many of us are incorporating more sanitization into our preflight checks or opting to go solo. When shoulder to shoulder with students, CFIs might wear face masks, and others have bottles of disinfectant stashed in baggage compartments. Because of local ordinances, some of us still haven’t flown, and that’s why it’s important to keep up with skills and review safety materials online so we can continue to be proficient AOPA pilots.
Whether you’ve logged 50 hours or five hours in the past few months, there’s no better time for our aviation community to band together and support each other. AOPA’s You Can Fly team has created “Don’t Get Rusty”—a series of webinars to help pilots get back in the air when restrictions ease or pilots feel comfortable taking off again. The AOPA Air Safety Institute drafted two guides to help pilots and operators return to safe operations. The Return-to-Flight Proficiency Plan (airsafetyinstitute.org/returntoflight) reminds pilots to expect a different level of performance after extended time on the ground. The guide has profiles for VFR and IFR pilots and is designed to give a step-by-step approach to sharpening skills. ASI also issued the COVID-19 Flight Operations Guide (aopa.org/covid19-flightops) tailored for flight schools, flying clubs, FBOs, and other operators detailing factors to consider when making the decision to reopen.
If there’s one thing I’ve come to know during this time, it’s that resiliency will always be general aviation’s most powerful asset. We’ve faced challenges before, just like we will face them again. But day by day, I’m hearing much more positive news on the state of the industry and although I can’t say just what this new normal really is, or means, I am confident that we will rise to the top—as we always do.