One of Washington's little secrets, politely ignored in most of the commentary about John F. Kennedy Jr.'s tragic plane crash, is that private plane owners are one of the nation's most potent lobbies.
The "general-aviation" community, as the private plane owners are known, has had amazing political success over the years. It has protected its members' rights to fly into even the busiest airports. And private plane owners have successfully resisted FAA regulations they don't like -- including a recent plan to write quick tickets for infractions.
Critics complain, too, that this group hasn't paid its fair share to maintain the nation's airways. An aggressive lobbying campaign during the mid-'90s helped shelve proposals for direct user fees, and the cost of operating the system continues to be borne mostly by commercial travelers -- in the form of hefty ticket taxes. The private planes, in contrast, pay only a modest fuel tax.
The Air Transport Association (ATA), the lobbying arm of the scheduled commercial airlines, once fought bruising political battles with the general-aviation trade group, known as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. But in recent years, the ATA has mostly given up -- because it knows it's going to lose.
The private pilots "are known as the `NRA of the air,' " grouses one Capitol Hill veteran. "It's a passionate issue, like guns. A lot of guys on the Hill are pilots or ex-pilots themselves. And how do you suppose members of Congress get around Oklahoma and North Dakota? In private airplanes."
A recent example of general aviation's clout was its role in scuttling the FAA's plan to have inspectors write up tickets on the spot for violations of rules. When the proposal was announced last year, the private pilots group took the offensive -- complaining that the streamlined process didn't allow for an appeal, and that a hastily written ticket could unfairly mar a pilot's record. Other groups, including the Air Line Pilots Association, also opposed the rule, and the FAA eventually retreated.
Private planes are much riskier than commercial jets, as we've been reminded repeatedly over the past few days. That's because the pilots are less experienced, the equipment is often less sophisticated -- and because many small planes fly below airspace that's monitored by air-traffic controllers. That's why it took the FAA several days to pin down the flight path of JFK Jr.'s plane toward Martha's Vineyard and its final, horrible dive toward disaster.
To be fair, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) is passionate about the safety of its members. The group conducts more than 200 safety seminars each year and publishes a magazine, AOPA Pilot, with useful safety tips. The July cover story, ironically, was about the Piper Saratoga plane that JFK Jr. was piloting.
For several decades, aviation experts have worried that the political clout of private pilots might impede efforts to bring more order and safety to our crowded airways. Those fears were heightened by a 1986 crash of a private plane and a Mexican airliner over Los Angeles. In those days, commercial pilots muttered that landing at busy airports was flying into "Indian territory" -- because the big jets had to contend with so many little planes with names like "Comanche" and "Cherokee."
Experts say the situation is better today. Fewer private planes use the big airports, and the ones that do now have equipment that allows controllers to follow them, creating less congestion and less risk of fatal mishaps.
The thorniest issue, over the years, has been who should pay the cost of maintaining the airways. Critics complain that the private pilots, although wealthy enough to buy their airplanes, are getting what amounts to a nearly free ride.
Private planes contribute about $350 million in fuel taxes toward the total $9 billion annual cost of running the FAA, according to Phil Boyer, the president of the AOPA. Boyer argues that because many private planes don't use the air-traffic-control system, they shouldn't have to pay any of the $6 billion cost of maintaining it. Indeed, he says, the $350 million fuel-tax money roughly pays for the FAA service that private pilots use most, which is its weather reporting.
Private pilots like to evoke the romance and adventure of flying. But it's worth remembering that some private planes are corporate jets, with a standard of luxury well beyond first class. These fancy jets also are being subsidized by commercial travelers, although estimates vary about the gap between what business planes pay into the system and the value of the services they receive.
When a tragedy such as the Kennedy-Bessette crash strikes, it's wrong to try to score political points. But people will reasonably ask after an event like this: What might be done to prevent such accidents in the future? It would be reassuring to know that the private pilots' lobby will be using its muscle to support such efforts rather than resisting them.