Over the last several months, our nation has faced a global threat unlike any other. Business, industry and world leaders must make critical decisions in the context of ever-changing information about a virus that has affected millions, battered the global economy and perhaps altered the workplace environment forever.
While no industry, business or community has been left untouched by this crisis, what many news reports have missed is that aviation, including the general aviation segment, has been hit hard by the pandemic, with a resulting ripple effect on airports, businesses, farms, workers and communities – a steep challenge that will likely be with us for many years to come.
To give a sense of this potential impact, there are over 5,000 public use airports across the United States, and most passenger traffic – provided by the airlines – goes through a tiny portion of those facilities. The vast majority of airports support the mostly small aircraft that make up general aviation flights, largely conducted by local, small and mid-sized businesses. The use of these aircraft allows companies to reach far-off locations, transport critical parts and personnel, and get in front of customers at multiple locations in a single day.
These aircraft, and the airports they utilize, also support manufacturing, food production (including agricultural applications), supply-chain management, and a host of other important functions, both in this COVID moment and beyond. In fact, general aviation and airports touch virtually every industry and sector of our economy, accounting for 1.2 million jobs and $247 billion in economic impact.
For many rural communities, these airports and aircraft are also a key lifeline supporting critical services such as medical transport, fire-fighting, law enforcement, search and rescue, public land management, border and port security and pipeline inspection. In some places, even routine delivery of donated blood relies on general aviation.
As the pandemic has spread, the need for general aviation and community airports has become all the more acute. Humanitarian groups have been transporting personal protection equipment and other medical supplies for front-line needs, as demonstrated by the recent delivery of more than 45 tons of critical supplies to medical and community centers in the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, White Mountain Apache and San Juan Paiute reservations in New Mexico and Arizona. In another telling illustration, volunteer pilots have also been flying COVID test samples from rural communities to labs in bigger cities to expedite results.
Of course the role of general aviation in missions like these – and the need for a robust, well-maintained and federally managed system of airports – has long been understood. It’s the reason more than 3,000 airports are included in the Federal Aviation Administration’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems, designating those facilities significant to the national air transportation system, and making them eligible for federal funding, most recently through the CARES Act.
As important as these and other small airports are, the relief provided through the CARES Act is much needed, given the pandemic’s devastating impact on their operations. Some small airports have seen a decline of as much as 90% in activity, as general aviation flight activity nationally was down by nearly a third in the first half of this year, when compared to the same period in 2019.
Community airports aren’t aviation’s only point of impact for the pandemic’s wrath: general aviation aircraft deliveries were down more than 21% in the first quarter, compared to the first quarter last year.
It is vital we have a healthy and robust aviation industry, as mobility and access will be crucial to our economic recovery. Let’s try to keep that in mind as we look forward to the months ahead and support general aviation – a critical part of our transportation network.
Greg Pecoraro is the president and CEO of the National Association of State Aviation Officials. Ed Bolen is the president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association.