What is General Aviation?

General aviation (GA) is the name given by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to all civilian flying—planes in the air, departures and landings, and all aircraft monitored by Air Traffic Control—except, of course, the airlines that fly scheduled passenger services.  GA comprises all private aircraft, business aircraft, and, in most cases, emergency aircraft for public services (for example helicopters for hospitals and rescue). And it is worth noting—here come numbers and facts—that about 65% of GA flights are in the air to fill the gap and tasks that regular scheduled commercial aviation cannot fulfill.

Now, did you know that there are 609,000 certified pilots in the USA? That’s one person in about every 500 Americans! And of that number about 485,000 pilots are certified to fly GA aircraft.  That’s a huge number of men and women who fly private aircraft. But what’s more, 90% of all the approximate 220,000 civil aircraft registered in the United States are GA aircraft. In other words, that’s a ratio of about 2.5 pilots per plane—all flying privately.

Now, you should understand the economic impact here.  GA generates more than $150,000,000,000 in economic activity annually and creates 7,600,000 full time jobs. That’s 1.5% of national GDP! OK, in some states it is more, like Hawaii where it is 19% of GDP but in Delaware is only .5% of their GDP. But overall, 1.5% of the nation’s GDP is important, right up there — equal! — with mining or utilities, but twice what agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting produce combined.

And those numbers are growing. The number of GA aircraft handled by Air Traffic Control (ATC) as well as the number of hours flown by GA aircraft was up 2% in 2018. That’s a lot of planes and blips on ATC radars.

So, it was natural that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the FAA got together and started to worry about congestion across USA skies. Currently, we’re still working with President Eisenhower’s sky lanes layout with radar and outdated aircraft recognition and location equipment designed in the ‘60s! All that has to change, improve, and needs funding. They are working on it, along with GPS tracking down to 8 feet location and aircraft precision location by the FAA and ATC. The problem is, this new equipment is getting way too expensive for GA aircraft to install (buy) let alone the training for 485,000 pilots to certify them on new systems. The bill for that alone would be in excess of $970,000,000. Who can afford $2,000 per pilot to be able to fly their GA airplane to rescue a stranded hiker?

Meanwhile, technology may be helping. Part of the issue is GA flight safety; what happens if a pilot loses control or becomes ill? That GA aircraft will fall and cause serious damage. So, in comes an aviation electronics company, Garmin, which has developed Autoland, a system for GA aircraft that will land an airplane at the touch of a single button. Even a passenger can push the button in an emergency. Once pushed, the system advises passengers, air traffic controllers, and all nearby pilots of the aircraft’s location and intentions. Then, clearing airspace, the ATC can monitor the plane’s decent to the nearest airport. Already tested, Garmin has already received a commitment to have this emergency system installed on new Piper and Cirrus aircraft. Too little, too late? Like seat belts, ABS and other safety devices, it’ll find its way onto GA aircraft certified to fly within a decade or so.

Remember always that airspace is public space, maintained as part of the common good (hint... shades of socialism here that people forget). You, yes you, have the public right to fly! And that means that your public airspace, controlled by the FAA, will evolve and, no doubt, continue to increase for both the GDP and safety of the nation.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.