When John F. Kennedy, Jr. spiralled into the North Atlantic last year, there was some surprise in the press and public that he was allowed to go up into the moonless haze without the instrument training that might have allowed him to save himself and the unfortunate Bessette sisters. But the world of private flying is full of these kinds of surprises. It’s the Wild Wild West meets Sherwood Forest stood on its head. Private flyers are regulated in theory, but hardly supervised in practice. This generally well-heeled group benefits from a hidden subsidy that gets funded out of commercial passengers’ generally less deep pockets. And watching over this unsupervised, subsidized state of grace is one of Washington’s most surprisingly powerful lobbies.

This is probably not news to you if you’re already a member of the private plane community—known as general aviation, or simply “GA,” in the trade. You’ve no doubt discovered that if you own your own plane (or can get ahold of the keys to someone else’s) you can swagger through any GA facility anywhere in the country without anybody checking to see whether you have just consumed a pint of bourbon or three sheets of blotter acid, are carrying a neutron bomb under your arm, or haven’t had your certification renewed since the Eisenhower administration. You need not file a flight plan (Kennedy didn’t) unless you plan to cruise up high with the big jets. Even if you’re not licensed to carry passengers for hire, nobody will check whether those guys getting in back are joy-riders, paying businessmen who want to beat the traffic into O’Hare, or a team of Libyan terrorists who are using you as their getaway car. No airborne cop is going to pull you over and question whether you’ve had one beer too many. You are—for all practical purposes—free from adult supervision.

Certainly, a fair amount of freedom is justified by the statistics; for example, the National Transportation Safety Board reports that in 1999 only about one percent of GA fatalities were alcohol related (an astonishingly low number given the 38 percent of road fatalities that were related to alcohol in 1998). Still, there is evidence to suggest that laissez faire is not always the best policy. Kennedy’s ill-fated flight is a good example. So is last November’s crash of a single engine aircraft into a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Newark, New Jersey. The incident claimed four lives, injured 25, and caused more than $1 million in property damage—and was all the more tragic because the pilot had taken a migraine painkiller called Fiorinal that should have kept him grounded. Then, two more crashes over ultra-populous New Jersey added reason for concern: In December a single-engine craft tumbled into a residential neighborhood in Hasbrouck Heights. And in August of this year, a single engine plane collided with a military charter over Burlington Township, killing 11 and destroying a couple’s home in the process. Peering through the wreckage one can understand why Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has asked the FAA to consider whether a little more air traffic control on small planes flying over densely populated areas might make sense.

Although Lautenberg has a point, don’t hold your breath waiting for big changes. Legal and policy shifts that GA don’t want—safety regulations that might pin back their wings, and financial reforms that might trim back their subsidy—tend to happen over geologic time. For this, the GA set can thank a Frederick, Maryland lobbying group called the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—an organization that is so dogged, so effective, and so narrowly focused on its own agenda that it once earned the nickname “the NRA of the air.”

Here’s a question: If you’re a lobby, and somebody compares you to the NRA, do you treat that as a good thing or a bad thing? Phil Boyer, the president of the AOPA, pauses a bit to reflect. There was a time, he points out, when the NRA’s methods were tremendously effective and the analogy could only be perceived as a “huge compliment.” Yes, AOPA could be obnoxious—Boyer’s predecessor John L. Baker once bragged to The Washington Post that “We have the muscle to back up what we say. We’re not go along to get along.” But they sure got the job done—suing, bluffing, and stalling their way through a series of campaigns to keep major airports open to smaller craft and keep the government out of the little guy’s cockpit. Bullyboy tactics haven’t fared as well in recent years, however, and Boyer himself prefers a less antagonistic style. “I never found you got a lot done by shaking your fist all the time,” he says, clenching one and waving it across the conference table at the back of his office. Instead, his preference has been “to negotiate with an open hand.” Out comes an open palm, extended like a church greeter’s on Easter morning.

But watch out for that hand—Boyer’s methods may be different than from his predecessor’s but his objectives are awfully similar. U.S. News & World Report noted that the day after the Coast Guard pulled the wreckage of Kennedy’s plane out of the drink, Boyer was on Capitol Hill waving around a chart announcing that: “JUDGMENT CANNOT BE LEGISLATED.” Reading between the lines, any legislator could have made out the message “LEAVE US ALONE.” And when a lobbyist with 350,000 highly affluent, highly vocal, highly organized members makes a statement like that, you can bet that even the non-pilots on the Hill listen.

To be fair, there is something to the “leave us alone” approach. After all, the government can’t be in the business of managing all of life’s risks. We don’t expect tree climbing, garlic chopping, or running on the pool deck to be dealt with in the Code of Federal Regulations, and these can all be plenty risky if approached with the wrong level of care or coordination. So why pick on small planes? Yes they’re dangerous (1 out of 600 is involved in a fatal accident each year) but general aviation is in the public interest. Small planes reach the remote parts of the country not served by commercial airliners, perform rescue operations, and—why deny the economic benefits—they generate nearly $6 billion worth of factory billings each year. Furthermore, with Air Force enrollments down, general aviation supplies more than half of the airline pilots in the country. Indeed, the pull of the airlines on small plane pilots has been so dramatic that a recent Wall Street Journal article questioned the quality of the flight instructors left behind to teach. This all suggests that we need more GA pilots and that we should be encouraging people to take the risks GA involves, not trying to squelch the impulse.

But while there’s some truth to that, it hardly means that the government should write a blank check for general aviators to take stupid risks—particularly since these so often have the capacity to put innocents in unnecessary danger. And unfortunately, in general aviation, there too often are innocents involved. The 342 fatal GA accidents in 1999 produced 628 deaths, meaning that more than a few non-pilots lost their lives. Indeed, if there’s an argument to be made for a higher level of regulation, or that somebody should be on hand to give the pilot a once-over before he hits the tarmac (to make certain that he isn’t blotto and confirm that he’s qualified to fly the course he’s got in mind), then these are the people with the most compelling interest at stake. True, their numbers aren’t huge, and yes, the chances of a plane falling on any particular house are pretty darn small (something like 1 in 50 million, which according to the—ahem—AOPA safety fact sheet, are less than the odds of being bitten by a shark). But if you happened to own the house that those colliding planes fell on in Burlington Township, New Jersey, you might agree that it’s worthwhile to think about relatively painless ways to make those numbers even lower—particularly as congestion of the airways increases.

Unfortunately, the GA lobby has never fully embraced this approach. Back in the 1980s, AOPA fought for its members’ unencumbered “right to fly” as though it were enshrined in the Constitution. They were fond of arguing that airliners should have no priority over small planes. If the former were inconvenienced by the latter—too bad. After all, the airlines were no more than businesses and many of their passengers were just pleasure seekers—like much of the general aviation crowd; so why should commercial aviation get preferential treatment? That argument, which the lobby for some time used against the passage of regulations to restrict small craft from airspace around major airports, lost some of its appeal when a small plane collided with an AeroMexico DC 9 over Cerritos, California in 1986, killing 67 on board and 15 on the ground.

Some private pilots are still grieving over the partial restrictions imposed on flying into the big commercial hubs, but it would be hard to argue that these have changed things for the worse—at least as far as safety is concerned. And while small planes still cause problems with their so-called runway incursions—75 percent of these potentially perilous traffic incidents last year involved GA craft—there haven’t been any big airliner-small plane mid-air collisions since the Cerritos incident; moreover, the number of near misses has declined from 250 in 1986 to 43 in 1999.

But if the post-Cerritos regulation of hub airspace suggests that sometimes a little common sense applied through regulation is a good thing, AOPA hasn’t exactly leapt to embrace this logic elsewhere. For example, when Jessica Dubroff, age seven, crashed her plane trying to cross the country in two days in 1996, AOPA spokesperson Warren Morningstar acknowledged that “Flying takes a level of judgment and maturity that 99.9 percent of kids just don’t have.” So why allow children into the cockpit? Because, explains Boyer: “The flight instructor [on board with Dubroff] was technically the pilot of that plane.” And if you don’t find that persuasive, consider the following: “Is there any age at which you’re out on the farm where you can’t drive a car or a tractor?”

The organization took a similarly obtuse position after Kennedy’s crash last summer. At the time, many in the media observed that an instrument-certified pilot might have better known how to save himself and his passengers. AOPA’s response was that countries requiring instrument certification for night flying have higher accident rates than the United States. But wouldn’t those rates be even higher without the rule? And is there any doubt that Kennedy and the Bessettes would have preferred that he’d had the training when things got messy up there? And would it really have a chilling effect on general aviation if we were simply to require more training for after-hours jaunts? Boyer is not convinced. “If we start having a rash of accidents…” he says, trailing off. “But off of just one celebrity accident?”

The great beauty of being a small plane pilot is that AOPA is not only fighting for your right to exercise lethally poor judgment, but it’s deeply committed to making sure that this right stays affordable. This means preserving one of the great giveaways in the federal budget—the roughly one billion dollar subsidy that the American public hands over to the general aviation community every year. “Perhaps [the government is] paying a little more money for general aviation than it brings in,” allows Boyer. “At the same time—what is government?”

This, of course, is a rhetorical question. AOPA has already made it perfectly clear that it thinks government is a device for extracting fees from the airline-traveling public and then using them to finance an air-traffic infrastructure that the small-plane community can use pretty much at will. Boyer as much as acknowledges this perspective and appears to find it unembarrassing. “To have a robust and dynamic and safe infrastructure benefits the country in many ways,” he says patiently. And if it happens to benefit people who own planes just a bit more than the rest of us—well, so much the better!

How does the subsidy work? Watch closely: First consider that general aviation pilots use about 58 percent of tower services and constitute 20 percent of overall air-traffic-control activity nationwide (according to an FAA-commissioned 1995 cost allocation study). But the amount that the GA sector pays toward the maintenance of the air traffic control infrastructure is close to trivial: The fuel tax that small planes pay only covers about 3 percent of the total annual costs of that infrastructure. And the remaining 97 percent? It gets picked up by commercial-airline passengers in the form of ticket taxes and other charges. Put another way, in recent years commercial-airline passengers have wound up footing the bill for between $800 million and $1 billion per year that the general aviation crowd should be paying.

To be fair, the recreational pilots who fly planes like the single engine Piper Cub, and constitute roughly three quarters of the general aviation fleet, are getting much less of a free ride than the business jets. While they do use some services—like FAA weather reports—single engine pilots tend to fly at low altitudes, out of the range of air traffic controllers, and to and from airports that don’t even have tower facilities. Business jets, however, can make no such claim. Planes like the Gulfstream V—which flies at jumbo-jet altitudes and can zoom from New York to Tokyo in nonstop whisper-smooth luxury—command the same amount of attention from the air traffic control system as any commercial jet. When landing, they get the same first-come-first-serve treatment—meaning that a Gulfstream carrying one portly executive and a lot of gin gets precedence over a 747 carrying 350 passengers in steerage accommodations if it lines up first. Indeed, business and commercial jets are treated the same in all material respects—except the amount that they pay into the system.

But that’s outrageous! Well, yes. But the outrage could be addressed by charging user fees that make private planes pay for the services they consume, if Congress could just muster the political will to do it. For a while in the mid-’90s there was a glimmer of hope that Congress might take on at least the business jet set. Recreational pilots were viewed as a lost cause—too rich and ornery, too much the marginal users, and too likely to do something stupid and unsafe (like stop calling in for weather reports) in order to avoid user fees. But the business crowd was such a richly appropriate target. How many Congressmen would want to stand up and defend the right of CEOs like Warren Buffet and his aptly-named corporate jet, the Indefensible, to zoom through the stratosphere on a taxpayer subsidy? The mid-90s saw both the White House and Senate Transportation Committee (chaired by John McCain) introduce user- fee proposals that sought to divide and conquer the general aviation community by exempting recreational users and simultaneously socking it to business aviation.

Unfortunately, what sounded good in theory didn’t work in practice—in part because AOPA wouldn’t play ball. Rather than isolate the business jet community, and alienate a small but immensely affluent group of constituents, AOPA linked arms with the other business plane lobbyists—the National Business Aircraft Association and General Aviation Manufacturers Association. This made it impossible to take on the corporate fat cats without attacking the more numerous and politically powerful weekend hobbyists—which no one in Washington has had the courage to do for years. The issue died.

“If I recall correctly,” says Phil Boyer with some self-satisfaction, “this was the first year that the administration acknowledged that they will exempt general aviation from the fuel tax.” Boyer explains that this position was only arrived at through persistent “education.” But does he mean education or being beaten into submission? Boyer leans forward conspiratorially: “I was trying to use a kinder word,” he says, laughing a bit theatrically. “But they are both synonymous.”

But even though GA’s free ride has been secured for the time being, AOPA has its work cut out for it. As this Summer of Hell travel season drew to a close, it was becoming abundantly clear to many Americans that whatever system we have for regulating the nations sky ways simply does not keep the traffic moving fast enough. (Delays have increased by 50 percent over the last five years; cancellations are up by 130 percent.) What AOPA fears is not so much the congestion, but one of the possible solutions that has been bandied about, urged forward by the Clinton administration, and adopted by more than 20 other countries (such as the U.K., New Zealand, and Germany) already. It is a solution that makes GA’s blood run cold. It is called corporatization.

The idea behind corporatization is this: The FAA has more responsibility than it can handle, and air-traffic control is an operational system that should be run like a business, not like a bureaucracy. By spinning off these operations into a quasi-public entity that would be controlled by a board comprising representatives of the major aviation stakeholders—including the major airlines and general aviation—corporatization’s advocates claim that the system could be made to run more nimbly and efficiently. Congress has never quite fallen in love with the idea, in part because of the (quite legitimate) concern that a corporatized entity controlled in part by the airlines might be tempted to maximize profits at the expense of safety, and in part—one suspects—because Congress likes the level of influence it currently wields over airline regulation.

Neither, for that matter, does AOPA. AOPA has plenty of friends in Congress, and it would like to see them keep a firm hand on the air-traffic-control system. AOPA does not have a lot of friends in the commercial airline industry, and the idea of jockeying for position with them on the board of a corporatized entity is enough to drain the blood from a lobbyist’s face. “We have a national air transportation system,” says Boyer with some indignation. “It isn’t a private company and I hope it never becomes a private company.”

But wait: Isn’t the world of general aviation peopled by staunchly libertarian captains of industry who, in the ordinary course, have great faith in the capabilities of the private sector? Well, yes, but this is different. Not only would a corporatized entity mean potentially less control for AOPA, it could be the first step down the road toward—gasp—user fees. Before you know it, general aviation might actually be paying its fair share of the air traffic control structure’s operating costs.

“I have to look at the history, and New Zealand’s part of that history,” says Boyer solemnly. The Kiwis exempted general aviation from user fees when they privatized their system 13 years ago, but last July they changed their mind and applied the fees across the board. Boyer’s voice raises half an octave just thinking about it. “So it’s simple enough to say that we’re against user fees for all categories of users” he says.

Simple, sure, but what if it’s just plain wrong? What if five years from now it becomes clear that corporatization really is the best way forward, and that improvement of the nation’s air-traffic-control structure really hinges on this reform? Would we really want to be stuck with the next-best-alternative simply because AOPA and general aviation are unprepared to give up their influence and their free ride?

Of course not. That’s why Congress and the next administration should face the user fee issue now. Charging GA its fair share for the services it consumes has at least two advantages—the first of which being that it’s fair, and the second being that it will give AOPA and its sister small-plane lobbyists at least one less reason to throw itself into the breach if and when corporatization becomes a realistic possibility. Plus, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to send the message that Washington does have the courage to face down GA when it’s the right thing to do. Plus, it would be fun to watch the show.

“Believe me, we can rattle a saber if we want to,” says Boyer seriously. Out comes the palm again, like this, clenching and unclenching. “Where needed that open hand has to become a closed fist.”