What is General Aviation?

General aviation is any flight that is not military, airline or charter-operated. General aviation spans diverse applications, from recreational flights to crop dusting to overnight package delivery – it’s not just limited to the tiny, recreational planes the name may conjure up, though it does include them.

The many applications provided by general aviation translate to significant economic contribution, supporting an estimated 1.1 million jobs and $219 billion in output, according to a PWC report for the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).

General vs. Commercial Aviation

The primary distinguishing feature of general versus commercial aviation, The International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations says, comes down to payment. If payment is for the purpose of transportation, it is commercial. Corporate aviation, for example, is considered general aviation because the company owns and uses flight operations at its discretion.

Aviation type also determines the airport used, as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A commercial airport receives scheduled passenger service, with a minimum of 2,500 passengers annually. Airports beneath that minimum or without scheduled service altogether are classified as a general aviation airport.

History of General Aviation

General aviation’s presence and role have evolved in the United States. The FAA recalls that many airports originated as private landing strips or military airfields when they opened between the 1920s up to the 1940s.

A few airports, like today’s Salt Lake City International (SLC), began earlier. SLC opened as a simple landing strip in 1911, then evolved into an air-mail airport in 1920 before ultimately transforming into a large primary hub.

Sometimes, what began in the 1920s as a plain grass strip transformed into a high-use airport, as in the case of the Chicago-based Chicago Executive airport, which today supports Chicago’s business and general aviation.

Individual community need typically drives the airstrip transformation, resulting in a diverse array of general aviation airports across the United States, with beginnings ranging from rural general aviation airports to large, converted military airfields.

Benefits of General Aviation

In addition to the significant economic contribution it offers, general aviation contributes numerous additional benefits to society. Perhaps most important is general aviation’s contribution to human life through its ability to provide rapid transportation for:

  • Blood supplies
  • Vital transplant organs
  • Medevac rescues
  • Urgent transit to trauma or other emergency hubs
  • Transportation to remote, specialized treatment locations
  • Emergency medical evacuations

In many cases, the ability for immediate, swift air transport can make a critical difference in the first hour of patient care – or allow medical treatment for patients who could not sustain longer ground travel.

General aviation also offers better transportation flexible for both business and personal travel – and, despite common assumption, not exclusively to the wealthy, according to AOPA. A wide variety of airport locations and no need to adhere to a strict schedule allow general aviation travelers to access a plethora of locations – on their own schedule.

General aviation provides surveying capabilities that support safety and environmental protection. Surveying done by aircraft represents numerous applications:

  • Providing vital information for wildlife specialists, environmentalists, prospectors, park rangers, and other professionals concerned with wildlife and the environment, including:
    • Wildlife
    • Wetland losses
    • Soil erosion
    • Bird migration
    • Patrol
    • Pipeline spill
  • Fighting forest fires
  • Traffic broadcasts, typically conducted by helicopter
  • Mapping and route planning

General aviation assists agriculture. By both treating crops and planting them, general aviation bolsters production and increases efficiency. In some cases, ranchers may also use general aviation aircraft to manage their grazing lands and animal herds, the AOPA says.

General aviation bolsters law enforcement. The ability to use aircraft help police at all levels – local, state, and federal, amp up productivity. In law enforcement, aircraft support:

  • Highway patrol
  • Suspect apprehension
  • Ground unit back up
  • Border surveillance
  • Lost or missing person searches

In some cases, like the city of Los Angeles, governments may even use a general aviation airport as a hub for a helicopter fleet, to save on costs and enjoy better accessibility, according to the FAA.

In addition, the network of general aviation airports supports pilot safety by providing options for diverting flights, reducing accidents that could be caused by poor weather conditions or emergencies.

General aviation reflects a diverse set of aircraft, airports, and applications, ultimately contributing immensely to our society and economy both indirectly and directly. Check out our infographic for more information on general aviation’s economic impact here.

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