Flight Stimulator

How the government subsidizes the risky business of private aviation.

The deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and the Bessette sisters have inspired myriad debates over the safety of private planes, as well as a lot of criticism of Kennedy’s decision to brave the night sky over ocean in his Piper Saratoga II HP. Obviously, it’s not the government’s role to prevent people from taking the sort of risks they think makes life worth living. But should Washington be spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year encouraging the risky business of private air travel?

How risky? In 1998, a private plane was 27 times more likely to be involved in an accident and 225 times more likely to suffer a fatal crash than a commercial carrier. Six hundred twenty-one people died in private plane crashes in the United States last year, but only one died on an airliner. Yet the government continues to subsidize general aviation–the catchall category that covers everything from single-engine Cessnas piloted by weekend hobbyists to Learjets carrying corporate execs. Partly due to all this government largess, the United States has more private pilots and aircraft than all the other nations on Earth combined.

The biggest direct subsidy is the air traffic control system. According to Richard Golaszewski of the consulting firm GRA Inc., general aviation imposes about $1 billion a year in air traffic control costs on the Federal Aviation Administration, but the fuel taxes levied on general aviation cover only about one-third of that. The shortfall is covered by the 8 percent federal tax on commercial airline tickets. Also, since 1982, the FAA has furnished $4.7 billion in grants to general aviation airports to pay for construction and improvement and has given federally owned land to 450 airports. Heritage Foundation analyst Ron Utt points out that the 70 biggest U.S. airports, which serve 90 percent of commercial air travelers, get less federal money each year than the 3,233 smaller ones that cater almost exclusively to private fliers.

When planes go down, the federal government conducts costly search-and-rescue missions. Few victims of light-plane crashes can expect the Coast Guard to spend days trying to recover their corpses under the gaze of TV news cameras, but the bulk of the efforts deployed in the Kennedy accident was not out of the ordinary. About 400 to 500 search-and-rescue operations for missing aircraft are undertaken by the federal government each year, nearly all of them private. (Nearly $370 million is spent annually on all 40,000 federal search-and-rescue missions. The amount spent on general aviation search and rescue is not broken out as a separate category.)

Additionally, all private plane accidents, whether they involve a fatality or not, require a costly National Transportation Safety Board investigation. The NTSB conducted 1,907 such investigations last year, but the agency doesn’t detail its costs. The Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol also gets money to help find downed planes and pilots.

Other inducements to general aviation include easy access to airports. Commercial passengers frequently find themselves trapped in holding patterns over the nation’s biggest and busiest airports as corporate turboprops carrying a few people land. Increased landing fees and less generous treatment have reduced general aviation traffic at big hubs in recent years, but they haven’t eliminated it. At Chicago’s O’Hare International, nearly 6 percent of all landings are private planes’. At Los Angeles International, the figure is close to 10 percent.

A ll those corporate planes highlight another reality, which is that general aviation benefits from the abuse of the business tax deduction. Deep in their hearts, the captains of industry know that corporate jets are a rip-off: Warren Buffett once christened his company jet “The Indefensible.” Legal fees and photocopying expenses, of course, are just as deductible as the cost of owning and flying a private plane. So why doesn’t anyone worry about their being abused? Because traveling on a cushy corporate jet, quite unlike consulting with attorneys, inevitably involves a large component of personal pleasure and comfort–like staying in the Four Seasons instead of the Marriott. The extra expense required to avoid the sweaty traveling public may yield nothing in terms of higher productivity or profits, but with Uncle Sam footing a third of the cost, top managers may find the perk too tempting to resist.

JFK Jr. was pretty normal for a private pilot–a hard-charger who fell in love with the freedom, excitement, and romance of private aviation. But like most of his fellow fliers, he had the resources to finance his pricey hobby without imposing so much on earthbound mortals. While we’re free to second-guess his decision to fly to Martha’s Vineyard, maybe we should be pondering another question: Why were the rest of us paying him to do it?