What is General Aviation

What is General Aviation

The term General Aviation often is misinterpreted in public as well as in media and politics as "aviation in general". But even where the term is known to be a defined part of aviation, most conjure up a mental image of a small single-engine piston-powered aircraft, operating for recreation out of a small rural aerodrome. This image is correct for only about one-quarter of worldwide general aviation and aerial work activities whereby private travel for whatever reasons other than business, is considered as "recreational" even though family affaires, as an example, can hardly be considered as that.

The other three-quarters of the roughly 40 million annual GA/AW flight hours are occupied with flight instruction, business travel, agricultural application, emergency medical services and other gainful pursuits. In fact, the diversity of GA/AW is so great that ICAO defines general aviation operation by exception: those flight activities not involving commercial air transportation or aerial work. Similarly, aerial work, for remuneration or for own use, may only be generally defined as operations used for specialized services such as agriculture, construction, photography, surveying, observation and patrol, search and rescue, aerial development, etc. (ICAO Annex 6, Operation of Aircraft, Definitions). In short, one could say, the primary mission of a flight is not to carry regular passengers or cargo from A to B.

Essential services provided to the public by GA/AW for police, emergency medical services and search and rescue make all of our lives safer and more productive. Aerial survey, agricultural application and pipeline/powerline patrol add significantly to many aspects of the economy. And, for the many remote areas of the world, life and civilization would not be possible without the benefits provided by GA/AW operations.

GA/AW activities globally create hundreds of thousands of jobs and tens of billions of dollars for the countries these activities serve. Without this activity essential transportation functions would be eliminated and the opportunities associated with them would be lost to the economies they potentially serve. Therefore, GA/AW needs and desires should be taken seriously as a worldwide economic engine.

In sheer numbers GA/AW is impressive: Approximately 350,000 aircraft and 700,000 pilots are involved in these activities worldwide. On balance, roughly 60,000 aircraft and 400,000 pilots are employed in commercial air transportation (including cargo and charter).

The significance of GA/AW becomes greater when it is realized that every airline and military pilot must begin their journey to professional competence in the cockpit of a general aviation aircraft.

Aeronautical advancements enabled GA/AW to become an all-weather, utilitarian form of transportation and gave rise to an increasing number of business ventures built around light aircraft operations. GA/AW had finally arrived as a desirable alternative to airline travel now fraught with delays, cancellations and poor service.

Larger and developing countries have reaped the greatest benefits from GA/AW because of their dependence on a small aircraft's ability to rapidly access remote or lightly traveled areas. Yet, smaller, well-established countries also benefit from the efficiencies and flexibility arising from GA/AW activities. All gain from the public safety and utilitarian aspects provided by small aircraft.

Sharing the System

The world's aviation infrastructure was put into place principally to support the airlines and military aviation. GA/AW requires very little unique infrastructure and is a minority user of those facilities and services provided for larger commercial activities. The single exception to this statement is that through smaller local and regional airports general aviation derives its greatest advantage.

But, if GA/AW operations are to take advantage of their unique utility and flexibility they must occasionally use metropolitan area airports. In doing so they share the increasingly scarce resources of available runways and overlying airspace. The complexity of operations in these areas also requires a variety of expensive equipment to be installed in all aircraft, not just airliners. The combination of scarce runways and airspace combine with expensive equipment to create access barriers for GA/AW.

In reality, the special performance characteristics of GA/AW aircraft and their ability to stay beneath tightly controlled airspace allow these aircraft to avoid constraints imposed on larger, higher performance aircraft. For instance, most general aviation aircraft can easily operate out of a 1,000 by 15 meter runway, one-tenth the area required by airliners. And, by staying low and within carefully designed corridors expensive surveillance and navigation equipment may be omitted from small aircraft. In essence, GA/AW operates at the margins of an infrastructure designed specifically for the airlines. The smaller aircraft take advantage of the unused capacity of the larger system, effectively increasing the overall efficiency of a complex infrastructure.

The principles of fairness and equity should govern use of the aviation infrastructure within each State. Efforts must be made to accommodate all types of operators.

Paying the Way

Many countries of the world fund their aviation infrastructure development through user charges. While airlines pass these costs through to passengers, GA/AW must bear this burden as a direct operating cost. More importantly, most countries levy taxes associated with fuel consumed, yet, and despite ICAO recommendations, few of these monies flow back to the aviation infrastructure. Therefore, GA/AW is often double-charged for the services they receive. Additionally, hidden "taxes" are imposed on small aircraft in the form of expensive equipment mandated for operations in increasingly complex airspace, or of mandatory services they do not need or ask for. However, operators who do not use certain services should not be charged for those.

If direct user charges are employed, a graduated system of fees should be used that recognizes value for services received, and excise taxes levied on fuel should be abolished to prevent double charging. Since the infrastructure is designed primarily for airline and military interests, general aviation and aerial work activities should be viewed as marginal users of the system and charged accordingly. Ideally, very marginal users such as gliders, ultralights and light-weight homebuilts with little or no avionics and that typically only fly locally should be exempt from any charges.

Charges for services must not discourage use of the system, as this would encourage unsafe practices. For instance, requiring a private pilot to pay a significant fee for meteorological and NOTAM briefings and for filing a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan may actually contribute to unsafe operations as pilots may choose to omit these essential safety services in an effort to avoid the associated charges. Therefore, consideration must be given to providing essential services using general government funds in support of safe operating practices.
The existing guidance provided for Air navigation services charging systems contained in ICAO Document 9082/5 provides succinct and appropriate counsel:
The charges levied on international general aviation should be assessed in a reasonable manner, having regard to the cost of the facilities needed and used and the goal of promoting the sound development of international civil aviation as a whole.

The Future

As the world economy broadens and becomes increasingly intertwined, safe, rapid and accessible transportation will become more important than ever. For, while improvements in communications technology bring us closer together, the need to be face-to-face is increasing, too - witness the recent rapid growth of airline travel. Air travel has become an accepted feature of the modern world; this acceptance insures its future growth.

General aviation and aerial work offer an alternative to airline travel. The ability of small aircraft to operate at suburban and rural airports in airspace not used by the airlines presents enticing alternatives. For this to become a reality enlightened governments must accept and embrace general aviation as a credible and attractive transportation alternative. In doing so they must enact fee structures favorable to small aircraft operations, ensure that smaller airfields are protected and encouraged and provide for fair and equitable access to airspace and infrastructure resources, recognizing that GA/AW are marginal users of a system developed for and primarily serving the airlines, yet provide much needed flexible transportation.

Transportation or Recreation?

Critics of general aviation often dismiss it as a recreational or leisure activity, not worthy of being classified as transportation. Yet the same critics would take their family in the automobile to visit grandmother and expect to receive the benefits of major roads, a system to enforce motoring laws, and a safety infrastructure designed to keep them safe - all of this because they wish to be the beneficiaries of a major transportation system. They certainly classify their activity as transportation, whether the destination is grandma's house or the superarket.

This duality of thinking regarding general aviation probably stems from a lack of understanding about how general aviation works and what its benefits are. Flying airplanes is a foreign concept for most people, an activity normally reserved for airline or military pilots. Many consider such activities as a daredevil or elitist pursuit that does not warrant their consideration. In short, general aviation is largerly beyond their comprehension. The challenge of those devoted to flying light airplanes is to familiarize the general public and legislators with the joys and advantages of our avocation.

The fact remains that anytime people or goods are carried from one point to another, that constitutes the act of transportation. The reasons underlying that transportation is largely irrelevant in societies that value the freedom of movement of their citizens. Whether it be for business or personal reason, this activity must be considered a valid act of transportation.

Those who would assign a high value to the utility of airline travel miss the point that in many countries more than two-thirds of airline passengers are traveling for personal, not business, reasons. A recent German study found that just 20 percent of the combined general aviation and aerial work activity in that country was attributed to personal travel, 80 percent, the remainder, comprisd business, freight, emergency medical sevices, survey, and surveillance activity. Significantly, this activity generated DEM 1.5 billion annually.

Airliners may be considered the buses of the air transportation system while general aviation aircraft are the family automobiles and small vans. Given this construct, which mode of transportation system is more worthy? Which should enjoy priority at our airports and in the air traffic system? As we have found with our road systems, a balance between public and private transportation must be achieved to permit all types of people the freedom of choice and movement. For general aviation it means the ability to gain access to the airports and airspace in balance with other legitimate interests vying for these valuable, yet increasingly scarce, resources.
The answer to the question posed in the title - a single flight in a light aircraft can be recreation, business, and transportation, all rolled into a single, enjoyable package!

Quick Reference Table

The definition of GA&AW is often missunderstood, and some organization try to establish their own definition, be for lack of knowledge or on purpose to achieve a goal. IAOPA is the only General Aviation and Aerial Work Representative recognized by ICAO, and here is what this means:

ICAO defined flight operations Area of activity of national AOPAs/IAOPA


(ICAO defined expression)

(ICAO defined expression)

(ICAO defined expression)

ICAO: Definition text to follow ICAO: Definition text to follow ICAO: Definition text to follow

Corporate Aviation
Company own-use flight operations

Fractional Ownership Operations
aircraft operated by a specialized company on behalf of two or more co-owners

Business Aviation (or Travel)
self-flown for business purposes

Personal/ Private Travel
travel for personal reasons/ personal transport

Air Tourism
self-flown incoming/ outgoing tourism

Recreational Flying
powered/ powerless leisure flying activities

Air Sports
Aerobatics, Air Races, Competitions, Rallies etc.

Aerial Crane Operations

Aerial Survey and Charting

Agricultural Flights (Crop Dusting) Aircraft Sales Demonstra-tions

Banner Towing/ Advertising Flights

Environment Surveillance and Enforcement

Ferry Flights/ Delivery Flights

Flight Demonstra-tions (Air Shows)

Fire Fighting (Forest Fires etc.)

Glider Towing

Medical Evacuations

Nostalgy Flights in Historic Aircraft

Pilot Training (from private to airline pilots)

Research and Development Flights

Search and Rescue

Sight Seeing Flights

Skydiver Hoisting

Supplies Dropping

Test Flights

Traffic Surveillance

Transplant Organ Transports

TV-Live Reporting

Weather Research

The list is not exhaustive. As a general rule: All commercial and non-commercial civil flight operations of which the primary goal is NOT the transportation of persons or goods from one point to another, including ALL flight operations for the benefit of third parties (public benefits), are Aerial Work Operations.

Scheduled Air Services

Non-Scheduled Air Transport

Air Cargo Services

Air Taxi Operations (see note)

The criteria to determine "commercial" or "non-commercial" (general aviation) is the fact of paying for the purpose of transportation from A to B, not of paying or not, nor of being flown by paid (employed) crew. NOTE: Aircraft types used and the operational similarity of Air Taxi are much closer to General Aviation than to Commercial Air Transport. Therefore, albeit not being GA&AW according to ICAO definitions, in some countries it is considered part of GA&AW and thus represented by the national AOPA).

State VIP Transports

Police/ Customs Aircraft

General Air Traffic (MIL)
(not to be confused with General Aviation) Transport, Civil Support or Ferry missions where airspace and ATC of mainly civil air traffic is used.

Operational Air Traffic (MIL)
Operations within the States' defined Missions of the Air Force, including surveillance/ identification, air superiority defence, tactical intelligence/ photography, ground troops support, etc., including training for such operations.

NOTE: State aircraft (VIP, Police etc.) may be General Aviation/Aerial Work if aircraft are on the civil register but may benefit from State Aircraft status.