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NBAA, Industry and Media Challenge Recent, Inaccurate General Aviation Coverage

June 20, 2014

It happens year after year: media organizations look to an anticipated, slow summer season, and begin searching for sensational, headline-grabbing topics to gain the attention of the public. When the media’s gaze turns to general aviation (GA), the result is often a mix-up of information, much of it inaccurate and misleading.

That’s what happened when three news organizations – USA Today, NPR and the Washington Post – covered various industry-related issues, and in some cases wound up far off the mark. NBAA, other industry groups and even media organizations have challenged recent coverage from these three organizations, setting the record straight with facts, context and relevant information.

For example, a June 18 USA Today series, titled “Unfit for Flight,” implied general aviation is inherently unsafe, and the industry is not committed to safety. The series presents tragic general aviation accidents, which took place over several decades, as a means to stir an emotional response, and follows up with mischaracterizations, and in some cases, wrong information about the industry.

In a letter to the editor sent the same day the first story in the series was published, NBAA called the coverage “sensational” and “one-sided.” NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen advised the editor that, contrary to the article’s implications, the safety trend for general aviation over the almost 50-year period referenced in the story has shown significant improvement. Bolen’s letter also emphasized the industry’s significant contributions to safety through improved technologies developed by aviation manufacturers, and more effective training. Read NBAA’s letter to USA Today in its entirety.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) was also quick to respond. A press release from GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce challenged the USA Today series claim that fatalities are increasing in GA accidents, saying, “The goal of 1 fatal accident per 100,000 hours flown by 2018 now appears increasingly likely.” GAMA’s release also provided a number of efforts the GA industry as a whole has undertaken to proactively mitigate risks. Read GAMA’s press release in its entirety here.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association (AOPA) also responded to the USA Today series. AOPA poignantly noted that despite 21 million flights annually carrying 170 million passengers, GA has seen a 40 percent decrease in fatalities since the ‘90s, which is fewer than that demonstrated by both boating and motorcycles in the same time period. AOPA also pointed out the article’s oversight in regard to the industry’s efforts to make GA safer. Read AOPA’s response in its entirety here.

The GA industry isn’t alone in its outrage over the USA Today series. Jeff Schweitzer, a pilot and Huffington Post contributor, responded to the USA Today series with a write up titled “Unfit for Publication: How USA Today Got Everything Wrong.” In his filing, Schweitzer said: “Nearly every inference about aviation in the article is wrong…The real story here is media bias and editorial malpractice, not the dangers of aviation or manufacturing defects.” Read Schweitzer’s response in its entirety here.

USA Today wasn’t the only media outlet to mischaracterize the industry in recent days. On June 17, NPR aired a Marketplace segment titled “How to Hide a Corporate Jet,” which included an interview with a source who implied that the widespread practice of leasing business aircraft is done to circumvent federal reporting rules. In fact, aircraft leases are gathered and reported by the FAA, and the Securities and Exchange Commission requires publically traded companies to report personal use of aircraft and other vehicles.

In a letter to Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal, NBAA’s Bolen said: “Leasing of aircraft to accomplish business goals is widely practiced – even by commercial airlines – because it makes economical sense.” The letter emphasized that federal reporting rules are clear, businesses have an excellent record of compliance and “business aircraft are key to success for companies of all sizes, all across the U.S.” Read NBAA’s letter to Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal in its entirety.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post also filed a story about business aviation that contained inaccuracies. A June 6 article, “Companies Can Spend Millions on Security Measures to Keep Executives Safe," contained a number of inaccurate statements regarding the use of business aviation as a tool to keep U.S. business leaders safe. The story claimed that an executive using a business aircraft for personal use is not required to pay taxes on the flight, if the use is because of a qualified security threat.

A letter from NBAA, followed up by a call from the Association to the Post reporter, prompted the paper to take the uncommon step to publish a correction to the story. Bolen’s letter pointed out the story’s error in explaining how taxes apply to flights on a business aircraft for personal use. “The fact is that if an executive has a qualified security concern, the value of their travel by a company’s airplane for personal use is still taxed, albeit at a somewhat lower rate,” said Bolen in the letter.

“We felt the article missed the mark on so many points that we needed to provide the Post with accurate facts," said Scott O'Brien, NBAA's senior manager of finance and tax policy. "We are pleased the Post took the time to address our concerns and correct the error and are hopeful this reporter will consider NBAA as a source when writing future business aviation articles so we can provide accurate information before an article is published.” Read the published correction to the Washington Post story.

“We are committed to dispelling media mischaracterizations about general aviation,” said Dan Hubbard, NBAA senior vice president, communications. “We know our membership and industry as a whole aims for compliant and safe operations. Misinformed media stories like these create an unfair negative perception of our industry for the public, and NBAA will continue to respond to editors to correct erroneous information and offer our assistance in presenting accurate, truthful data.”