Plane Guilt: The Unfortunate Stigma of Aviation

by Chris Findley, CFI

Recently I was having a conversation with a Charter Operator’s team about possible ways to increase their visibility and market share.  I mentioned the use of customer testimonials as part of their advertising.  They responded, “But our customers won’t do it.  They feel like people will judge them negatively because they used a private charter.”

I haven’t been able to get that thought out of my head.

There is a stigma about general aviation- that somehow these planes are the wasteful toys of the “rich”.  To admit to flying one or utilizing one for business seems to be tantamount to admitting you have stock in Exxon, own a Hummer, or that you were involved in clear cutting a rainforest.  There’s a stigma.  And ironically it doesn’t matter if you’re flying a Cessna 172, a Cirrus, Baron, or a Phenom.  People will look sort of sideways at you and wonder if somehow you’re the clandestine “millionaire next door”

There are several things that we need to understand about “Plane Guilt” if we hope to overcome it:

The relative nature of the argument. When someone uses what is perceived as “rich toys” either for pleasure or as a part of their business, there is a judgment that happens in many people’s mind.   “Mr. Jones is so extravagant and wasteful to be using that business plane. ” And many clients/owners/operators are very aware of this stigma. The argument that aviation is simply an extravagant and wasteful tool for the wealthy is completely relative.  It’s relative based on one’s perception of affluence and wealth.  What is extravagant to one may not be to another.  In many ways Americans have blinders on and miss the fact we are, in general, an affluent people.  Consider the fact that Americans and Europeans  spend enough on ice cream and pet foods to provide  water, health, nutrition, and education for the entire planet.  Also, consider that 80% of the people on the planet live on less than $10 a day.1  Of course Americans are a generous people too.  Even in the economic hard times we are facing at home, over $200 million was raised in short order for the victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti. 2   But realize that this relief was only possible because we, as a people, are successful.  And never mind the crucial role, dare we mention it, that private aviation continues to play in that recovery effort.  Nonetheless, we need to understand the argument that somehow Aviation is more wasteful than something else is really to give in to a selective form of logic that ignores the larger picture.

In fact, most of the pilots I know are far from wealthy (including yours truly).   Most would fall into the middle-class.  They work hard, have families, and developed their flying hobby. Even professional pilots aren’t soaking up the dollars.  The  average salary for a new corporate pilot is $32,500.   Flight Instructors average about $25 per hour before taxes (at 30%).3  Of course these can increase with seniority, but very few are making anywhere near the six-figure income many people wrongly assume. Somehow people have gotten it into their heads that pilots and those involved in GA are wealthy (which equals ‘suspect’).   Those who work in the industry know better.  Flying has a wonderful cross-section of people.  Yes, there are celebrities and wealthy people, but by far most GA patrons and operators are not.

There are plenty of other expensive hobbies that consume thousands of dollars in discretionary income each year.  Is golf looked on with equal disdain?  What about bass-boat owners?  Or Harley-Davidson riders?  There was a time when it was a bit pretentious to have a cell phone (remember when they came in those gigantic brief-case-sized bags?)  Not that long ago to have more than one car or a flat-screen television was a sign of excess.  But times, and stigmas can change.

The Expense of Charter? Charter flying can be expensive.  But it can also be surprisingly affordable.  As I was working on this article I looked at what the cost difference was between airline and charter flights for a trip from Evansville, Indiana to Atlanta.  The average price for the airline ticket was $800.  The charter price was around $780 in a modest Cessna 310.  For a bit more speed, a King Air was $944.  Jet service in a  BeechJet was $1300.  This illustrates the idea that charter can be had for less than most people realize.  Perhaps that would be worth the cost to avoid the hassle and extra fees of today’s airline travel.

But it’s the perception, right?

Overcoming the Stigma by Stories How can we overcome the stigma of Charter/Corporate flying?  We tend to argue from the statistical side, particularly the cost and relative affordability of flying.  But there’s one critical feature missing: emotion.  People often pay for a good or service because of emotion and perceived value.  One of the most effective means of doing this is through the use of stories.

Aviation needs a Jared.

When Jared Fogle was a junior in college he weighed a whopping 425 pounds.  His father, a doctor, warned him of his weight and the dangers it posed to his health.  After his roommate noticed signs of edema (fluid retention that can lead to diabetes) Jared decided to get serious about losing weight.  He discovered Subway’s new line of low-fat sandwiches and developed his own diet based on eating one veggie sub for lunch and a turkey sub for dinner.  The rest is history and marketing genius by storytelling.  Most of us have seen Jared’s commercials and know that dropped to 180lbs.  The story caught on, despite the initial resistance of Subway’s marketing firm.

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath make the point that this serendipitous campaign contains all the things necessary to be successful and “sticky”.  It is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and given by a story.  They note, “Inspiration drives action, as does stimulation.” Later they note the surprise in the story, “[Jared’s story] violates our schema of fast food…the guy who wore 60-inch pants is giving us diet advice!” (Heath and Heath, p222)

Can we find a story like Jared’s?  We need a story that violates the schema, the stigma, currently popular about flying.  Aviation has tended to depend on celebrities to make its case.  That has its advantages.  But perhaps a far more effective and change-inducing idea is to find the “ordinary person” who is utilizing and benefiting from charter aviation and has the courage to tell their story.

Because, we have a story worth telling.  Can we find our Jared?

If you have a story, I’d love to hear it!  Email me:





3 responses to “Plane Guilt: The Unfortunate Stigma of Aviation

  1. Jet charter in a big part of business. For one thing, many charters go into airports not served by the airlines.

  2. “Made to Stick” — how was that book? Do you recommend it? What are some highlights?

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Many, if not all, of our customers use their aircraft very responsibly and for beneficial business purposes, but shy away from promoting its use. They fear shareholder backlash and general negative public scrutiny due to the appearance of “excess.”

    It is unfortunate that companies need to be clandestine when using one of their most valuable business tools

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