An open letter to Massachusetts State Senator Julian Cyr.
Note: This letter is in response to the Massachusetts State Senate Bill S.2305, proposed by State Senator Julian Cyr. This bill proposes to implement a $1,000 landing fee for most types of general aviation aircraft operations within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
State Senator Cyr,
Just as I do, I am confident that the entire Massachusetts aviation community appreciates your openness to dialogue and discussion regarding Bill S.2305. A conversation to address the climate impact of aviation is indeed worth having. As aviators, we are the first to recognize that we contribute significantly more carbon emissions per capita than the average American. However, it is clear that this bill, in its current and any revised state, does not accomplish the goals that it sets out to without causing significant, irrevocable ramifications to the Commonwealth.
In this letter, I will outline the potential benefits and damages that this bill will cause should it be implemented as law. However well-intentioned, I hope to show that this bill is ultimately misguided and cannot accomplish its goal, namely that of “mitigat[ing] the climate impact of private and corporate air travel.” Instead, it strangles the general aviation community while allowing wealthy “private jet owners” to easily sidestep regulations and continue contributing the same carbon footprint without bringing in any additional revenue that can be reinvested in research and development.
Firstly, we must discuss the definitions of private and corporate air travel. There is quite a bit of ambiguity in the term. The general public might assume that private and corporate air travel refers only to “private jets;” the likes of LearJets or Citations. Often, these aircraft are chartered by wealthy clients and corporations to transport executives, their staff, or their families to and from work and vacations. These aircraft are commonly registered in tax havens and have opaque ownership structures. In this category, the cost of operation for such aircraft ranges from a thousand dollars per hour up to several tens of thousands of dollars per hour. For most such travel, a landing fee would amount to little more than a nuisance, essentially part of the cost of business and operation. It would certainly not discourage this type of travel nor reduce carbon emissions.
While these types of operations certainly do exist, particularly in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the general public may not be aware that there is an entirely separate category of aviation, which is made up of a community of pilots and their friends and families who fly explicitly for the joy of aviation and the transcendent nature of flying a small plane high above the Earth. These aircraft are often registered in Massachusetts to individual owners or their families. Many others cannot afford to own the aircraft and instead rent a plane for a hundred dollars per hour, scraping together money to afford a short flight on the weekends. The general public might recall small Cessna’s flying overhead or even visit one of the many airport diners in Massachusetts for lunch while watching planes take off and land. It is also these aircraft that are used for flight training so new pilots have a simple platform to learn from.
The colloquialism of private air travel clouds the above two disparate categories of aviation. Therefore, from here onwards, we will refer to first category of operations as “private jet aviation” and the second category of operations as “general aviation.” It is the general aviation category that will suffer the most through the unintended consequences of the bill.
Both private jet aviation and general aviation contribute to the economy of the Commonwealth, however, the proposed 1,000 dollar landing fee will essentially wipe out general aviation in its entirety. It would make it nearly unattainable for an average family in Massachusetts. All the while, it would likely do little to raise revenue for reinvestment into sustainable aviation. Simultaneously, this bill does not effectively advocate for appropriate action to combat climate change.
It is important to recognize that aviation also presents a number of other impacts beyond carbon emissions that are potentially more addressable. For example, airport fire suppression foams are particularly toxic as they often contain fluorinated compounds. Fluorinated compounds help produce a film, which is particularly useful to smother fuel-based fires. These eventually leach into groundwater after being used to put out an aircraft fire. As a result, investing in the research and development of an alternative film-forming fire suppression foam is an imperative so that fluorinated foams can be phased out completely. Likewise, aircraft fuels to this day contain tetraethyl lead to prevent engine knocking. While this additive was phased out in automotive gasoline, aircraft engines often use higher compression ratios for efficiency, which requires preventing engine knock and detonation within the cylinder.
Instead, I suggest that you regulate other high carbon industries, invest in alternative fuels and electric propulsion—which creates jobs instead of removing them—and put forward strong incentives for public transportation across the state and the region. Addressing these problems will allow aviation to be much cleaner without the negative impact to the economy and most importantly, without suffocating general aviation and making flying a small plane, and its immense freedom, completely unattainable to an average family in Massachusetts.
It is that core tenet of freedom that defines our society today. As aviators, we have the freedom to, on a whim, head to the airport and pack up our families into a small plane to visit and experience places that would otherwise be completely impractical. In fact, it is this very principle of unfettered freedom that so strongly resonates with pilots and the American public at large. It is why, as children, many of us dream about soaring through sky and clouds, examining the world from a birds-eye perspective.
As I have written before, the “rich legacy of aviation in the United States, from the first flight of the Wright brothers’ plane through to modern commercial jet airliners, has allowed the United States to develop the most widely dispersed general aviation infrastructure in the world. With that, comes the freedom of flight.” The United States has the largest number and highest density of airports of any nation in the world. We have free and widely available air traffic control services, supported by the federal government. Airports scattered throughout the state provide jobs and are core to small and isolated communities, such as those in Western Massachusetts as well as your own district, Cape Cod and the Islands.
In contrast, Europe already has a suffocating general aviation environment. Nearly every airport has landing fees and handling fees. Even communicating with air traffic control and the safety services that they provide can require a fee, which is why we support federally managed air traffic control services and strongly oppose privatization. European pilots always note how refreshing general aviation is in the United States. These fees ensure that fewer people are able to pursue their dreams of being a pilot.
I am incredibly blessed to have the privilege to work towards my private pilot certificate. It has been one of the most invaluable and impactful activities that I have ever pursued and my training as a student pilot has significantly shaped my perspective. It has allowed me to grow as a person, gain autonomy, and recognize the immense beauty and serenity of flight. It has taught me that flying the plane is the easy part. Being a pilot is much more—it’s about training, decision making, dealing with emergencies, and how to think and react when things go wrong.
From my home airport in Mansfield, MA, I can look to my right and see the skyline of Boston and I can look to my left and see Mount Wachusett. From the air, we can see how close together and interconnected the entire state is. I distinctly remember flying to Nantucket myself early on in my flight training, excited by the fact that it was only a short 30 minute flight rather than a multi-hour drive and ferry ride. The economic impact of aviation is significant in Massachusetts, especially in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Now, Ernest Hemingway said that he always regretted he had never written about aviation. Here was a fellow dead good at descriptions of some highly technical endeavors; I note boating, fishing and hunting. Why did he (correctly) feel himself balked of the outlet of aviation writing?
Because, to do so — he understood — requires two specific skills: One needs to be able to write, and one needs to know how to fly.
Almost all aviation writing is purple prose. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Beryl Markham all wrote about the supposed drama of the landscape and the clouds and so on. They could fly, and, in flying, they sought to express their love in prose. The problem, however, is that the drama of flight does not take place between the pilot and the environment, but between the airplane and the pilot, and between the pilot and himself.
The best aviation writing takes place not in novels, or films, but in the flying magazines. Here, pilots are communicating, in technical language, the drama that took place, finally, within themselves: difficulties, happenstance or error compounded by laziness, fatigue, ignorance or pride; ignorance beaten out through near-averted tragedy; theory triumphing over fear, or excised through practice.
[. . .]
The drama in aviation writing does not rest in writing about flight, but in writing about a flight.
For each flight, for the pilot, is structured like a drama. It has an objective (called a destination), a plan, containing a beginning, a middle, and an end, after which the pilot is free to compare his objective to his performance, re-evaluate his plan and draw conclusions based upon his lack of perfection.David Mamet
I consider myself to be a writer and storyteller. I have written extensively about flying and how it connects to my other experiences. In order to do so, I rely on a broad and multi-disciplinary perspective. It will be an immense loss to society if fewer aviators are able to tell their stories to their children and grandchildren. The opportunity will no longer exist for children in the future to experience and be inspired by the wonders of aviation. Unfortunately, that is a direct consequence of Bill S.2035.
There is so much potential for good that can be done through general aviation. For example, pilots volunteer with organizations such as Angel Flight to fly patients free of charge to specialized, life-saving medical care. This is especially valuable to bring patients from throughout the state and the region to our cities to receive world-class healthcare and participate in clinical research. Sea turtles too, can benefit from general aviation. Critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtles often become trapped in Cape Cod Bay in the winter. These turtles are rescued and flown by volunteer pilots to Florida for rehabilitation. Flying minimizes the turtles’ stress during transportation and increases their chances of their survival.
While at university, I was the vice-president of the WPI Aviation Club. Flight training is already prohibitively expensive, so our mission as a club was to encourage students to pursue aviation and help them in their journey by providing free ground and classroom training. Implementing a 1,000 dollar landing fee will only exacerbate this problem and fewer people will be able to have the vantage point of a pilot.
I have argued in the past that this breadth of perspective is vital to modern innovation. In fact, in a 1996 interview with Wired Magazine, Steve Jobs explained that creativity is about building a system to collect experiences—i.e. collect the proverbial dots—so that it becomes obvious to connect them in unique ways. Aviation is one way to explore the world and build these experiences.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they’re able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or that they have thought more about their experiences than other people.Steve Jobs
Making aviation more accessible, not less, is how we can endeavor to increase the number of creative innovators in the state. In fact, a number of innovations can be traced back directly to bringing principles from aviation into other industries, such as healthcare. For example, Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon-writer in Boston, pioneered bringing aviation checklists into the operating room. Before starting a surgery, the entire surgical team pauses and runs through the checklist: (1) Does the patient name match? (2) What part of the body is the operation on? (3) What is the specific procedure? This idea was put in place around the world by the World Health Organization and has saved countless lives since then. Bill S.2035 directly impedes our ability to make new connections across disciplines and reduces the possibility of innovation in Massachusetts.
Through this bill, you are making it completely unattainable to fly for those who cannot afford a 1,000 dollar fee and thus preventing the general public from experiencing the joy of flight in a small plane, while wealthy patrons can simply absorb the additional cost. The exemptions you have described for specific types of operations are limiting and simply not sufficient to outweigh the significant loss of general aviation. Ultimately, it is absolutely necessary to weight the benefits against the drawbacks of this bill. Discouraging private aviation by charging a landing fee will not work as you intended to address the climate burden.
As pilots, we are excited for a future in which flying is carbon neutral and does not contribute to climate change. However, implementing Bill S.2035 in any form simply is not an effective way to achieve this goal. We implore you to recognize and consider the immense value that general aviation provides to the Commonwealth and we hope that together, we can keep the pioneering spirit of general aviation alive.
Sahil Nawab, on behalf of the Massachusetts general aviation community
“An act to mitigate the climate impact of private and corporate air travel” S.2035, by Julian Cyr, February 19, 2021. https://malegislature.gov/Bills/192/S2305.Html
“Having a Fee Stroke,” by Thomas Haines, November 1, 2016. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2016/november/pilot/having-a-fee-stroke
“Flying Sea Turtles (in First Class?)” by Sahil Nawab, October 23, 2020. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/flying-sea-turtles-in-first-class/
“The Basis of Modern Innovation,” by Sahil Nawab, January 24, 2021. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/the-basis-of-modern-innovation/
“The Drama of Flight, One Radio Call at a Time,” by David Mamet, February 1, 2019. https://www.flyingmag.com/drama-flight-one-radio-call-at-time/
“A Flight Plan for Hospitals,” by Charlotte Huff, May 3, 2010. http://protomag.com/articles/john-nance-a-flight-plan-for-hospitals
“From the Helicopter to the Hospital,” by Sahil Nawab, June 19, 2020. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/from-the-helicopter-to-the-hospital/