Roger to reality. Today's New York Times piece about the declining popularity of private flying has got to be one of the weirdest pieces of human-interest journalism of 2007. The synopsis on the Fashion & Style page should have tipped me off to the sociological thumb sucking to follow: "The Federal Aviation Administration reports that the number of private pilots is down. Why? Ask the two-income family."
Striking a nostalgic note about the piloting dreams of "every boy," the article asserts that the private aviation industry is "withering, and a bit of Americana is slipping away, along with a bit of freedom and joy" because "Walter Mitty doesn't want to fly anymore." The Times might as well have called Mitty a pussy-whipped, potbellied sop who can't choose his own hobbies anymore because his wife is commandeering the weekend schedule and the disposable income. After all too briefly suggesting that part of the reason may be the well-documented dangers of private plane flying and our society's increasing risk aversion, the article begins its downward spiral: Wives are keeping guys grounded.
"Another [reason] is the shift of income and family decision-making to women. Industry leaders try hard not to sound like a former president of Harvard and attribute anything to innate skill, but women simply do not take up flying as frequently as men do.
"'There's been a big sociological and psychological change in the families of today, in where the discretionary dollars go,' said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. When the husband told the stay-at-home mom of the 1950s that he was going to spend a Saturday afternoon taking flying lessons, she acquiesced, he said. Today, he said, in a two-income family, she is more likely to say: 'You are not. That's your day to take Johnny to the soccer game, and what the heck are you doing spending our hard-earned money on flying lessons?'"
In the absence of any evidence, there's your meta-theory: Gender equality is killing the private aviation industry. Until this point the Onion could have done a better job of lampooning the connection between Hillary Clinton and Cessna profits, but in the following passage, it's hard to imagine how satire could have ratcheted up the ridicule: "'Women learn differently from men,'" Mr. Kauffman [a flight instructor] said. 'If two men go up, they will scream and shout, and a transfer of knowledge occurs, and we'd get back on the ground and go have a beer, and life is good,' he said. 'If you yell at a woman, she'd start crying, and she'd never come back.' He would like to hire a female flight instructor but can't find one, he said."
The article eventually offers many viable reasons for the decline: the high barrier to entry in both cost and time, and events like 9/11 and the death of John Kennedy Jr. that remind us of the potential downside of flying high. One thing the article didn't mention is that technologically inclined thrill seekers have so many other places to spend their time and money now, whether it's the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator or zip-lining through a rain forest canopy. But the notion that men are being kept tethered to their banal little lives by their domineering wives seems like a fantasy that should remain the purview of paranoid ranters like this gentleman, not our highfalutin newspaper of record.