GA's army of proponents have taken up the fight to raise the profile of this huge industry - which has a fleet of 10,000 aircraft in Europe - through a mixture of fortitude and self-preservation.
"GA is seen by a lot of people as largely pointless," says Martin Robinson, chief executive of the UK Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association - the international organisation concerned with general aviation - and senior vice-president of the International Council for AOPA, which represents the interests of GA at European Commission, Parliament, European Aviation Safety Agency and Eurocontrol and other egulatory bodies.
Hostility from commercial airlines has forced general aviation out of many major airports. Picture: Etienne de Malglaive
"We have been striving for many years to get our views across to the key decision makers. While we have had a degree of success, it remains an ongoing battle to get our voice heard and our concerns addressed," he adds.
Three issues are at the forefront of GA struggle in Europe - airport access, security and training. While some of these issues affect European member states more than others, sustaining unhindered access for GA aircraft to the continent's plethora of airports is the most widespread and contentious issue for this community.
Car giant BMW wants Munich's Fürstenfeldbruck airport to be a safety driving centre. Picture: AOPA Germany
Hostility from commercial airlines and airport owners has forced GA out of many of Europe's major airports, while pressure from local populations to remove "the noisy irritant" has led to closure or curtailing of GA operations at local aerodromes.
"Light aircraft have long been regarded as noisy and intrusive to the local community, while large international airports, mindful of the small return from GA traffic, have largely driven smaller aircraft out," says Robinson. "Even regional airports have started to raise their landing fees so it is no longer viable to operate in and out of these sites," he says.
Robinson blames in part the rise in the number of low-cost carriers that have absorbed the slots at previously popular flying sites such as London Luton airport.
GA supporters like David Ogilvy, vice-president of the General Aviation Awareness Council, believe the industry should be given more recognition and respect. "GA is by far the largest sector of aviation, with more aircraft, more flyers and more operating sites than any other area," he says. "What's more, the commercial airlines depend on GA for their long-term future as many of the pilots that they employ have been trained on GA aircraft and that training has been self-funded," Ogilvy says.
He admits airline pilot numbers have fallen as a result of the recession, but when the economic situation improves, demand will return. He argues that it is vital to keep flying sites open. When Europe's economies start to flourish "there will be need for more pilots, many of whom begin their flying at schools or clubs within reasonable reach of their homes or workplaces. If this facility is removed from the locality, many people who might wish to fly will take up other pastimes and will be lost as prospective newcomers to the flying profession," Ogilvy says.
In the UK - home to around 140 licensed and 500 unlicensed airports, airfields and airstrips and a fleet of about 8,500 GA aircraft, including business jets - many facilities have been sold to make way for car factories and housing estates. "Aerodromes are being closed down for short-term gain," says Ogilvy.
The sale of the Burnaston and Sunderland aerodromes in the Midlands and north of England to Toyota and Nissan in the late 1980s was the catalyst for the GA community.
"There are a number of ongoing cases that are threatening the livelihood of GA airports in the UK, including a proposal to build a football stadium and a hotel at Wycombe Air Park and environmental initiatives such as wind farms and eco towns," he says.
For anti-terrorism measures to work effectively, pilots, owners and airfield users should be the eyes and ears for the police, says AOPA. Picture: AOPA Germany
"The intended siting of some wind farms could detrimental to the broad range of flying activities at the nearby aerodrome and could provide hazards," says Ogilvy. "It is only going to get worse as the government intends to commission more and more of them."
The proposed development of "eco towns" around aerodromes in the UK could also threaten the livelihood of many airfields, he continues, as this will inevitably lead to complaints of aircraft noise from the new neighbours. "Nimbyism is alive and well," Ogilvy says. "But it seems to me that if you build or buy a home by an airfield you are not in a position to complain about the noise."
Robinson argues there can be a lot at stake when an airfield closes. Across Europe, these facilities bring investment into the local economy through local businesses that have been built to support GA such as flying schools and maintenance companies.
"There are all kinds of threats to airports across Europe," he says, "from planning issues to local community hostility."
In Germany - home to 11,000 aircraft and 500 airports and airfields - GA is being priced out of the major airports including the capital's Berlin Brandenburg International (formerly Schonefeld) and Tegel. Downtown Tempelhof - home to the majority of GA activity within the Berlin area - closed in 2008 because of a lack of local support.
In Frankfurt, the main airport has largely been cut off from general aviation, while Munich's Fürstenfeldbruck airport is threatened with closure as car giant BMW fights to turn the former military base into a safety-driving centre.
The industry's plight has found sympathy within Europe's corridors of power. Last year the European Parliament's committee on transport and tourism issued a report urging the European Union to recognise the importance to the community of business and general aviation and act to ensure that it can operate without unnecessary infrastructural and regulatory restrictions.
"Flexible point-to-point flights to smaller airports will improve the productivity of businesses and provides vital services for agriculture, construction, photography and search and rescue operations," the report says.
However, despite the support of Euro MPs GA's advocates say no attempt has been made at a political level to formalise the reports findings. "If we wait any longer it will simply become an historical document, so we will have to do it ourselves," says Robinson.
IAOPA is joining forces with Europe's leading GA and business aviation trade bodies, including the European Business Aviation Association. "We will identify half a dozen items in the report and then find a way to move these into an environment where EASA has got to take notice of them," it says. To help the associations reach their goals, the organisations plan to hire a "high-powered firm of lawyers to lobby on their behalf at the highest possible levels in Brussels", says Robinson.
While GA builds its army of supporters, owners and operators are facing the prospect of superfluous and costly regulation to combat threat of terrorism at the continent's airports.
Concerns are growing among the GA community that new EC regulation covering airport security could apply to every airport and airstrip across the continent if EU member states do not adopt individual plans for these smaller sites.
GA represents the largest aviation sector in Europe with a fleet of more than 10,000 aircraft, but how can it entice newcomers? Picture: AOPA Germany
"The new ruling [EC reg 300] if applied to all airports and aircraft will place a stranglehold on all types of GA activity from flying training to emergency medical services operations. We have to get it into perspective," says Robinson.
He adds that EC 300 is largely designed with commercial air transport in mind and is too heavy-handed for GA, which could be required to undergo stringent security checks including passenger screening and regular aircraft searches.
"In the UK alone there are 142 licensed aerodromes and 400 farm strips. On top of that, you can land in almost any field, so it is impossible to cover all these sites," says Robinson.
He stresses that GA aircraft are not a terrorist threat. Two UK and US government reports back up Robinson's theory, both concluding that the risk of terrorism involving GA aircraft is largely "hypothetical". "GA aircraft are too light to use as a platform for conventional explosives," says the 2008 US Congress-led report. "Moreover, heightened vigilance among airport operators and pilots would make it difficult to load the necessary quantity of explosives without detection."
Robinson concedes: "Nobody is saying it can't and won't happen, but both reports note that co-operation from pilots, owners and airfield users is an essential ingredient in maintaining security and making anti-terrorism measures work."
The GA industry is appealing for the regulation to apply to airports with paved runways of less than 1,000m (3,280ft) and to aircraft less that 5,600kg (12,335lb). It is also calling for a "light touch approach" for GA security allowing "vigilant" airfield users to act as the eyes and ears for the police.
"The World Trade Center terrorists did not use the GA aircraft in which they were training, however easy that would have been, because they needed aircraft with much greater mass, speed and fuel load to accomplish their aims," says Robinson.
While the GA community is united in its fight against terrorism, another pertinent and tangible threat is enveloping the industry. "Fewer people are taking up the challenge of learning to fly," Robinson says.
Since 2007 the number of pilot training recruits has fallen by 30% in the UK alone as people spend their money on other leisure pursuits or more pressing commitments. "People are worried about losing their jobs. They don't have the money to fly," Robinson says.
"The industry says, 'we have to get young people into flying', but it's not going to happen," he continues. "If it's choice between learning to fly or going to going to university, the choice is clear."
Robinson says more licences are issued to 40- to 60-year-olds than to any other age group as they typically have more disposable income. However, even among this age group it is difficult to retain their enthusiasm as flying - and particularly touring - has become a costly leisure pursuit for many.
He says that the introduction of light sport aircraft will help to drive down the costs of aircraft training and ownership, "but the overall fleet will not rise significantly".
A Cessna Model 162 SkyCatcher, for example, will simply become the aircraft of choice rather than [the larger and more expensive] 172 Skyhawk.
Cessna is playing its part in reinvigorating flying training in Europe and earlier this year the company launched its first branded Cessna pilot training centre on the continent that will offer cost-efficient aircraft training in its piston single family.
"Europe has traditionally been a strong market for pilot training but obviously the economic crisis has hit this industry hard," says Cessna Pilot Centre manager Julie Filucci. "We are confident that the market will return as people see how accessible and easy flying has become with the new generation of light aircraft such as the SkyCatcher."
But Robinson remains unconvinced: "Cessna has a huge incentive to invigorate Europe's pilot training market as they want to sell aircraft. This region has historically been one of their most lucrative markets."
He believes that there are no simple solutions where people's discretionary income is concerned, but the industry must compete head-on with other leisure pursuits if private flying is to stand a chance of attracting newcomers and retaining existing licence holders.
"We could make a start by reigniting the romance and sense of freedom attached to flying - after all, there is nothing quite like it," Robinson says.
European Parliament report into business and general aviation