AOPA’s Craig Fuller looks back on challenges, successes and surprises of his first year

The first year learning the ropes of a high-powered job is tough, especially in the midst of an economic meltdown. But as Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), discovered, his first year was also full of successes and pleasant surprises.

Fuller took the helm of the nation’s largest pilot organization in January, succeeding long-time president Phil Boyer. And while Boyer was known for his flamboyant “rally the troops” style, Fuller is more laid-back, bringing a “Washington D.C. insider working behind-the-scenes” vibe to the organization.

And Fuller is truly a Washington insider. The long-time pilot came to the nation’s capitol with Ronald Reagan as assistant to the president for cabinet affairs. He then served as chief of staff for Vice President George H.W. Bush, was one of six members of Bush’s election campaign team, and co-chaired the transition team when Bush became president.

But even with all that experience in Washington, he was still surprised — pleasantly — during his visits to Capitol Hill when he discovered that many members of Congress are supporters of GA.

“They understand its value,” he said. “They understand that GA’s activities in their districts and states make an important economic difference.”

He had “braced” himself to tell GA’s story again and again to all those politicians, but instead found a “broad base of support.”

In fact, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) told Fuller that while there was a lot of support for GA in the House of Representatives, there had never been a GA caucus. He asked Fuller and AOPA to help form one. The House GA Caucus now boasts close to 100 members, while the Senate Caucus, formed a few months later, has 17 members.

That Congressional support has proved invaluable in the last year, with elected officials sending a letter to President Obama opposing user fees, while also instructing the TSA to work more closely with GA, putting the brakes on proposals such as the Large Aircraft Security Program, which would have imposed airline-like security on all aircraft over 12,500 pounds, no matter the mission, and a requirement for airport badges. While the badge proposal is still being worked out, the LASP is expected to re-emerge in a much different form next year, dramatically increasing the weight requirement, with a new-found recognition by TSA officials of the role of Pilot in Command, according to Fuller.

Another pleasant discovery for Fuller came from the biggest challenge: The economy.

“This has been described as the toughest economic year in the last 75 years,” he said. “That gets your attention.”

When talking about the economy, he said his first thoughts go out to all the people who work in GA who are facing the end of the year laid off — or facing the threat of a lay off.

“We all look forward to the return of the labor force, but we have to be realistic,” he said. “A lot of the manufacturers are saying next year is going to be slow.”

And while the recovery may not be rapid, “one of the positive things I’ve learned is how resilient this industry is,” he said. “This industry has gone through these cycles before, so it has pared back to prepare for the future. As Jack Pelton (Cessna’s president and CEO) said at the Aviation Summit, we have to make sure we are strong for the future.”

Fuller noted that AOPA has come through the past year not only strong financially, but with an “enhanced position” in Washington and throughout the country. As a top GA advocacy group, AOPA started the year not only dealing with its own new president, but the country’s new president and a new administration.

“A lot of new people came into government, which creates a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

The new administration’s aggressive agenda also meant that aviation matters often had to take a back seat. “We had hoped to see the passage of FAA reauthorization in 2009,” he said. “We’ll have to live with another extension.” (In fact, the House passed yet another three-month extension, giving the FAA funding until reauthorization can officially be passed next year).

That reauthorization — which determines how the FAA will be funded — is one of the looming challenges for all aviation in the next year.

The agency’s $16 billion budget is traditionally funded by the General Fund and the Aviation Trust Fund, both hit hard by the recession. “The administration says it is going to look at user fees, so they are still on the table,” Fuller said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations with officials, but it’s not clear what the administration will do.”

Some members of Congress, however, have made it very clear what they will do if the president’s budget includes user fees. A letter signed by 118 representatives was recently sent to President Obama urging him not to ask for user fees. The letter warned that user fees would not be received well in the House, leading to a delay in the next generation air traffic control system (NextGen).

Even with strong support in Congress, Fuller doesn’t think the threat of user fees will “go away,” but may “morph into something different.”

“We have such large budget deficits that the administration is going to try to find ways to decrease general fund expenses,” he said. “But user fees would be crippling to the GA community.”

Opposition to user fees has become a rallying point for the GA community, which is working together now more than ever. In fact, the heads of all the top GA alphabet groups took center stage on opening day of the AOPA Aviation Summit (formerly called AOPA Expo) last month in Tampa to show their solidarity.

“One of the things I took away from my eight years in the White House is that any time interests are divided, you dramatically weaken the ability to get things done,” Fuller said. “It seemed to me that we were all better off if we stand together.”

The leaders of the other groups agreed and cooperative efforts took place throughout the year. “The Summit was almost a punctuation mark,” he said. “It showed that all of us are committed to working together.”

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