One fight won, others begin

Over the past year, AOPA President Craig Fuller has been busy traveling the country talking to pilots and spreading the good news about aviation, as well as urging pilots to “get engage” to help GA thrive.

“I logged over 350 hours last year,” he told a crowd at Thursday evening’s AOPA Town Hall meeting at Sun ‘n Fun.

A topic at many of those meetings was the threat of user fees, which has been hanging over the GA industry for years. At least year’s AOPA Town Hall meeting at Sun ‘n Fun, Fuller reported on efforts to fight user fees, as well as bolster GA’s image in Washington, D.C., and around the country. That was when the organization teamed with other alphabet groups to create GA Serves America, a lobbying effort that featured ads by well-known actor — and pilot — Harrison Ford.

“We wanted to show people in Washington that we are willing to stand up for ourselves,” reported Fuller, a Washington insider who has worked at the White House.

AOPA photo

AOPA photo

And standing up was imperative after the administration proposed a $9.6 billion user fee in last year’s budget. “The user fee battle has been fought over and over again, but nothing like $9.6 billion,” Fuller said. “Obviously we took a dim view of that.”

As the alphabet groups worked to fight against user fees, they got some support in Congress, with the House of Representatives creating a GA Caucus, which is now 120 members strong, followed by the creation of a Senate Caucus, which now has 24 members. “A number of them say they are committed to general aviation,” he said, noting, “they want to understand our needs. We work with them on a daily basis.”

And the advertising campaign with Harrison Ford, which included everything from online ads to billboards in Washington, D.C., paid off. “We walked into the offices of President Obama’s advisors, Larry Summers and Valerie Jarrett, and Summers said ‘uh-oh, here comes that Harrison Ford group.'”

Fuller admits he was a bit put out at first, thinking that AOPA has been around for 70 years, but is “all of a sudden that Harrison Ford group.” Then he realized that it showed that AOPA — and GA — had been linked, successfully, with a person that the folks in the White House respected and would listen to.

“It helped the administration understand our message,” he said, noting that officials in every department, from the Department of Transportation to the White House, responded favorably to the ads.

They also responded favorably to AOPA’s brand of lobbying, which pointed out that the elected officials had a choice, whereas pilots didn’t. “We told them that if they proposed user fees, we would fight them and we would not back down,” Fuller said. “Or they had the choice to actually look at the issues that are really facing aviation and work together to solve them.”

Knowing the fight would take three or four years, Fuller and other GA advocates pointed out that in that amount of time the government could actually have a record of achievement in everything from the modernization of the Air Traffic Control system to keeping airports open to rebuilding GA, which is vital to the economy.

When the budget was released, GA advocates eagerly began to study it looking for user fees. They weren’t there.

“The proposal that had hung over our heads all last year had just vaporized,” Fuller said, quickly reminding the crowd that they still must be vigilant against user fees as “bad ideas in Washington don’t just go away.”

“User fees aren’t listed in the 2011-2012 budget cycle, which gives us two years to work on other issues,” he said, noting there is no shortage of issues, ranging from finding an alternative to 100LL to security issues to through-the-fence concerns.

But getting time to work on those issues “wouldn’t have happened without a lot of involvement from pilots,” Fuller said.

Also helping is a new cooperation among all of GA’s alphabet groups, including AOPA, EAA, NBAA, NATA and others. “We’re finding more and more ways to work together,” Fuller said. “And the one issue that worries us most is how to stop the decline in the pilot population. A couple of years ago, there were more than 800,000 pilots; now it’s below 600,000.”

He noted that the economy is part of the problem. But there’s also a marketing problem.

“We know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have a passion for flying and would love to be engaged, but they are not doing it,” he said. “Or they started flight training, but didn’t continue. We’ve got to find a better way to to get people trained.”

Meanwhile, Fuller plans to continue his travels around the country, with the intention of visiting every member of the GA Caucuses in the House and Senate, as well as pilots from one coast to another.

“The message is ‘let’s get engaged,'” he said. “There are a lot of ways to do that from talking to elected officials, to just letting people know you are a pilot and explaining what you do and why you like it.”

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