Earning a seat at the table

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport.

In December 2008, my home city of Winter Haven, Florida, cut the ribbon on a new terminal building at Gilbert Field. With millions of dollars invested and a golden opportunity to celebrate the occasion, city hall pulled out all the stops. They even included airline pilots holding the ends of a bright red ribbon. At the center of that ribbon was a wooden prop turned to the vertical. The mayor and the full contingent of city commissioners were on hand to cut the ribbon, open the terminal, and pose for photos.

What many of the airport users found objectionable that fine morning was the unavoidable lack of integrity to the big moment. You see, the airline pilots weren’t really airline pilots. They were members of the city’s IT staff – the computer geeks who keep the digital wheels of government turning. They weren’t pilots at all. In fact nobody involved in the ceremony had any direct connection to the art and science of moving an aircraft from the ramp into the airspace above.

It would be entirely reasonable to characterize the relationship between city hall and the aviation community as tense. You might even say it was hostile.

The conventional wisdom is that you can’t fight city hall. Fortunately, the Gilbert Field folks aren’t particularly conventional. They fought city hall at the ballot box, and they won. Less than a year later, two of those city commissioners were turned out in an election held in September 2009. Both of their replacements are far more open to the interests of the aviation community. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I am one of those two new commissioners. And yes, I am unabashedly pro-aviation.

This seemingly minor change to the political landscape of one medium-sized central Florida city has resulted in a significant change in the status quo – especially at the airport. And that change is not ceremonial – it’s substantive.

As an example, when it came time to interview prospective FBO service providers, the makeup of the interview committee was noticeably different than it might have been under the old regime. Of the four voting members on the committee, one seat was reserved for a member of the public. The individual chosen was an actual pilot and aircraft owner who has been actively involved on the field since the 1960s. Of the two non-voting members of the group, the airport manager and the city commission’s liaison to the airport advisory committee were included. I fill that latter position.

The upshot is that in two years Gilbert Field has gone from being an airport that was operated entirely without input from the aviation community to an airport where the users and tenants are highly valued, and included in the decision making processes that affect the field, its service providers, and the operations that take place there. That’s remarkable, frankly. And it’s a productive change of direction.

Morale on the airport is higher than it has been in years. Interest in doing business on the field has increased, noticeably. And perhaps most important of all — city hall is actually listening to the community it is tasked to serve, rather than dictating the terms of interaction as they had in the past.

The aviation community has earned a seat at the table in Winter Haven, and it’s a seat that allows for full participation. You can do the same thing in your town too, if you’re willing to push the issue. It may take some effort. In fact, it may take some sacrifice on the part of a handful of people who are truly dedicated to revising the way your airport operates and how the governing body addresses concerns that affect the airport, its users, and tenants. But it can be done. You can fight city hall – and you can win. We did!

That’s something to think about, and act on, don’t you think?

You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.


  1. Dan Neil says

    Amen Bro!! For years and years, I have beed advising that it is the public’s responsibility to get involved. That includes those in aviation too.

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