To win, you’ve got to play the game

“I’m seeing a virtuous cycle,” said National Business Aviation Association president Ed Bolen at this year’s NBAA convention in Orlando. He was speaking of The Alliance for Aviation Across America. Ad hoc Washington coalitions are often just “inside baseball” (and manufactured “causes” by corporate front-groups are downright deceptive), but the Alliance’s cumulative results since 2007 are beginning to impress.

Among other things, the Alliance encourages governors to sign state proclamations on the value of General Aviation (and/or aviation generally.) That then generates media coverage and thus, policymaker interest — Bolen’s virtuous cycle. Alliance executive director Selena Shilad told an NBAA audience that 46 governors had now issued proclamations affirming our role in their state’s economy.

AllianceForAviationLogoAlthough individual announcements about a new proclamation from South Dakota or Vermont didn’t impress me over the years, their sum total (as visualized on Shilad’s interactive U.S. map) now makes a point. These results cover the nation. Oddly, four Western states (Arizona, California, Oregon and Hawaii — all either GA-heavy or significantly dependent on air travel) are hold-outs. I wonder why.

I am a TERRIBLE political science grad, totally uninspired by the Washington ways of “alphabet” organizations where, ironically, I made my career doing their PR. Much seems arcane and mere process. The political types would get all excited over jointly “sending a letter.” Oooooh, a letter! But in Washington, a joint letter to policymakers means that various interests have coalesced on an issue and are declaring themselves. That’s a big deal in D.C., where cards are otherwise kept close to the vest until ready to “pull the trigger,” as they’d always say.

Yes, pandering to pols (and their egos) wasn’t my thing, but I do believe in public opinion. Aviation lives on it, since a skeptical public sees aviation as having neither 1) physical means of remaining airborne, or 2) valid claim to taxpayer support of aviation infrastructure. The Alliance may not explain the concept of lift, but its state proclamations (or a recent anti-user fee letter from 117 mayors) DO influence news coverage and lawmaker attention.

Another tool is the economic study. The 1987-1991 Partnership for Improved Air Travel, which I ran briefly, commissioned Wilbur Smith Associates (now CDM Smith) to document aviation’s state-by-state and national contribution to the economy. Its study got attention, if not full credibility. The Alliance has done new work in this area but unfortunately must again rely on the “study of studies” approach — aggregating data from the previous research of local airport authorities, state aviation agencies and others. However, I’m told their fresh economic study HAS made a difference since its 2009 publication.

I asked how all this proclamation-making and data aggregating had been accomplished by an Alliance staff of only five. The answer, in part, the cooperative work of many participating organizations, but especially that of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) with members in each of the 50 state governments. Hats off to them! But does all this actually work?

What really gets politicians’ attention? Coverage. At NBAA, the Alliance played strong TV news clips generated by those state proclamations, economic studies and General Aviation months. I’m here to tell you, their news clips were good. (The Partnership generated a lot of this in its day and the BE A PILOT program, a lot more — but I admire this current effort. Why? It seems well-coordinated with its members’ own lobbying goals — something the Partnership for Improved Air Travel never achieved. The Alliance, apparently, knows what it’s about.)

The National Air Transportation Association’s new president Tom Hendricks said, “This group creates a framework for informed public policy decisions.” Bravo. But more to the point, Alliance information arms aviation’s supporters with perspectives and facts. The Alliance can be your support network, too — as it is for more than 5,900 member organizations, governments, businesses and individuals nationwide.

Another impressed participant is Helicopter Association International (HAI) President Matt Zuccaro, who recently signed on as an Alliance board member. He noted that helo ops are mostly off-airport. “We’re IN the community,” he said, “with 55 distinct missions that helicopters perform. We were looking for an organization that could move our message to the public.” Apparently, The Alliance does it for HAI. (If you’ve been following public pressure on the helicopter industry, you know where HAI is coming from.)

As jaded as we may be about decades of campaigns and ballyhoo for public “understanding” of GA, it’s now time to acknowledge the Alliance for its turn on watch. As for the battle, Bolen commented, “It’s a long way from where we used to be. We have built a substantial amount of outside support for GA.”

Direct beneficiaries could include airports, Essential Air Service grants, Airport Improvement Program funding, the contract tower program, NextGen, ATC, and the user fee issue. All who fly depend on public understanding and political support for American aviation, and more so now as governmental budgets shrink.

And speaking of tighter budgets: The Alliance does its work for a fraction of the millions and millions the airlines spent on the old Partnership for Improved Air Travel. This new effort seems necessary (and right-sized) for the times, especially now as Washington approaches the fiscal cliff.

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