When Doug Macnair is watching an air show at AirVenture, it’s all just part of the job.
That’s because Macnair, vice president of government relations for the Experimental Aircraft Association, is watching that air show with several elected officials or senior level FAA officials.
Each year, EAA brings members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as their staffs, to Oshkosh to introduce them to GA. The organization also invites high-level FAA officials to AirVenture to showcase the best of GA.
“Ultimately what we do is relationship building,” said Macnair, “and a huge part of that is AirVenture. It’s a perfect forum to showcase the airplanes and the people and the culture of safety.”
During the week-long show, Macnair will hold up to 30 meetings with various Washington, D.C. types. He’ll also take them to the exhibit halls so they can visit with companies that are in their districts. There’s opportunities, of course, for some fun, like taking time each afternoon to enjoy the air show.
“They go back to Washington impressed and that really matters,” he said. “Having a conversation later is much easier because we have that personal connection.”
That personal connection is paramount to successfully promoting GA’s interests in Washington, D.C.
“You don’t want to the first time you talk to someone to be when you have a problem,” said Andy Cebula, executive vice president of government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Cebula, who has been a Washington insider for 28 years, agrees with Macnair that relationships are key to the alphabet groups’ advocacy efforts.
“Establishing a network within the FAA, the TSA and any other agency that may affect us is like an early warning system,” he said.
Knowing about an issue early is imperative.
“The first step is to know people who make the decisions and have a good enough relationship with those folks so they will communicate with you,” Macnair added. “When a threat comes up, we are aware of it and hopefully we can do enough to shape the evolving policies to help our members. If we do our job perfectly, our members never know we had a problem.”
Of course, there are some issues — such as user fees or new security regulations from the TSA — that are known to all pilots.
When those issues take on a life of their own — say with a Notice of Proposed Rule Making or a Security Directive — the alphabet groups spring into action.
Take the recent Large Aircraft Security Proposal from TSA, which would require airline-like security measures for GA. When the 260-page proposal came out last October, with just a 60-day comment period, the first thing the alphabet groups did was ask for more time.
“A 260-page rule takes a long time to analyze,” said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association. “We immediately petitioned for an additional 60 days.”
The alphabet groups also joined forces in asking for public hearings on the proposed rule, as well as filed extensive comments on it and mobilized their members to attend the meetings and file their own comments. Members were also urged to write their elected officials protesting the new rules, which spurred Congressional inquiries.
“Now we’re working with the TSA to shape the alternative to the original proposal,” Cebula said. “We’re keeping a close watch on it.”
Of course fighting bad legislation isn’t the only job of the alphabet groups in Washington, D.C.
In fact, in these times when business aviation is being vilified, the alphabet groups are working hard to promote a positive image of GA. NBAA has its “No Plane-No Gain” promotion, while AOPA just launched “GA Serves America.”
“We want people to understand that business aviation means jobs, as well as lifelines to communities with little or no airline service,” NBAA’s Bolen said. “We try to make sure all the attacks are responded to, and we also try to effectively mobilize our community. NBAA doesn’t pretend it can solve all of our problems in Washington by issuing a press release or having a lobbyist visit a Congressman.”
That’s where the members come in. All the alphabet groups are savvy about communicating with members, giving them the tools they need to help fight the good fight.
“Nothing counts more in a Congressman’s office than a letter or phone call from the people who voted them into office,” said the EAA’s Macnair. “And when that letter or call leads to a staffer picking up the phone and calling EAA to find out about an issue, that changes the whole complexion of the conversation — from us begging to get in the door to a staffer asking how they can help.”
On NBAA’s website, there’s a section titled “Contact Congress,” which gives members all the tools they need to make their voices heard — from contact information to sample letters.
And those letters make a difference, according to Bolen.
“The real power comes from our numbers — votes matter,” he said. “Elected officials realize they have to win not a majority of the people, but a majority of the voters — and people in business aviation vote.”
But the alphabet groups realize that tactic must be used sparingly. “We save that ammunition for the most pressing issues,” EAA’s Macnair said.
Grass roots lobbying is a “great tool,” AOPA’s Cebula said, “but you have to realize it’s like calling in a nuclear weapon. When we turn to our members, there’s going to be — potentially — a lot of collateral damage in our relationships. But those on the Hill and in the agencies realize that we have a large number of members who are very animated.”
The groups are more likely to tap their members for issues at the state level, where things can move very quickly, he added.
Back in Washington, the alphabet groups continue to work behind the scenes to ensure GA continues to thrive.
“EAA tries to use its strengths to create new opportunities and rules for its members, such as the Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft rules, which took 10 to 12 years,” Macnair said.
“Our goal is to keep flying fun, safe and affordable,” Cebula added. “Too often, federal regulations make flying less fun.”
JUST THE BEGINNING
Of course, advocating for GA in Washington, D.C., is just one of the services offered by the alphabet groups. Members get access to tools to help them build airplanes, or run their businesses more effectively, or fly safer. The groups offer members discounts on everything from insurance to educational opportunities, as well as hold conventions each year.