GA relies on its alphabet groups — such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and others — to fight its battles in Washington, D.C.
But the truth of the matter is, it’s the individual pilot, making contact with his or her representative or senator, that makes the most impact.
“Congressmen most listen to the people back home,” said Lisa Piccione, senior vice president of government affairs for NBAA, during a Town Hall-style meeting at Sun ‘n Fun. “And we need that partnership. It really helps when we walk into someone’s office on Capitol Hill and they say, ‘I’m really glad to see you because I’ve been hearing a lot about this at home.”
Still don’t believe your single voice — or vote — doesn’t matter?
“If you ever had a question about whether one letter or one phone call can make a difference, the LASP (Large Aircraft Security Program) shows tangible results that it does,” she continued.
Proposed by TSA, the program would have imposed airline-like security on all aircraft weighing more than 12,500 lbs., no matter its mission. The onerous rules, vehemently opposed by GA, received a record number of comments, while meetings around the country attracted standing-room-only crowds. “All those letters — every single one — made a difference,” she said. “Numbers matter in Washington.”
TSA has pulled back on the LASP, with a revised rule expected soon that will push the weight limit up to 25,000 to 30,000 lbs. “It really should be at 80,000 lbs.,” said Craig Fuller, AOPA president.
Fights with TSA about security are expected to continue, although the last year has been much better since the agency put a pilot, Brian Delauter, in charge of GA security. “He is one of us,” said Pete Bunce, president of GAMA. “Just having that expertise in place allows the agency to not over-react.” Which was a real possibility after the incident in February in Austin, when a disgruntled pilot flew his Cherokee into an IRS office building, killing himself and an IRS employee.
But increased security wouldn’t have stopped that incident from happening, noted John King, co-owner of King Schools. “Security wouldn’t have stopped him from flying his own airplane,” he said, noting in his recent CFI revalidation course, he had to answer questions about “challenging people who didn’t belong on the airport.”
“We don’t want to challenge people — we want to welcome them,” he said. “We’ve got to be accepting to the public.”
There’s two reasons for that, he noted: Airports must be open to everyone to help the pilot population grow, as well as to let people in the community — from neighbors to elected officials — become familiar with the airport and all the good it engenders, from jobs to medical flights to keeping the local economy moving.
“All of our power comes from the public and their perception of us,” he said.
That perception was badly damaged when the Big Three automakers were questioned about arriving in Washington, D.C., in three separate bizjets to beg for bailouts. “The question that was initially asked was ‘was that an appropriate use of an airplane?,'” NBAA’s Piccione said, “which morphed into the question ‘is there ever an appropriate use?”
To battle that perception — fueled by reports in USA Today about “fat cats and their jets” — the alphabet groups knew “we needed to turn up the volume,” she said.
NBAA and GAMA created “No Plane, No Gain,” while AOPA and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) created GA Serves America, two campaigns to let people know how important GA is to the nation.
“We need to get the message out that GA is jobs, jobs, jobs,” Piccione said.
Besides the millions of jobs it creates, GA is also a lifeline to small communities that don’t have commercial air service. “It is an economic lifeline and a medical lifeline,” she said. “It’s also important to remind people that we are here in times of need, such as hurricanes and earthquakes.”
Besides getting that message out the public and our elected officials, pilots have another responsibility: “We need to give (the alphabet groups) the tools to work with by our behavior,” said Martha King, co-owner of King Schools. “We have to be acceptable to our neighbors and be good citizens so we don’t create problems for the people around the airport.”
She told the story of seeing planes make fast passes every weekend near her home in San Diego, a bit of thrill-seeking for the pilots, but a nuisance to those on the beach, who don’t understand — and are sometimes scared — by what the pilots are doing. Those beach-goers complain to City Hall, which is less responsive to the needs of the airport and local pilots when issues come up.
She noted that GA also needs to fix its accident rate, which is 49 times worse than commercial airlines — “that’s on par with motorcycles,” she said, noting the accidents aren’t due to mechanical failures, but rather risk management by pilots. “We can fix that,” she said. “If we don’t fix it, the public and the politicians will fix it and we won’t like that fix.”