President's Position

NWA vs. private planes

June 1, 2004

Phil Boyer travels the country advocating for AOPA's 400,000 members.

It has always been my philosophy that when the airlines are profitable and happy, we have fewer conflicts with them in general aviation.

Conversely, when they are not profitable, which has been the case a majority of the time, it's all GA's fault! Such was the case when a recent issue of Northwest Airlines' (NWA) in-flight magazine NWA WorldTraveler carried a full-page message from its CEO Richard Anderson. It's hard not to break the boredom of an airline flight by reaching for that company magazine in the seat pocket in front of you, and that's what NWA passengers did throughout March. There they read Anderson's claim that private aircraft operators get air traffic control services "free of charge." While he explained in great detail all the taxes and charges added onto an airline passenger ticket, he did little to indicate how we pay into the system through a tax on all aviation fuel. He also failed to note that the average AOPA member often isn't flying under positive control from the FAA air traffic control system and that a majority of our flying is under visual flight rules well under the flight levels used by airlines. Many AOPA members fly Northwest, so it didn't take long before I was inundated with e-mails advising me of the NWA position. As one member wrote, "It is potshots like this that create misinformation about GA to the general public.... As a U.S. taxpayer and a professional pilot that uses both GA and the airlines for my livelihood...I would like to see an apology from Mr. Anderson. If his mindset continues, I have no problem in boycotting NWA in the future."

Anderson's remarks were part of an ongoing campaign by his airline to get greater financial concessions at its home airport in Minneapolis. The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has operated Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport since 1943. This body, with the governor appointing the chair and some commissioners, oversees not only this airport but also six GA reliever airports. For more than a year, financially troubled NWA has claimed that the air-carrier airport subsidizes these relievers by $2 million to $10 million a year. Last year, Northwest filed a lawsuit against the MAC to recover these funds. AOPA has been on this case the entire time, but the WorldTraveler article brought a local issue to national attention. Northwest claims each reliever airport should be self-sufficient. Unfortunately NWA fails to consider that a "reliever" is just that. A subsidy from the air-carrier hub airport that is being relieved of GA traffic is a cost-effective way to increase efficiency and capacity at the main airport. AOPA's Vice President of Airports Bill Dunn held a meeting with more than 400 local pilots last August to prepare the association position in this battle. Our AOPA regional representative and I met with state politicians last year to enlist support. And most recently, AOPA's Vice President of Regional Affairs Roger Cohen spoke at a MAC meeting and visited with state politicians.

We considered rebutting Anderson's comments in a variety of ways: sending him the normal angry letter telling our side of the story; taking out an ad in the next issue of NWA WorldTraveler with GA's position; or calling for a boycott of the airline. I decided that it might be better to meet with him to discuss both the article and lawsuit. We spent 90 minutes debating the issues and trying to find common ground. I handed him a several-page point-by-point rebuttal. My intent was to educate him about general aviation. While the damage was done, he admitted that the article was directed toward business jets, not the typical GA airplane or pilot. However, on the issues of the lawsuit and subsidies to separate GA from the hub airport, we found little agreement.

After pushing to be heard by the full MAC, AOPA was granted a meeting last month. I had more than 30 minutes to explain the very important role reliever airports play in our network of landing facilities. I also presented the results of studies AOPA commissioned on pilot priorities and concerns in the operation of these six GA airports, and a national survey showing that Minneapolis-area hangar and land rents are close to the average. The study clearly indicated that proposed increases of as much as 700 percent were out of line. Part of the problem is that since the early 1960s the MAC has issued only one rate adjustment covering the past five years. Whatever the eventual outcome, AOPA called for a gradual implementation. It was gratifying to have standing-room-only attendance from local pilots to put a face on this issue. Their presence sent a message to the commissioners. Prior to the hearing I met with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who appeared to be aware of and understand the issues affecting half of our 8,000 AOPA members in the state. What if just a fraction of them decided to land at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a late Friday afternoon, during a peak Northwest Airlines arrival period? The small subsidy that NWA wants to recover from the reliever airports would pale in comparison to the cost of arrival and departure delays.

This issue will be decided in the coming months, but it illustrates yet another major initiative your association has undertaken on behalf of GA airports. Financial resources and the efforts of senior staff members already have gone into presenting our case. Ironically, the day I was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, it was announced that NWA's senior management, including Anderson, had been awarded executive bonuses of more than $6 million, even though first-quarter losses for the airline exceeded $230 million.