President's Position: Passion for flight

August 1, 2008

AOPA President Phil Boyer is president of the International Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations.

The passion for flight.

It’s the common bond among pilots worldwide. The passion burns so strong that we will overcome incredible obstacles—personal, financial, governmental—to fly.

I was struck by how powerful that passion can be when in my capacity as president of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations, along with three AOPA managers, attended the 24th World Assembly of IAOPA in Athens, Greece, last June. IAOPA was formed in 1962, when AOPA’s first president, J.B. “Doc” Hartranft, saw the growing need for a forceful advocate on behalf of general aviation in the international arena. Today there are pilot associations in 66 nations, which are affiliated with IAOPA. And the number continues to grow.

What amazes me are the obstacles pilots in other countries have to overcome to indulge in their passion and fly general aviation aircraft. Here in the United States we are trying to overcome the shock of avgas prices averaging $6 a gallon. In Europe avgas is around $12 a gallon—if you can find it. But pilots in Europe still fly.

In our host country of Greece, there are only 15 GA airports serving general aviation. Just seven of them have avgas, and, even then, they’ll only pump gas a few hours each day. There’s no guarantee that your airport will be open. They often close if no airline traffic is scheduled. You can’t land if the control tower isn’t operating or if the fire brigade isn’t on duty. But pilots in Greece still fly.

The military controls most of the airports and all of the airspace in Greece. All VFR flying is done on a flight plan with mandatory reporting points about every 100 miles. But I found some of the most enthusiastic and passionate general aviation pilots in Greece.

Yiouli Kalafati, president of AOPA-Hellas (Greece), believes that Greece could become the general aviation center of Europe. With the country’s central location and ideal weather, it would be ideal for flight training. General aviation tourism has huge potential, as many of the Greek islands and tourist areas have airports.

One of Kalafati’s goals in hosting the IAOPA World Assembly was to demonstrate to Greek authorities what they could gain by facilitating—rather than hindering—general aviation. She lobbied the government to lift many of the restrictions on GA for 10 days surrounding the World Assembly. She got many of the Greek airports to suspend GA handling fees. AOPA-Hellas also organized the first-ever airshow in Greece, attracting more than 28,000 aviation enthusiasts and spectators.

Did it make a difference? I think it did. I had an extensive conversation with the minister of transportation and communications for Greece, Kostas Hatzidakis, during the IAOPA World Assembly. He is the equivalent in this country of the Secretary of Transportation. I don’t think he really understood general aviation prior to then, but he told me he could see how GA could be an essential form of transportation. He said that GA would receive increased attention from his ministry.

Maybe he’ll consider opening airports to GA traffic without an operating control tower. He was initially incredulous when I told him that most of the airports in the United States do not have control towers, and that AOPA’s home field at Frederick, Maryland, is the second busiest airport in the state, yet it functions safely and efficiently without a tower. I hope our example will lead Greece to open up its airports and airspace more fully to the potential of general aviation.

But the control mentality will be a hard one to overcome in Europe and some other parts of the world. The idea of unfettered VFR access to airports and airspace, to be able to use a general aviation airplane as a traveling machine, is a foreign, perhaps even scary, concept to many regulators outside of the United States.

In Italy, for example, the local airport comandante must approve a VFR flight plan before the pilot can take off. He also controls the keys for every aircraft on the field.

In Switzerland, the “terminal maneuvering area” around Zurich (roughly equivalent to Class B airspace) is more than 100 miles wide and in some areas forces VFR aircraft to fly within several hundred feet of the terrain.

While Europe is moving toward a “single sky” concept, today the reality is more as if every state in the United States had its own FAA, each with its own set of airspace rules and classifications. Imagine a 500-mile flight passing through five different states, each with its own rules.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the user fees. Want the lights on for a night landing? That’s an extra $30 in France. Want to talk to a weather briefer in Switzerland? That will be $1.50 a minute.

And yet, they still fly. Maybe we should learn something from that. No matter what obstacles we may find here in the United States, it’s so much more costly and harder for the average person to fly in other parts of the world. Yet, they still hold a passion for flight.