D.C. insiders explain what election results mean for GA

November 6, 2008

Hundreds of AOPA members kicked off Expo on Nov. 6 with a standing ovation for 18-year AOPA President Phil Boyer as he opened the show’s first general session focusing on the recent election.

“When I voted on Tuesday, I wrote his name in, and I suspect some of you did as well,” Steve Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, said of Boyer, thanking him for nearly two decades of service to general aviation. This Expo marks Boyer’s final show as president.

Alterman, along with Washington, D.C., insiders Jane Garvey, former FAA administrator; James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association; and Ken Mead, former Department of Transportation inspector general, shared their insight into what the Nov. 4 election results could mean for GA. The panelists also answered audience questions that Boyer compiled from text messages sent during the discussion.

The panel of D.C. insiders from left to right, James Coyne, Jane Garvey, Steve Alterman and Ken Mead.

“AOPA lost two friends during the elections,” said AOPA Executive Vice President of Government Affairs Andy Cebula, who moderated the discussion.

GA supporters Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) were defeated in tight state elections. A pilot and AOPA member, Hayes helped AOPA on numerous GA issues as a member of the House aviation subcommittee. Sununu co-sponsored an amendment to strike user fees from the Senate version of the FAA funding bill.

Even though the two GA allies were not re-elected, Garvey believes there will be new opportunities for AOPA in Washington.

“Andy talked about losing two good friends, but in a sense, I think it offers good opportunity to you,” Garvey said, explaining that AOPA has good lobbyists on Capitol Hill who can build new relationships and educate the new members of Congress on the value of GA.

Perspective on the national election

Panelists agreed that the voters indicated they wanted a change from the current administration--a theme president-elect Barack Obama made the center of his campaign.

“If you look at the people who were elected, they seem to be more centrists,” Garvey said. “I’m not sure we’ll see a real shift to the left as some are predicting.”

Mead predicted that the Obama administration would have a short-lived honeymoon because the electoral results for nine of the past 15 elections were stronger than they were for Obama.

“We are entering an era of great expectations,” Mead said. He explained that AOPA should fair well with the new administration and Congress because it is a nonpartisan organization.

“AOPA is a force to be reckoned with,” Mead said, not only because it is nonpartisan, but also because of its strong membership.

GA wish list for Obama

Panelists shared the top aviation priorities that they hope Obama’s administration will address, including security, FAA funding, ATC modernization, relations with air traffic labor unions, and a stronger leadership role in international aviation.

“We have suffered along on this security front too long. I think he should stand up and say, ‘You know, we’re not going to be afraid of our shadow for the rest of our lives,” Coyne said, drawing resounding applause from the audience. He explained that the benefits of general aviation far exceed the risks and that GA was not involved in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Regarding security, Mead expressed concern about current legislation the Bush administration is trying to push through. He said it is important that proposals such as the Transportation Security Administration’s Large Aircraft Security Program do not make it through before Obama takes office, because his security focus seems to be more on land and sea operations. He did caution, however, that GA wouldn’t be out of the woods.

“They will be held up if the regulations are still in draft mode,” Garvey said, drawing from her experience with the federal government, “giving you a chance to make your point again.” She also added that the key to the amount of scrutiny GA security receives will depend on who Obama appoints as the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Challenges ahead for GA

AOPA and other GA organizations will be competing for limited federal funding for airports, security, ATC modernization, FAA funding, and other projects.

“I don’t think anyone gives a damn about general aviation up there right now,” Alterman said of the federal government, adding that their main focus is the current economic situation. “If you asked the congressmen to make a list of their top 10 issues, we’re not in there.”

“Collective success will depend on how the GA industry can come together,” Garvey said.

Part of the key to overcoming that challenge is selecting the proper FAA administrator. Obama will nominate a candidate that must be approved by Congress. Bobby Sturgell is the current acting FAA administrator.

“Lots of names are floating around--former airline execs, people on the Hill,” Garvey said of the next FAA administrator.

In a surprise video presentation from Congressmen Peter Defazio (D-Ore.), the representative joked that he would work with the Obama team to nominate Boyer as the new FAA administrator, since he “will be retired and out of work” at the end of the year.

A shocked Boyer quickly nodded ‘no’ and later reassured his wife, Lois, that they would still be moving to an airpark in Cincinnati.

The new FAA administrator must be a leader with strong interpersonal skills, according to Garvey. The administrator must be able to work with Congress and air traffic controllers and lead the NextGen concept into fruition. The NextGen concept is often thrown around in aviation circles and Congress, but no one can define it, describe it, or explain how to implement it within the next three to five years, the panelists said.

“It’s more of a slogan more than anything else,” Mead said. “It’s got a parade way out in front of it, and now people are just asking questions.”

The definition of NextGen will likely also include a discussion of how to use ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) technology. The FAA’s current plan for implementing the technology is controversial within the aviation industry.

Environmental issues pose another challenge to GA. Panelists agreed that the topic of leaded avgas will come to the forefront once the current economic situation is under control.

Members ask the panelists

AOPA members had the opportunity to ask panelists questions by sending text messages to Boyer, who was sitting in the audience.

One member asked how pilots could get more involved in D.C. issues. Panelists explained that the best way would be to get involved with AOPA, write your representative or senator and talk to your elected official’s transportation staffer, and get your congressmen out to your airport.

Another asked if the current anti-special interest sentiment in Congress would affect AOPA’s lobbying efforts?

“I think it’s a political soundbite,” Alterman said. “If you took away all the special interests and left Congress to their own devices, what the hell would they know?”

On a more serious note, Mead said that special interest groups would continue to lobby in Congress, while Coyne noted that lobbying is protected by the First Amendment.

Panelists reassured members that even though many challenges lie ahead for GA, AOPA is in a good position to educate the new members of Congress and Obama administration.