President's Position: Listening to you

May 1, 2008

Before joining AOPA, Phil Boyer was senior vice president of development for Capital Cities/ABC.

In my “previous life” I was a television executive, and during that career I learned how important it is to listen to your audience. A TV show doesn’t stay on the air very long if the audience doesn’t like it. That’s why that industry spends so much effort on gathering ratings and audience surveys.

I like to think that one of the reasons AOPA has been so successful through the years is that same focus on understanding what our “audience” wants and needs. Shortly after I became your president some 17 years ago, AOPA started an annual survey of members, asking the basic questions “How goes it?” and “What can we do better?” Through the years we’ve added a formal issues survey to better understand what concerns you. If you call the toll-free Pilot Information Center to ask an aviation question of one of our specialists, you may be asked if you don’t mind answering a few questions about some topical issue. We sometimes poll you through our Web site or ePilot newsletter. All so we can serve you better.

Recently I’ve started using an audience response system at AOPA Pilot Town Meetings. Every pilot attending is handed a small wireless keypad, not much larger than a credit card. Throughout the course of the evening, I’ll ask the audience members to give me their responses to questions or to rank certain options. The software collects and aggregates the data, and I can show the results immediately on the screen. More important, I bring the data back to Frederick, Maryland, to share with the AOPA management team, so we have “stage checks” to make sure we’re continuing to focus on what’s most important to you. We’re also using the data as part of our long-range “visioning” effort, an attempt to create a realistic picture of what general aviation will look like in the future, so we can better adapt to serve your needs as you continue flying.

One of the questions I ask is, “Looking ahead five years, what costs will most affect your decision to continue flying?” More than 70 percent of you at the Pilot Town Meetings say that the cost and availability of avgas will most likely be the determining factor in your future flying. No real surprise there, what with avgas averaging around $5-plus a gallon. And many of you ask, “Can’t AOPA do something about that?” Well, as the owner of a Cessna 172 and very thirsty radial engine powering my Waco biplane, I wish AOPA could. But as I often tell members, if the American Automobile Association (AAA) with some 50 million members can’t affect the price of gas for drivers, AOPA isn’t likely to have any greater success with aviation fuel for pilots.

But we can help you find the lowest cost fuel available. Last year we added current fuel prices (provided by 100ll.com) to AOPA’s Airport Directory Online, so you can look for the least expensive fuel wherever you’re flying. The fuel price info is updated regularly by paid staff (unlike some other listings that rely on volunteers to report prices).

Fuel availability is another big concern, particularly since an environmental organization recently petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to limit lead in avgas. The problem is that there are currently no alternatives to leaded fuel for pilots flying high-compression engines found in aircraft such as the Bonanza, Cirrus, or Mooney. That’s about 30 percent of the GA fleet that would be grounded if 100LL avgas suddenly became unavailable. That’s exactly what AOPA told the EPA in response to the petition. While lower compression engines (such as those in 172s or Piper Archers) can use some unleaded formulations, the economics of distributing and storing the very small volumes of avgas mean it’s practical for an FBO to sell one type of avgas only. “One fuel for all” is the only thing that will keep everybody flying. So AOPA is also working with the industry to find that fuel. And we’ve successfully lobbied Congress each year for money to fund research on replacement fuels and new engine technologies.

I also ask questions at the Pilot Town Meetings to gauge your optimism about general aviation’s future. And I’ve been very gratified by the answers, because your feelings mirror my own optimism. More than 80 percent of you predict that five years from now, you’ll be flying as much, if not more, than you do now.

You do have some concerns. Your biggest worry is the loss of general aviation airports. That has been a consistent theme for more than a decade, and it’s why we created the AOPA Airport Support Network, and why we have always fought so hard whenever a GA airport is threatened. Increasing security demands on GA is also an issue that is beginning to concern you.

But here is the question I consider the key indicator of many of our feelings about the future. “What advice would you give your children or grandchildren about learning to fly?” The multiple choices available included “Learn to fly, only if you really want to—it’s too hard,” or, “Take up golf.” However, in just about every city that I’ve posed that question so far, some 90 percent of the pilots responded, “You’ll love it—go for it!” Yes, they will.

See Phil Boyer’s letter to members.