President's Position: Friends on the ground

October 1, 2008

Phil Boyer co-owns a Cessna 172 with his wife, Lois. They fly from Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK) in Maryland.

Like many of you, in spite of high fuel costs, I’ve been taking advantage of the great summer weather, and flying quite a bit. About 50 percent of my flying has been personal and mainly VFR, while the balance has been for business and almost always IFR. I guess it was during one of my recent business trips to EAA AirVenture that I was reminded how well cared for we are in the air by those highly trained individuals who toil in front of radar screens on the ground. Shortly after departure from AOPA headquarters into the busy Baltimore/Washington airspace, the Potomac Tracon controller, who recognized the AOPA aircraft call sign N4GA, cleared us “direct-Oshkosh.” He said it was an once-in-a-lifetime favor recognizing my pending retirement.

Most of us who fly in the air traffic system today realize it exists mainly for the airlines, but as an incremental user we receive great benefit. It’s the airlines that are always asking for smoother air, direct-to clearances, or some other change in plan, but we in general aviation just want to fit into their system, follow instructions, and not screw up.

Many of the air traffic controllers are GA pilots and members. Often on frequency they recognize the AOPA airplane and acknowledge to me some specific thing AOPA is doing to make their own light airplane flying experience easier. Yet, these dedicated aviation professionals have an organization of their own: NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association). Originally certified in 1987, NATCA is one of the most influential labor unions in the federal sector and is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. The majority of the more than 20,000 members are controllers, but the union also represents other safety-related professionals, including engineers, traffic management coordinators, and staff specialists.

AOPA and NATCA enjoy a very close relationship, particularly when it comes to lobbying Congress on key issues. Just as we would like to see the FAA Reauthorization Bill pass and become law, so would they. Obviously, our interests on elements of the proposed bill differ, but the overriding philosophy of air traffic control remaining a U.S. government function and not becoming privatized is key. In this particular battle, and also on regulatory issues before Congress, NATCA’s President Pat Forrey and I sit together in collaborative testimony at hearings in both the House and Senate. Late this spring the union ran a major print campaign covering Capitol Hill calling for passage of the bill and endorsing the need for a more modern air traffic control system. Forrey himself also made media appearances supporting our mutual interests in passing this important legislation. NATCA and AOPA don’t agree on every issue 100 percent, and on a handful of these issues, as gentlemen we agree to disagree. Times like these are understandable, and Forrey and I hold mutual respect for each other’s separate roles—his representing a workforce and mine on behalf of aircraft pilots and owners.

In recent years, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation has partnered with NATCA to conduct safety seminars in which local controllers in the community donate their time to attend and answer participant questions. Record-breaking attendance at many locations can be attributed to the controller participation. ASF plans more programs next year in partnership with the union.

More than a decade ago, while flying in Indianapolis Center airspace, I was particularly taken with a controller who was not waiting to be asked, but was volunteering direct-to and more efficient routings for GA airplanes flying in the lower altitudes: “Mooney XXXX, if you’d like direct to Eagle Creek, I can make that available.” It wasn’t just this one airplane, but a half-dozen. When I returned to the office I asked AOPA staff to put a hold on the recordings in this sector so we could review. Well, this started a flurry of questioning at the FAA as to why AOPA would want to have these tapes. Rumors spread throughout the agency’s 800 Independence Avenue headquarters. We finally let them know that we wanted to make public this kind of service and present a special award to this outstanding controller. In less than 45 days the local pilots in Indianapolis held a dinner for some 200 people, and I was the guest speaker. At one table were this controller and his entire family. We played a condensed version of his communication with pilots and brought him to the podium for the award. Whenever I subsequently flew through his sector I would ask for Bob by name, or when he recognized the N number he would acknowledge me. In one such dialogue several months after the award I spoke to him on the radio and said, “How you doing, Bob?” He answered the question and then without my asking came back with “cleared direct destination.” Well, that opened the floodgates: “United 487, how are you, Bob, and could I get direct Wichita?” “Bob, Southwest 676 requests direct Salt Lake City”; “Glad you’re fine, Bob, and Northwest 981 would sure like direct Minneapolis.” And these are just a few of the many radio calls.

Over the recent Labor Day weekend, knowing these controllers were working the holiday weekend while I was flying, I often ended communications with, “Have a good Labor Day, and thanks for being a friend on the ground so we can be up here.”