Baker, a self-proclaimed 'airport kid,' sets tone for AOPA

Details plans to protect, promote general aviation

October 10, 2013

AOPA President Mark Baker, right, and AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines.

Like many of the hundreds of pilots packed in the ballroom of the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas Oct. 10, AOPA President Mark Baker was an “airport kid.”

“I fell in love with flying at the airport—and I bet many of you did too,” Baker said during the keynote address Thursday morning. “I was one of those airport kids. I used to ride my bike down to the field to watch the planes take off and land. And I talked to the pilots and bummed rides whenever I could.”

He’s seen the toll financial and security pressures, to name a few, have taken on general aviation.

“That experience just isn’t available anymore,” he continued, “but it should be.”

And, he said, he’s doing something about it and encouraging AOPA members to join him in sharing ideas and taking active steps to revitalize the community.

Baker presented four key areas on which he is focusing: cutting FAA costs, getting the third class medical exemption granted, preserving airports, and breathing new life into aviation at the local level.

Those goals, he said, are similar to those of AOPA’s founders who decided the purpose of the organization would be to promote the economy, safety, and enjoyment of personal flying and to promote, protect, and represent the interest of its members.

“Next year, AOPA will celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary,” Baker said, explaining his recent visit to AOPA’s birthplace, Wings Field. “And our goals and vision really haven’t changed.

“Back in 1939, the world was going to war and it looked like GA might disappear forever. We still face threats—but there are a lot more than five of us today, and we won’t let general aviation disappear.”

FAA budget: ‘We aren’t going to wait around’

While the impact of the federal government shutdown may not have directly impacted all pilots immediately, a prolonged shutdown will affect pilot and medical certificates and pilot services. Meanwhile, sequestration will continue to get worse unless the aviation community bands together to step in.

“We aren’t going to wait around for people who don’t understand or care about GA to make those choices,” Baker said. “We’re going to take a hard look at FAA spending and come up with our own suggestions for saving money.”

AOPA is working with the Experimental Aircraft Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Helicopter Association International, National Air Transportation Association, and National Business Aviation Association to identify cuts that won’t hurt GA.

“We have already identified about $150 million in potential savings, and we think we can come up with a total of at least $500 million,” Baker said.

Flight service is one area of savings. When the FAA ran flight services a decade ago, the services cost $550 million a year. Lockheed Martin took over in 2005, and now flight services cost $188 million a year. That savings could grow—about another $75 million a year—if redundant services were eliminated and Web-based self-service, along with some other changes, were implemented.

“Don’t worry, we don’t want to get rid of live pre-flight briefings,” Baker explained. “We just want to give pilots more of what they use and less of what they don’t.”

VORs are another area for potential savings as the nation transitions to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

If about half of the 967 VORs nationwide were decommissioned and just a basic network was kept in place, the FAA could save $55 million every year.

It’s the same principle with redundant approaches, Baker said. “Some runways have seven approaches, but you really only need two good ones.”

Getting rid of some approaches that no one uses could save another $4 million a year.

“We aren’t talking about getting rid of things you use, things that are important to you,” he emphasized to attendees. “We’re talking about not spending money on things that don’t help pilots and don’t improve safety.”

To that end, Baker encouraged members to send him their thoughts on cutting costs.

Third-class medical exemption: ‘I won’t just let it die’

Eighteen months ago, AOPA and EAA filed a petition with the FAA to expand the driver’s license medical standard. More than 16,000 comments were filed with the FAA, and they were overwhelmingly positive.

Some at the FAA say the initiative isn’t a priority, but it should be. It could save a substantial amount of money.

“We estimate that letting more pilots fly with a driver’s license medical would save the FAA $11 million at a time when we know they need to cut costs,” Baker said.

The pilot community would benefit too, to a savings of almost $250 million over 10 years.

“I brought this issue up with the FAA administrator just last week,” Baker said. “He is understandably worried about safety. But we feel confident that this petition ensures safety.”

Sport pilots have been flying safely with driver’s license medicals for nine years. And the AOPA-EAA proposal adds another safety layer—specific training in self-certifying fitness for flight—compared to what is used for sport pilots today.

“We have offered to work with FAA to find a way forward, and we’re talking to our friends in Congress about it too.

“I won’t just let it die.”

Aviation access: ‘Airports shouldn’t look like prison camps’

Baker, who shared his passion for hanging out at airports and attracting nonpilots to aviation, acknowledged airports’ needs for security, but said there needs to be balance. Communities need access to their airports.

“Why can’t our airports have picnic tables, shelters, grills, viewing areas, and playgrounds?” Baker questioned.

AOPA works across the country every day to protect airports, often weighing in at city council meetings and with mayors’ offices to defend an airport or explain its benefits to the community. The association also encourages cities that value and use their airport to help their local area thrive.

“Change won’t happen overnight, but it will happen and we’ll be working with airports and pilots to make sure it does,” Baker said, highlighting examples in a video presentation of flourishing airports as well as sharing the controversial closure of others.

Community events: ‘I want to meet you where you fly’

Baker spoke to attendees about the recent announcement that this would be the last AOPA Aviation Summit for the foreseeable future. He explained that the association is planning to host about a half-dozen regional fly-ins across the country in 2014—full-day events with educational seminars, lunch, and fun flying. During these events, Baker said he will share what’s happening at AOPA and listen to members’ input.

“I want to meet you where you fly so I can really get a feel for what’s important to you,” he said.

He started soliciting that input, immediately during the keynote with a Q-and-A session with members present, hosted by AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Tom Haines. But it’s not just the members who attended Summit. Baker stressed that “I do want to learn from you, our members,” and offered his email address as a way to get the dialogue started with those who could not be in attendance.