The right man for the times

Outgoing AOPA President Craig Fuller reflects on the past and the future of aviation

August 19, 2013

Craig Fuller interview

Photography by Chris Rose

Craig Fuller’s first bit of advice to the new AOPA president: Get to know the members. Fuller, who announced in February that he was leaving AOPA this year, admits the advice was handed down by his predecessor, Phil Boyer, and said it has served him well in his nearly five years as only the fourth president in the organization’s 74-year history. The AOPA board of trustees is expected to announce a replacement this fall.

In an interview taped for AOPA Live This Week, Fuller says getting to know the members has been one of the most memorable parts of his tenure. “One of the great pleasures is getting to know the members. They’re direct and honest. Members are very grateful for what we do. They do have high demands. They do have high expectations, but they are extremely grateful.” Fuller, who has spent more time out of his AOPA office than in it—meeting members, interacting with members of Congress, and raising funds—says of the experience: “It rejuvenates you when you’re out there and you understand how much they’re depending on us. They’re a wonderful group of people.”

Fuller joined AOPA in mid-2008 and became president in January 2009 as the nation was sliding into the worst economic doldrums since before AOPA was formed in 1939. The economic turmoil shaped much of his agenda for the organization. Billions in lost wealth among Americans directly impacted the GA marketplace, stagnating sales of aircraft and manufacturers’ ability to invest and innovate. Impacted by the financial chaos, pilots trimmed their flying expenses or dropped out altogether at even a higher rate than they have been over the past 30 years (see “Advancing a Cause,” page 48). The federal government, struggling to reduce soaring budget deficits, began to push even harder for user fees and other taxes detrimental to GA—a perfect storm of challenges for someone charged with running the world’s largest association of pilots and aircraft owners.

Anticipating the challenges from Washington, D.C., Fuller invested in additional advocacy resources and launched a rejuvenated GA Serves America campaign to raise the awareness of members of Congress and the public about the issues facing general aviation airports, pilots, and companies. The campaign raised about $2 million and AOPA kicked in another $2 million from reserves to run advertisements in Washington, D.C., and in the home districts of key legislators. High-profile pilots Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman loaned their support at no charge, causing a buzz that got the attention of legislators.

Fuller credits the campaign with causing members of Congress to come to AOPA and other aviation associations for assistance in organizing GA caucuses in both chambers of the legislature. Today, the House and Senate GA caucuses are among the largest on Capitol Hill—and caucus members are among aviation’s most ardent supporters in Congress.

craig fuller
craig fuller
craig fuller
craig fuller
craig fuller

Upon his arrival, Fuller quickly learned that pilots join the association primarily for access to its award-winning media properties and to support its legendary advocacy efforts. “I really came in thinking that advocacy was job one for me—that that was my background and we had 400,000 members counting on us,” he said. Fuller was a senior staff member in the Reagan White House and ultimately chief of staff for Vice President George H.W. Bush. He has spent the past 30 years in Washington, D.C., in various government, industry, and association positions.

His collaborative nature changed much about how the association interacts with other organizations. “I learned from my White House days when listening to industry groups that if you’re fractured, you have very little chance to be successful. You’re much more successful if you come together as a group.” Among Fuller’s first acts as the new AOPA president was to reach out to EAA and other aviation associations to build a general aviation coalition. He then began working with his counterparts at the associations representing the airlines to look for opportunities to cooperate, after years of sparring over the user-fee issue.

“What we found in working together is that it gave us greater strength in Congress, greater strength with the administration. In fact, sometimes I think the administration at the FAA is frustrated that the stakeholders are all together, which kind of forces them down a path in which they may not want to go,” he said.

However, the longtime student of government is concerned with a trend that has been called the administrative state. The agencies of the executive branch have been usurping ever more control as gridlock in Congress grows. Described as a growing “fourth branch of government,” this movement of authority to the regulators bypasses the usual oversight by Congress, allowing agencies—such as the FAA, Department of Homeland Security, and others—to decide what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded. “There is no question that the administrative branch, the regulatory branch, is growing in its influence. It’s more and more difficult for Congress to control,” Fuller observes.

He describes the FAA’s decision to stop funding contract control towers as such a move, a decision that traditionally would occur only after hearings and input from Congress. Ultimately Congress did weigh in earlier this year and directed the agency to fund the towers through the end of the fiscal year. But with the 10-year sequestration plan only just beginning, Fuller believes that flight service stations and contract towers, which serve general aviation, will continue to feel the biggest brunt of FAA budget cuts.

In response, Fuller and other aviation leaders have begun a discussion about alternative ways to fund big aviation projects, such as the modernization of the air traffic control system, frequently referred to as NextGen (see “P&E: ADS-B Moves Forward,” page 78). “Should we leave that in the federal government or should it be funded with some other mechanism?” In referencing potential privatization of air traffic control, Fuller acknowledges that “traditionally we’ve had a concern about that.” But through collaboration, the industry should consider all options. “That, I think, is a discussion for the future that needs to happen.”

While dealing with difficult regulatory and administrative changes affecting aviation—many of them driven by the economic climate during his tenure—Fuller also had to face the impact of the economy on the pilot community. The continuing decline of the pilot population meant fewer potential AOPA members. Rather than continuing to waste marketing dollars on fringe members unlikely to renew, Fuller focused dollars on building a stronger foundation for the future in the form of free memberships to youth and active-duty military. Getting those younger audiences into aviation will serve the association well in the future.

Likewise, he focused resources on helping flight schools retain student pilots to improve student dropout rates that, at times, approach 80 percent. The Flight Training Excellence Awards and a series of best-practices field guides for flight schools, CFIs, and students followed, as did an email newsletter for flight school managers, and a host of services to stabilize the declining population. To help pilots have access to more affordable aircraft and to improve the social climate at airports, the association has focused resources on assisting flying clubs. All of these growth initiatives are housed in a new department at AOPA called the Center to Advance the Pilot Community.

To fund such initiatives and replace advertising revenue lost as aviation companies contracted, Fuller oversaw efforts to grow new revenue sources in a way that also brought good value to pilots. Among them was the launch of the FlyQ electronic flight bag and the repositioning of the AOPA Aviation Finance program into one that uses multiple banks to fund aircraft purchases and upgrades rather than just one.

craig fuller

As a longtime pilot and AOPA member, Fuller wants to leave the organization in a position for growth. “For me, aviation has been a part of my life since I took my first flight with my dad when I was 14 years old in a seaplane in Oregon. It’s been a part of my life ever since,” he recalls. “Flying is definitely in my future,” he concludes as he considers his next move, which will likely be in the consulting world for a period of time—as it has been at various points in his career. “I really felt like a five-year stint here was the right amount of time.” His notification to the board of trustees was done “without any desire to jump immediately to something else. I want to make sure there’s time for a new person to come in and get settled.”

Meanwhile, he is considering his own aviation future, planning to keep his Aviat Husky. “I’ve almost reinvented myself as a pilot,” he says of learning tailwheel and backcountry skills in the Husky after a lifetime of using higher-performance aircraft for transportation. His wife, Karen, isn’t keen on the Husky for transportation, so he is looking for an airplane in that category, having sold his Beechcraft Bonanza a couple of years ago.

He describes his time at AOPA as “pretty intense.” However, he says, “I will miss most the wonderful people I’ve had the chance to work with here, and our members. But I do intend to find ways to stay involved and help general aviation one way or another.”

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.