A record-breaking 11,701 pilots and aviation enthusiasts helped make AOPA Expo 2002 the most successful in the association's history. The record number of attendees eclipsed the previous record, set two years ago in Long Beach, California.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey opened the convention during a standing-room-only general session on Thursday morning, calling general aviation the backbone of aviation.
"I saw firsthand how critical general aviation is to the American future," Blakey said. "And I've come to appreciate its importance for one more reason—the basic American freedom to fly is essential to the American character."
Blakey praised the cooperation between AOPA and the FAA, saying, "We're also making the most of your advice. One example is your forward-thinking proposal to make a driver's license valid for the security needs of general aviation." She told the Expo audience that the agency had adopted AOPA's proposal to require pilots to carry a government-issued photo ID whenever they fly.
AOPA has been pushing the FAA to provide graphical depictions of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) to help pilots avoid restricted airspace. Blakey announced that a joint FAA-Jeppesen project to dynamically chart TFRs should be online for flight service station preflight briefers soon, with online availability for all pilots by early next year. "You need a good picture. I am here to tell you that you're about to get it," Blakey said.
The FAA administrator also said her agency will vigorously defend airports against closure by local governments. "We will remind airport sponsors of their obligations," Blakey said. Airports that accept federal money for airport improvements are required to operate the facility for 20 years after receiving the grant.
At the third and final general session on Saturday, AOPA leaders outlined the association's ambitious new campaign to help secure general aviation airports and head off potentially more onerous federal intervention.
The plan is based on the highly successful Neighborhood Watch programs. It draws on the fact that a local airport is a community, and that those in the community are best able to recognize people and events that are unusual and potentially dangerous. Airport Watch offers educational materials to help pilots learn what to watch for.
The Transportation Security Administration was impressed enough with AOPA Airport Watch to provide a nationwide toll-free telephone number that pilots can use to report suspicious activity. When a pilot calls 866/GA-SECURE (866/427-3287), an operator will route the call to the proper authority, no matter where the pilot is calling from.
The festivities began with the Parade of Planes Wednesday afternoon. 77 planes, led by a Waco almost identical to the AOPA Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes aircraft, taxied the two miles from Palm Springs International Airport to the static display area at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Two helicopters that flew directly to the convention center were also on display. Inside the convention hall were over 500 exhibits to enthrall aviation enthusiasts.
Plans are already under way for Expo 2003. Next year's gathering will be held in Philadelphia, where AOPA was founded 63 years ago, October 30-November 1, 2003.