FAA Administrator Marion Blakey helped kick off AOPA Expo 2003, speaking to a packed house of more than 1,200 pilots at this morning's opening General Session.
Blakey made a fervent pitch for pilots to support the FAA reauthorization bill currently stuck in a conference committee in Congress. She noted that several aviation associations took part in a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday in support of the bill, but that AOPA was not among them. "I'm told that AOPA would usually be front and center on issues like this," she said. "That's why we were more than a little surprised that AOPA wasn't there."
"We weren't there because the bill no longer has any ban on air traffic control privatization," said AOPA President Phil Boyer after the General Session ended. "The original bill restored ATC to 'inherently governmental' status. The first compromise bill left the 'commercial' status in place but guaranteed no changes to the current system for four years. The bill that's currently pending makes no mention of privatization at all. No protection. No guarantees.
"Administrator Blakey says she has absolutely no intention to privatize ATC, and we take her at her word. But what about the next administrator? Or a new administration? Without protections in the law, the threat of privatization remains."
During her speech, Blakey highlighted the FAA's five-year strategic plan, Flight Plan 2004-2008. She noted a number of changes that were made to the final plan as a direct result of input from AOPA: bringing GA to the table to help develop the FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS); improving VFR access to congested airspace; provide better IFR access, including development of the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS); and streamlining approval of new avionics systems.
Blakey also scored points and a loud round of applause when she decried the closure of Chicago's Meigs Field. "What happened at Chicago's Meigs Field on March 30th was a travesty," she said. "It was a national travesty. And a national system is what we have to preserve. No one should carve a piece of it out at any given point just on the basis of a local decision."
During the question and answer session following her speech, Blakey told a member security concerns remain that mean the Baltimore-Washington Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) will not be going away anytime soon. She said the FAA has no plans to privatize flight service stations, although the agency is exploring the most cost-effective way to provide the services. One of the options includes contracting out the work.
"Administrator Blakey pledged to attend AOPA Expo back during the spring," said Boyer. "And she kept that commitment, even though she had a noon meeting with her boss, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. She obviously understands the importance of general aviation, and we appreciate her willingness and eagerness to address this vital sector of the industry."