2005 has been a year of challenge, of opportunity, of success for general aviation. 2006 promises more of the same.
Just as AOPA was beginning an all-out effort to have the Washington, D.C., Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) reduced or even eliminated, three high-profile evacuations of the U.S. Capitol during the spring and summer caused by pilots who inadvertently entered the no-fly zone around Washington, D.C., renewed concerns among the non-flying public about the security of general aviation.
The first and highest-profile incident involving a pilot and his student-pilot passenger in a Cessna 150 offered an opportunity even as AOPA dealt with the fallout. Because that flight terminated at Frederick Municipal Airport, right outside AOPA's headquarters, the association had direct access to the general news media as they showed up to cover the event and so was able to quell much of the hysteria about the "danger" posed by this light general aviation aircraft.
As a direct result of these infractions and the ensuing evacuations, some members of Congress proposed legislation to impose heavy fines and penalties on pilots who violate the Flight Restricted Zone. AOPA and the general aviation community were able to convince Congress not to proceed with those bills.
Now AOPA is involved in a fight against a proposed rule to make the ADIZ permanent. Because of a record outpouring of opposition - more than 18,000 submissions by the time the original comment period closed - from individual pilots who took the time to tell their personal stories through formal comments with the FAA, the U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered the FAA to extend the public comment period and to call a public meeting so aviation and security officials can hear directly from pilots as to why the ADIZ does not work and should not be made permanent.
That announcement was made at AOPA Expo 2005 by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta - the first time a member of the President's cabinet has visited general aviation's premier convention and trade show.
With the extension of the comment period, AOPA will continue the fight against the proposed rule into 2006.
Looking forward, AOPA is girding for what promises to be the most bruising battle yet over the issue of the FAA's funding and its transparent push for user fees - a "new" revenue source tied to the services rendered.
Although the FAA's next reauthorization legislation is not due for nearly two years, the agency is already laying the groundwork for a fee-for-service funding system, claiming that the aviation trust fund is going broke, even though numbers from the White House's own Office of Management and Budget disagree.
AOPA contends that Congress is - and must remain - the board of directors for the FAA. The congressional budgeting process works, as does the fuel tax - a highly efficient way to collect funds from the general aviation community. In addition, because the entire nation benefits from a robust aviation system, it's appropriate for some 25 percent of the FAA's funding to come from the general tax fund, and including that general tax funding would provide the FAA with the money it needs - without resorting to user fees.
With the crippling effects of user fee systems around the world serving as vivid evidence of the concept's innate failings, AOPA believes that user fees are absolutely the wrong way to fund America's air traffic control system - the busiest and the safest ATC system in the world. For that reason, even though the FAA's reauthorization bill won't even be considered until 2007, AOPA is already taking on the FAA for rhetoric that obscures the true funding situation.
2005 also saw the FAA taking the first vital steps to modernize a badly broken flight service station (FSS) system, awarding a contract to Lockheed Martin to revamp, reequip, and operate the system.
AOPA had argued that, despite the best efforts of the FSS specialists, the system was beyond repair. After careful study, the FAA determined that a private contractor operating under FAA supervision would be the best solution and chose Lockheed Martin from among five bidders, including one bid from the FAA employees themselves. Not only will the new contract lead to a modernized FSS, it will save American taxpayers $2.2 billion over 10 years.
Early indications after the changeover are that pilots are experiencing shorter hold times and more timely service. Some pilots have reported some concerns, but Lockheed Martin has vowed to address issues as they arise.
AOPA's challenge in 2006 will be to ensure that Lockheed Martin delivers the full promise of its FS21 system to pilots. The association's own experience has been that Lockheed Martin responds very quickly whenever concerns are raised.
The association will also keep pressure on the FAA to deliver more Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) instrument approaches. WAAS uses global positioning satellites augmented by ground stations to provide very precise vertical guidance in bad weather conditions. WAAS approaches cost about one-twentieth as much as the current instrument landing system and have the potential to turn nearly every airport in the United States into all-weather facilities.
AOPA will also work with the FAA in 2006 as the agency explores the possible benefits of using ADS-B - automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast - nationwide. As demonstrated in the Capstone project in Alaska, ADS-B can greatly enhance a pilot's situational awareness by providing traffic and weather displays in-cockpit and can give air traffic controllers radar-like coverage in areas that otherwise have no radar capabilities. ADS-B may provide a relatively low-cost replacement for aging radar infrastructure. But AOPA is also working to ensure that the system is relatively low cost for pilots, and that any timeline for equipage is reasonable.
Of course, AOPA will continue to try to improve general aviation safety through the efforts of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. During 2006, the foundation will greatly expand its offering of online safety courses, seeking to continue the decades-long downward trend in aviation accidents and fatalities.
The bottom line as we head into 2006 is that for most pilots nationwide, general aviation is in strong shape, but there are significant challenges - and opportunities - that AOPA is preparing to face in order to protect the interests of general aviation owners and pilots.
December 27, 2005