In his first year of piloting the world’s largest aviation association, AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller believes he has gained a good sense of the issues facing general aviation pilots.
Crisscrossing the country from Alaska to Florida and New England to Southern California, the longtime AOPA member has met members in dozens of states. He has been encouraged by their enthusiasm for flying and inspired by their passion for protecting the future of GA. “I’ve enjoyed spending a lot of time with our members and I’m very pleased to report that our membership is as strong as it is in this very difficult year,” Fuller said during a recent interview reflecting on his first year in office and looking ahead to issues facing GA in 2010.
When laying out his plan for 2009, Fuller made educating nonpilots about the benefits of GA one of his top priorities (see “Pilot to Pilot: A Pilot First,” January 2009 AOPA Pilot ). Fuller believes that it is ignorance on the part of the public and opinion leaders at all levels of government and business that leads to misunderstandings about GA, which then foster threats to its future. To help fight that ignorance, Fuller immediately upon assuming his duties as AOPA’s fourth president on January 2, 2009, set in motion a plan to increase communication about GA to more than just pilots. “We need to preach to more than just the choir,” he has said. One highly successful tool to improve the perception of GA has been the launch of Aviation eBrief, a daily e-mail newsletter compiled from hundreds of media outlets across the country. Professional editors cull dozens of articles a day about GA issues down to a handful, which are summarized in the newsletter. “I’m pleased it was so well received. We had hoped that we might have 40,000 or 50,000 people subscribe. It is free. We have now well more than 170,000 people subscribing. Interestingly, it is also going to 30,000 or more who are not AOPA members and we’re beginning to reach a broader audience that way. I’m particularly interested when I get to Capitol Hill and find out that Congressional staff members are reading AOPA’s Aviation eBrief five days a week.”
Aviation eBrief is just one arrow in Fuller’s quiver for getting the word out about general aviation. Another major new initiative is the General Aviation Serves America campaign. The campaign uses radio and television ads, billboards, print ads, and other vehicles in Washington, D.C., and select congressional districts, among other locations, to reach legislators and others who can impact the future of general aviation. Pilots and actors Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman have both donated their time during 2009 to film advertisements for the campaign, with Ford acting as a national spokesman for the effort. “When we sat back and looked at the beginning of the year at some of the challenges we faced, we knew we were going to have to fight individual battles—keeping airports open, the user fee proposal that was out there; but overarching the individual issues was the concern about people not understanding the value of general aviation,” Fuller said. AOPA did some research to understand how opinion leaders view general aviation. “We came to the conclusion that we needed to get a message out about the value of general aviation in a way that would help us with all the issues we face.
“We were very fortunate because we reached out to a wonderful AOPA member, aviator and actor Harrison Ford, who said, ‘Come and talk to me. Come and film me. I want to be a part of this program.’ He has been wonderful all through the year.
“I walked into a second-floor office in the west wing of the White House a few months ago and as I came through the door one of the senior officials I was meeting with said, ‘Oh, here come the Harrison Ford people.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Here’s an organization, AOPA, 70 years old. We’ve been running these ads for several weeks but already [Ford] had helped identify us with his interest in flying.’ And I think that’s a powerful thing. We look forward to running this program throughout . It’s an election year. We want to make sure people running for office and opinion leaders really understand the value of general aviation.”
In addition to ads featuring Ford and Freeman, the campaign also carries stories about less-well-known individuals who use GA to serve America.
Funding such a campaign to reach opinion leaders across the country takes enormous amounts of money. Although these are difficult times to raise money, AOPA members of all financial abilities have stepped forward in support, according to Fuller. “We have more than 14,000 individual contributions, which is a wonderful thing for the first year of a program like this.” AOPA launched the campaign with some $1.5 million from its own reserves and enlisted the help of the National Air Transportation Association, which represents FBOs, flight schools, and charter operators. With the assistance of NATA President Jim Coyne and plenty of hard work by Fuller and others, the effort raised about $4 million in its first year. “We’ve spent a good deal of that launching the program and doing the ads,” Fuller said. “We’re going to be back into the fundraising mode. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed it. It gives me a chance to get out into hangars across America, talking to pilots about the importance of this program and raising money, but we’ll continue this key advocacy effort.”
One of the primary threats to general aviation is the notion of user fees for access to airspace, airports, flight plans, and weather information. General aviation pays for such access currently through a federal fuel tax, an efficient means of collecting revenue for the FAA. However, the White House has proposed $9 billion in user fees for all of aviation beginning in fiscal year 2011. In addition to implementing new taxes, the administration wants to reduce the general fund contribution used to support the national air transportation system. The GA Serves America campaign has the attention of influential members of Congress who note that general aviation is not going to accept user fees. The campaign is “why we have 118 members of Congress who have signed a letter to President Obama saying, ‘Do not send us a user fee proposal,’” Fuller said. “I wish I could say that the user fee proposal is dead. Right now the Obama administration still threatens to propose a $9.6 billion user fee in its  budget that will be introduced in February or March .” According to Fuller, AOPA has a lot of solid congressional opposition lined up against the proposal. “We’re working hard to try to get the administration to understand that what this country needs is a vital, strong general aviation community, and imposing more taxes or fees is not going to get us where we need to be.”
In the past, GA and the airlines have been on opposite sides of the user fee debate, resulting in brutal, costly, and time-consuming battles. Fuller is hopeful that this time around, such battles can be avoided. “I think all of us know that if we get into a long fight over funding, it delays the very important work that needs to go forward on air traffic modernization.”
While not wanting a user fee fight, Fuller has nonetheless spent considerable time shoring up the battle front, believing that the best defense is a strong offense. AOPA has signed a formal alliance with the Experimental Aircraft Association and brought together numerous other general aviation organizations to work cooperatively on many projects, from the future of avgas to new pilot starts to NextGen air traffic control technology. “One of the things I am proud of is that all of us in general aviation recognize that we would be stronger standing together, and we’ve found ways to really work together.” The solidarity effort has been applauded by members of Congress, as well as individual members of AOPA and the other organizations collaborating on important issues.
Fuller said that during his travels over the last year he has met with many manufacturing leaders who are struggling to keep their companies viable in what is the most challenging economic climate of the past 75 years. He is especially appreciative of companies innovating now to help lower the cost of becoming a pilot. The Cessna SkyCatcher and the Remos light sport airplanes were two he particularly noted as new aircraft that can help bring new pilots into GA. “We’re excited to have a Remos as our sweepstakes airplane in 2010,” he said ( see “Lights, Cameras, Remos!”).
Fuller said the state of the pilot population and the prospects of new pilots are among AOPA’s top priorities in the coming year. Continuing to promote the value of GA and heading off user fees will be key challenges, although stemming the decline of active pilots is a major concern. The light sport aircraft initiative can help reduce the cost of becoming a pilot. “We need to focus more on how we bring people into flying and keep people flying,” he noted.
The AOPA membership is strong and the organization plans to continue to bring new products and services to members. The AOPA Medical Services Plan debuted at AOPA Aviation Summit in November 2009 as a means of helping pilots maintain their health, to protect their medical certificates and keep people flying. The introduction at Summit was just one of many significant changes Fuller orchestrated for the annual convention formerly called AOPA Expo. Aviation Summit was really a reflection of Fuller’s first year, showcasing the leaders of numerous other aviation associations working with AOPA, using the new AOPA Live initiative to better communicate with members and nonpilots through live webcasts of major convention events, and an old-fashioned political rally that featured the GA Serves America campaign ( see “AOPA Aviation Summit: Something For Everyone,”).
With such a strong foundation built during his first year, Fuller—who admits to being a perennial optimist—sees 2010 as a year full of challenges, but ones that can be overcome through a strong, unified GA front supported by a solid membership base of active pilots.
E-mail the author at [email protected]; twitter.com/tomhaines29. See AOPA Online for a video of the complete interview with Craig Fuller.