The past year has not been an easy one for general aviation. The slow pace of economic growth, government spending cuts, and state efforts to find new revenue sources are just some of the issues that have plagued GA in the form of user fee proposals, tax increase plans, and cuts to vital services.
But AOPA has fought back, and won! AOPA’s advocacy efforts have paid off with record support in Congress, tax cuts in the states, a new law supporting aircraft certification reform, the FAA’s withdrawal of its sleep apnea policy, and other significant gains.
The most recent victory is also the issue that raised the most ire among pilots—the FAA’s sleep apnea policy. AOPA received hundreds of member comments when the FAA said it would require sleep apnea testing for any pilot with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher. Over time, the agency planned to expand the mandatory testing to any pilot with a BMI of 30 or higher. But on Dec. 19, the FAA suddenly reversed course, announcing that it would not pursue the policy and would, instead, open discussions with stakeholders to find better ways to address concerns about sleep disorders.
The decision was announced in a phone call to AOPA and followed intense outcry from the aviation community. AOPA had been among the most vocal critics of the plan, and AOPA President Mark Baker had discussed the issue during a meeting with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta just one day before the agency said it would withdraw the policy. Baker had previously sent a letter to Huerta asking that the policy be withdrawn or that the FAA go through the rulemaking process. Congress had also registered its opposition by introducing a bill that would require the FAA to use the rulemaking process before implementing any new policy on sleep disorders.
That bill originated with members of the House General Aviation Caucus—a group that, with the Senate General Aviation Caucus, provided unflagging support for GA. This year was a milestone for both caucuses and by the end of 2013, more than half the House had joined, bringing membership to a record 236. In the Senate, too, support was strong with a record 41 members.
Early in 2013, when user fees were once again rumored to be in the president’s budget, AOPA turned to Congress for help. GA caucus members responded, leading the opposition that resulted in 223 House members signing a letter declaring they would not support user fees for GA.
A few months later, when sequestration budget cuts led the FAA to threaten closure of 149 contract towers at GA airports without a full evaluation of the consequences, AOPA again looked to Congress for decisive action. Caucus members stepped in, supporting legislation that gave the FAA needed funding and flexibility to keep the towers open.
Aircraft certification reform was another big issue in 2013, and once again GA caucus members provided support. With a goal of changing the aircraft certification process to provide “twice the safety at half the cost,” an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) set out to reform Part 23 certification rules. As a member of the ARC, AOPA helped develop recommendations that will make it easier and more affordable to upgrade existing aircraft and, ultimately, to bring innovative designs to market. That effort received critical support from lawmakers who passed the Small Airplane Revitalization Act, which was signed into law just before Thanksgiving. The Small Airplane Revitalization Act gives the FAA until December of 2015 to make the recommended reforms, establishing both the importance and urgency of overhauling the certification process.
While some members of AOPA’s advocacy team were busy developing a new approach to aircraft certification, others were engaged in redesigning the way airmen are trained.
An industry working group co-chaired by AOPA developed recommendations for creating a single airman certification standard to be used for both the knowledge and practical tests. The proposal would integrate the knowledge, skills, and risk management elements in each task of the current practical test standards into a single standard, with the goal of making training and testing more relevant to the way pilots really fly. The panel’s final report and recommendations for modernizing and streamlining training for private pilots, the instrument rating, and certificated flight instructors were released in November and are awaiting action by the FAA.
Elsewhere on the regulatory front, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried to prohibit the certification, manufacture, importation, sale, and use of 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELTs), AOPA stood up to defend pilots and their pocketbooks. The association argued that the FCC was effectively forcing GA pilots to replace their functional 121.5 MHz ELTs with costly new 406 MHz ELTs, which will themselves soon be obsolete with the widespread adoption of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) mandated by 2020. A group of Senate GA Caucus members also lent their support, sending a letter telling the FCC to abandon its pursuit of a ban.
Also in 2013, the FAA released its long-awaited “Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Roadmap,” paving the way for integrating unmanned aircraft into the aviation system. For more than a decade AOPA has insisted that unmanned aircraft meet the same standards as manned flights so that they can operate within the existing aviation system, rather than imposing additional requirements, such as new equipment or airspace restrictions, on other types of aviation operations. The roadmap reflects AOPA’s concerns and opens the way for work on integration to begin at six test sites around the country.
AOPA’s advocacy team had a busy year dealing with national issues like these, but some of the biggest victories came in the states, where AOPA worked with lawmakers to lower, repeal, or prevent state taxes on general aviation, saving pilots millions of dollars every year.
Perhaps the biggest win came in Indiana, where AOPA led the charge to repeal two significant taxes—one on fuel and one on aircraft parts and labor. The elimination of the fuel tax saves aircraft owners as much as 40 cents per gallon, while the end to the 7 percent tax on parts and labor can save pilots hundreds or thousands of dollars on typical maintenance, upgrades, and repairs.
The tax cuts had an almost immediate effect, spurring GA activity in the state and leading aviation businesses to hire more people. The swift and dramatic impact prompted other states to consider similar measures in the hope of boosting economic activity.
In Pennsylvania, a new law was signed exempting aircraft parts and components, as well as services to aircraft, from a 6-percent sales tax. And in Grand Junction, Colo., AOPA supported a measure to exempt aircraft materials, parts, and components from a 2.75-percent city sales tax. Those items were already exempt from the state’s 4-percent sales tax.
In other states, AOPA helped win extensions of critical tax cuts. In Maine, a two-year-old exemption from sales and use taxes for aircraft and parts was extended until 2033.
Meanwhile, in Nebraska, AOPA backed a measure that will keep instrument approach paths free from new obstacles. The law expands airport approach zones from three to 10 miles and revises outdated language in the state’s Airport Zoning Act, bringing the state into compliance with FAA zoning requirements.
In Tennessee, AOPA worked to negotiate an exemption for flight schools from state education fees and related administrative burdens. The state legislature passed the law after a court challenge of the regulations failed. Flight schools had calculated that the fees and other expenses would have cost them between $6,000 and $15,000, forcing them to raise prices and potentially drive students out of state.
Despite so many significant victories in 2013, AOPA is not resting on its laurels. Next week take a look back—and ahead—at some of the big issues still on the table as AOPA moves into 2014, including changes to the third-class medical standard, the future of avgas, and the association’s action to prevent unwarranted stops and searches of domestic GA flights.