By Jim Coon
Pilots are undoubtedly some of the most accomplished and skilled individuals to be found anywhere in the world. This unique experience of controlled flight is a compliment to American ingenuity, perseverance, and fortitude. Today, the United States accounts for nearly 80 percent of the world’s general aviation pilot population. What we have in this country is simply special and we must never take it for granted.
If we want to continue to enjoy this freedom of flight and pass it along to the next generation of aviators, we all must continue to be passionate about aviation and serve as its strongest advocates. We must do it together at all levels—local, state, federal, and international.
Many often overlook advocacy until they are directly impacted. But protecting the freedom to fly is a core component of AOPA’s daily mission. It has defined our collective efforts over the past 82 years. In fact, AOPA was formed in 1939 for this very reason. Continuing to serve members and the general aviation community in the nation’s capital and in states and communities across America is a necessity if we are going to preserve, safeguard, and expand this amazing gift of flight.
General aviation starts at the airport. Your local airport. To support the more than 210,000 active GA aircraft in the United States—with more than 25 million hours flown annually—we must ensure the positive health of our 19,000 airports and other landing facilities nationwide. These include public and private airports, backcountry strips, heliports, and seaplane bases. The all-volunteer AOPA Airport Support Network of nearly 2,000 dedicated members serving at their local airports is one of the most effective tools in helping our airports thrive. These volunteers remain essential to protecting and promoting general aviation and, as important, educating local decision-makers about the benefits of GA. As you well know, our airports not only serve private pilots for business and pleasure, but also support vital medical evacuations, search and rescue, disaster relief, law enforcement, and the economic well-being of local communities.
Many airport boards are filled with well-intentioned active community leaders but, unfortunately, all too often they have little or no background in airports or aviation. Our volunteers and our state and local advocacy employees often guide and assist them, but we all need to be part of this education process. This needs to be a continual effort as airport board members and airport managers often turn over every few years.
Let me point to one excellent example of AOPA coming together with the community to make a real difference. In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the city council voted to shorten the municipal airport’s (GWS) runway by a vote of 6 to 1. Following the vote, our ASN volunteer, Eric Strautman, reached out to AOPA’s airport advocacy team. Together with several hundred pilots of the Friends of Glenwood Springs Airport, local citizens, and political advocates, we educated the city council on the impacts of its decision; ultimately, the council voted to overturn its earlier decision by a 4-to-3 vote. Many stories like this often go unnoticed and while we don’t prevail on all of them, it proves that being active and working together makes a difference. And, it shows that teamwork with members, volunteers, and the general aviation community is a powerful force for good.
Our AOPA team engages in hundreds of airport issues, small and large, each year. We are there for a wide range of matters: land-use, hangars, safety, the threat of closure (such as Reid-Hillview in California, Dillingham Airfield in Hawaii, and East Hampton in New York), or a reduction in GA ramp space and hangar space, respectively, at Renton and Boeing Field in Washington.
While airports are key to our advocacy efforts, they are just one of the many focal points on which your dedicated AOPA advocacy team works in support of general aviation. We continue to address needed reforms to the FAA’s medical process, especially the special issuance process, FBO pricing and fee transparency, pilot and aircraft certification, drone integration, STEM-based aviation programs, air traffic control, taxes and fees, airport funding, environmental issues, and needed reforms to ensure designated pilot examiners are more readily available. These are just a few, but all are important to protecting and growing general aviation.
We still have much work to do in all of these areas and whether we are on offense or defense, it is important for you to know that as an AOPA member you have a dedicated and experienced advocacy team that is engaged. Whether in city council meetings, state legislatures, Congress, or at the international level, your advocacy team is effectively working on your behalf.
While everything may look easy from a distance, it is the collective interests, constructive ideas, and passion that makes advocacy work. From inspiring others through your aviation experiences or getting to know your airport manager or local and federal elected officials, it all makes a difference. Let’s continue to do this together!
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Jim Coon spent 25 years on Capitol Hill in several senior staff positions, including staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.