By Deborah Hopen
Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, recently discussed issues facing general aviation, during his presentation at the Northwest Aviation Conference and Trade Show, sponsored by the Washington Aviation Association. Boyer also shared his perspectives during an interview conducted shortly prior to his speech.
AOPA set a new record in January 2003 with 392,580 members out of an estimated 640,000 pilots and aircraft owners in America. Boyer noted that the current upward membership trend reflects a substantial shift from the situation when he assumed AOPA’s helm in 1991; at that time, there were only 299,000 members, and the level was dropping. In addition to its continuing efforts to represent and advocate for the aviation community, AOPA has been active in a variety of post-9/11 projects designed to counteract public fears and to enhance security at general aviation airports.
One project in this latter arena involves the newly devised Airport Watch program, developed in conjunction with the Transportation Security Administration. Modeled after the popular Neighborhood Watch program, this public-private partnership is designed to keep the 700,000 plus pilots and airport workers at 5,000 GA airports vigilant, providing a straightforward method for them to notify the appropriate authorities of suspicious activities.
AOPA has invested over $1 million to create the system, which includes a toll-free hotline (1-866-GA-SECURE) that links the caller to aviation-savvy personnel.
Boyer was quick to challenge TSA’s recently published rules related to pilot insecurity. He pointed out that AOPA recognizes the importance of preventing terrorists from using aircraft as weapons, but he also reminded the audience that the rules that have been issued deny American citizens their rights to due process.
“TSA holds sole authority in a pilot appeal according to these rules,” he stated. “TSA becomes the judge, jury, and executioner.”
According to Boyer, the situation is aggravated by the fact that no criteria have been specified for determining whether an aviator is a threat, and TSA doesn’t have to disclose the evidence it has used to make its decision.
Boyer shared highlights of recent letters he’d written and conversations he’d conducted with Admiral James Loy, Undersecretary of Transportation, TSA, and Alaska Representative Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. When asked how he thought the matter ultimately would be settled, Boyer commented, “I talked to Admiral Loy earlier this week, and he seems sympathetic to our concerns; I think he will be looking into the facts. I never like to predict what will happen in Washington, but we are going to get this turned around.”
AOPA also has launched an aggressive campaign to allay public fears related to aviation.
“If we measure the campaign by web hits—because the whole center of the campaign is centered around a website that we hope will be up through perpetuity as long as there’s an Internet—we’ve had tremendous growth in usage,” he said. “We plan to update it every year with new safety statistics and other information.”
Boyer described how AOPA reacted when it became aware that an upcoming episode of the Fox TV show “24” was going to feature a small plane being used as a weapon of destruction. A full-page ad was published to clarify the difference between entertainment and reality. The ad also encouraged the public to visit [http://www.GAservingAmerica.org] to learn more about general aviation.
“The site is not designed for pilots,” he said. “It’s designed for the general public. It answers all the questions about the various things that light planes do.”
AOPA also spent a considerable amount of time over the past 18 months tracking and responding to decisions related to “no-fly zones,” and recounted his perspective of the current situation regarding banner towing.
“Banner towing is a small business in the U.S.-one that most of us see over beaches in the summer and over stadiums during events,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the NFL and other sports are used to getting a great deal of support from advertisers, but they do not get any money from the banner towers flying over the stadium. So this area has been a major bone of contention with the sporting interests over the years.
“Then 9-11 came along, and all aircraft were considered terrorist tools. The sporting interests got on the situation, saying ‘Here’s our chance to ban the banner towers.’ They lobbied like I never knew they had the ability to do; they are one of the strongest lobbies I’ve ever seen. They got Congress to pass a bill that prevents banner towers from flying for a year, and that period probably will be extended. AOPA was able to make sure that airports within the three-mile ring could continue to operate with takeoffs and landings; otherwise, a lot more of our members would have been grounded, too.”
On the more positive side, Boyer shared photos and videos of the new 900-square-foot Wright Brothers Memorial pilot facility that AOPA is building in conjunction with the National Park Service in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. AOPA also has teamed with Meteorlogix to provide a weather briefing system at the site.
“This is our way of celebrating the past by ensuring your aviation future,” Boyer said. He encouraged the attendees to visit the facility, which will be the only structure to remain at the park after the Centennial of Flight celebrations have concluded.
Boyer updated the audience on the aviation situation in Washington, reporting that AOPA is forecasting 14,100 aircraft in the area by 2020, which is up from the 10,521 registered in 1998. He mentioned that State Bill 5392 would raise pilot registrations to the highest level in the U.S. He provided reassurances the AOPA was active on the state and local levels, as well as the national and international levels.
“Under deregulation of the airlines, we have seen communities like Salem lose airline service,” he said. “There’ve been cutbacks in flights in many of the cities of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. We really have only 30 airports across the entire country handling 75 percent of all airline flights. …Air transportation is not just about getting on a huge airliner at Portland International Airport or Seatac. Air transportation—particularly for areas like Eastern and Central Washington and Oregon and many parts of Idaho—involves a network of small general aviation airports that are just like our network of roads.”
Touching on the subject of airport privatization, Boyer said the FAA and Congress have established a test program, saying, “Let’s allow five airports to be privatized as a test, and let one of these be a general aviation airport.”
“The New Orleans experience is going to be the first GA airport,” he said. “In this process, which in a perfect world we wouldn’t have gone for at all because there’s a lot of unanswered questions, we accepted what Congress said, and now we’re looking for the loopholes in the plan. We’re asking, ‘If a test is going to occur, what things could be damaging to our members? Will they have a guarantee of non-discriminatory charges as now exists? What if the private company goes bankrupt? Then what happens to the airport?’ The question isn’t whether Congress can do this. In this case, AOPA’s job is to be a watchdog, rather than to overturn the decision. We will try to overturn it, however, if we see problems arise.”
When asked if AOPA anticipates problems with the test, Boyer replied, “I think with any new, untried thing we’re probably going to have some differences of opinion, and that’s why we’re registering them early and not waiting until everything’s in place.”
Boyer doesn’t think the future for American GA aviation pilots is gloomy.
“Most commercial pilots today come from training in general aviation airplanes,” Boyer said. “Young people in training generally will go on to commercial flying. Although the airline industry is way, way down at the moment, it’s not predicted to stay that way. The best estimates are that within two years we’ll be back to the levels we had prior to 9/11. Also, right now, corporate aviation is an extremely good career. More and more private business jets are being sold, and fractional ownership is very popular. There is a huge setback at the moment, though. The major airlines are not hiring. At the same time, however, the regional airlines that have the entry-level positions are spawning more flights to take up the slack.”
For more information about
AOPA, visit [http://www.aopa.org].