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How time flies. A few weeks hence and Craig Fuller gets to celebrate his second Anniversary as head of the world’s largest pilot and aviation organization- the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. As distance continues to grow between his tenure and that of his predecessor- the 19-year veteran Phil Boyer- it gets easier to see little ways in which the association has evolved with a new PIC – while- in contrast- little moved on some of the core issues the association addresses.

Dave Higdon   |   1st November 2010
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Tracking Ahead
AOPA’s President nears second anniversary amid broad challenges.

How time flies. A few weeks hence and Craig Fuller gets to celebrate his second Anniversary as head of the world’s largest pilot and aviation organization- the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. As distance continues to grow between his tenure and that of his predecessor- the 19-year veteran Phil Boyer- it gets easier to see little ways in which the association has evolved with a new PIC – while- in contrast- little moved on some of the core issues the association addresses.

Like Boyer’s predecessor- the late John Baker- Fuller started the job already well versed in the ways of Washington and deep with political contacts and connections - but Fuller’s style is more even tempered and less bombastic than Baker’s. And compared to Boyer- Fuller has taken a different tact on handling some issues- steering a different course where collaboration with other groups is concerned. In the interim Fuller’s management style and demeanor have won him solid marks from both staff- and his counterparts at other aviation organizations.

Fuller assumed the AOPA presidency as the full weight of the worst recession in decades slammed into general aviation. Financial declines wrought by the downturn impacted AOPA right along with its members and the companies serving them. In adjusting the association to the different realities- Fuller generated some ripples among AOPA’s 414-000 members for some of the changes.

In speaking to some of his counterparts- however- they note their own challenges and talk about the differences from his predecessor while offering that he’s an effective representative for his membership. One such executive confided that Fuller deserved a longer honeymoon considering the length of his predecessor’s tenure and the timing of the hand-off.

“Phil didn’t win over everybody- and he didn’t win over all of his fans right off-” noted one aviation association veteran today working outside any of the groups. “But you never doubted the ferocity of his devotion to the members.”

Without question- though- much of Fuller’s first 22 months have seen the new president making his mark on the association- emphasizing how it relates to its members- and defining how it works with other groups.

Meantime- recent times have been nothing like anyone’s “best of times.” Turmoil in markets- something approaching political gridlock in Washington- continuing concerns over security – particularly how the government views general aviation as a risk – and a number of regional issues have made the past two years as dynamic as ever for the 71-year-old organization.

Overall- however- if membership numbers are a valid indicator AOPA continues to deliver on the services and support that keeps pilots writing checks- as it has for more than seven decades.

Some of those elements of AOPA’s efforts were unknown to Fuller before he took over January 1- 2009. As he noted in a conversation the first week of his tenure- belonging to AOPA for 37 years didn’t expose him to the “full extent of the good things this organization and its people do for its members.”

With its annual gathering- The AOPA Summit- scheduled this month (11th-13th) in Long Beach- California- this seemed a good time to catch up with Fuller and get his take on his progress on the job and the industry overall.

WAS: AOPA under Craig Fuller has taken on some different programs- changed a few things- but overall sustained its reputation as a valuable resource for private pilots. Looking at some of the most-visible changes first- can you explain the differences inherent in an AOPA Summit from the AOPA Expo format and why the change was needed?

Fuller: AOPA Summit really builds on the traditions of Expo and adds exciting new elements that reflect the interests of our members. AOPA LIVE is our streaming media channel- introduced at Summit last year thanks to a generous contribution to the AOPA Foundation. Through AOPA LIVE we can capture many of the important conversations at Summit and make them available to pilots all over the world. In fact- tens of thousands of pilots in 160 countries have tuned in to see interviews with aviation decision makers- innovators- and celebrities.

We’ve also expanded our airport presence with AirportFest…It’s a great opportunity for us to invite the whole community to see what general aviation is all about. We’ve expanded the exhibit hall- adding new spaces for networking as well as opportunities to meet with air traffic controllers and other experts and take part in product demonstrations. And- of course- we’ve added new seminars- including a track for business fliers produced in conjunction with NBAA.

WAS: Throughout your first year as AOPA president we saw a lot of Craig Fuller the Bridge Builder- making prominent appearances at the major events of other aviation groups- or publicly announcing plans to coordinate and co-operate more with those groups – going as far as signing letters of cooperation and hosting a half-dozen of your counterparts on the stage of your association’s first new Summit last year in Tampa.

Can you give us an example of how that effort toward increased co-operation has manifested itself- and in general how it’s working out so far?

Fuller: The co-operative efforts we began more than a year ago have really begun to bear fruit for the general aviation community. By speaking with one voice- we were able to defeat user fees and keep them off the table at least through 2011.

The future of avgas is a huge issue for the aviation community- and we are cooperating with other aviation organizations and the petroleum and refining industries to find the best possible solution.

We’re also co-operating on other major initiatives- including working as part of a group that will make recommendations to the FAA on NextGen implementation. And we are collaborating in dozens of other ways as well- like supporting EAA’s Young Eagles program and collaborating with NBAA on the business aviation seminars at Summit.

WAS: At the start of your tenure you delivered a message to members in which you noted there were challenges and opportunities ahead. Among the major challenges was the economy. How has AOPA tackled the impact of the economy on the association itself?

Fuller: Fiscal responsibility has always been important to AOPA. We value the trust our members place in us- and we work hard to be good stewards of that trust. As a result- AOPA was in a strong position going into the economic downturn- and the organization continues to be strong.

We’ve used this downturn to really examine the association’s mission and values and ensure that we are directing our resources to the issues that are most important to our members- including advocacy- protecting airports- growing the pilot population- and improving pilot safety. So- while AOPA has been impacted by the slow economy- we also know that the economy will eventually turn around- and we will be poised to take advantage of the new opportunities that creates for our members.

WAS: Following along the same thread- how has AOPA approached helping pilots fly more and to get more people flying during the down economy?

Fuller: Despite the down economy- we’ve continued to add value for our members by providing services that make their flying easier and more affordable. AOPA Airports and the AOPA Internet Flight Planner are two of the new tools available to members as part of their standard dues. They offer planning tools and detailed information about everything from airport facilities to fuel prices so our members can fly efficiently.

We’ve added new communication tools- like the daily Aviation eBrief newsletter. We’ve also made this the “year of engagement-” and we’ve encouraged our members to support general aviation in a variety of ways that range from charitable flying to hosting airport ‘open houses’- to attending aviation events. Our magazines and electronic publications have provided additional content related to flying affordably. We’ve also reached out to groups that might not otherwise be exposed to general aviation.

WAS: What’s been the reception to AOPA changing how it finances some member benefits – specifically thinking of the medical plan and the new charge for the printed AOPA Airports reference book?

Fuller: Member reaction has been generally positive- because these changes were made in response to how members actually use these services. For example- more and more members prefer to access airport information online. So we actually created an entirely new application for providing that information- and we added a great deal of functionality that was never available before and is simply impossible with a printed publication.

That online resource is free to members. But we recognized that a small percentage of our members would still prefer a printed book and we made that available for those who want it.

Similarly- most members who need medical assistance have relatively straightforward concerns. They have questions about medications or required exams and they want expert answers. That’s a service we continue to provide free to members.

A few members have serious issues that require a great deal of staff time and involvement to unravel. Rather than have all of our members subsidize the costs incurred by those few- we have given members the option to upgrade to the level of personalized service they need. This is all part of ensuring that we are using our resources wisely- in ways that create the most impact for our members.

WAS: When you began your shadow transition in late 2008- Phil Boyer and the association were pushing Congress to finally finish work and pass a full-term re-authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. That Congress went home having failed on that front and the current one came on the job at the same time as you. It now appears this Congress will do the same and fail to finish the job. What impacts do you see from Congress’ failure to reauthorize the FAA? What needs to happen to make them finish the job- from your perspective?

Fuller: Obviously the failure to pass reauthorization impacts the FAA’s new and longterm initiatives- like NextGen implementation. The FAA needs a stable- predictable source of funding. At the same time- FAA reauthorization has been an extremely contentious issue- with tax and fee increases at the heart of the debate. Hopefully this is an issue Congress will take up again following the mid-term elections- but with so many other pressing issues like healthcare and the economy continuing to dominate the debate- we may have to wait a while longer for a final reauthorization. Regardless of when Congress revisits this issue- AOPA will be vigorously representing our members’ interests on key issues like user fees- access to the national airspace system- safety- and equipment mandates.

WAS: Similarly- in fall 2008 the Transportation Security Administration’s sweeping Large Aircraft Security Program proposal rocked the general aviation community. AOPA was among the groups that pushed back seemingly strongly enough to send the proposal back for significant revisions. What would be in a proposal acceptable to AOPA and its members? Are you hearing that the anticipated revised proposal will meet with the flying community’s support?

Fuller: The general aviation community really mobilized on this issue because the original proposal simply wasn’t workable. In fact- the TSA received an unprecedented 8-000 comments on the proposed rule and Congress urged the agency to reconsider its plan. Since TSA decided to revise the proposal- AOPA has participated in several joint industry-TSA meetings to consider ways to enhance security for larger aircraft without imposing unrealistic or cost-prohibitive requirements on general aviation.

AOPA also helped develop the “trusted pilot” concept- which allows a vetted and approved pilot to determine what and who can be aboard the aircraft. We expect this to be a cornerstone of the TSA’s revised proposal. We also anticipate that the new proposal will apply only to aircraft significantly larger than the original 12-500 pounds- and that the focus of the proposal will be more on securing the aircraft itself than imposing complex security requirements on smaller aircraft and airports.

We won’t know exactly what the revised proposal contains until it is released- but we are hopeful that many of the most objectionable provisions of the original plan will be absent and- of course- we will have another opportunity to comment before the TSA issues a final rule.

WAS: Can you give us some insight into AOPA’s view of the ADS-B proposal the FAA issued earlier this year; what it needs- what it lacks- and where it should take us?

Fuller: AOPA has been a proponent of transitioning to satellite-based navigation systems since the 1990s- but we have also consistently told the FAA that the move must be benefitsdriven- not simply mandated. For now- the benefits are not really clear for the GA fleet.

For one thing- the FAA has said it will implement ADS-B on two non-compatible frequencies- which means that unless pilots equip to be able to receive ADS-B on both frequencies- they will have only a partial picture of the surrounding traffic. So we’ve suggested that the FAA either re-broadcast ADS-B signals at all GA airports or require all aircraft to use the same frequency.

Another issue is the need to maintain a transponder in addition to new ADS-B equipment. Weight and space are big concerns for GA aircraft and panel space is at a premium in most airplanes - so we are asking the FAA to allow operators to remove their old transponders when they install ADS-B.

Also- the FAA is planning to simply overlay ADS-B coverage in the same places where radar coverage now exists- so most GA airports won’t have surveillance. We’re asking the FAA to expand coverage to GA airports that don’t now have radar.

And of course cost is a big issue. We’ve recommended several technical changes that would reduce the cost of ADS-B systems- and we’re also asking the FAA to allow the use of handheld units to receive traffic- weather- and airspace information from the ADS-B infrastructure. So- in our minds- there’s a lot more to be done on this issue. Fortunately- we have until 2020 to equip- so we have some time to continue working with the FAA on these issues and find resolutions.

WAS: Over the years members of the general aviation community have heard how airports- airspace- or some other issue are the top concerns of the moment; throughout those years the pilot population steadily declined- as it is now- with no reversal in sight. Why does it seem the community can’t attract more participants and start to grow the pilot population once again when a good starter airplane can be had for about the cost of a mid-size family car? What needs to be done to resume growth of the pilot population?

Fuller: Attracting participants may not really be the problem. Tens of thousands of people begin flight training every year- but as many as 80 percent of those who start training will drop out before earning a certificate. Clearly there’s something wrong. So AOPA- through the AOPA Foundation- has sponsored research that will model the flight training process and identify key factors that affect student retention. From there we will work with stakeholders across the aviation community to identify best practices- find realworld solutions- and work together to implement them.

We believe it’s time to change the flight training paradigm to help students who dream of flying make those dreams a reality. We’ll be unveiling the findings of our research at Summit- so even if you can’t be there in person- I urge you to watch AOPA LIVE and see what our research uncovers.

WAS: We know from reading AOPA’s many electronic feeds and the association’s website that you travel a great deal – and by the grapevine that you enjoy the association’s Citation CJ3 and your own A36 Bonanza. What decides which airplane flies the trip for you?

Fuller: It’s all about choosing the right tool for the mission. If I need to travel cross-country and make multiple stops in just a few days- then the CJ3 is the right plane. For mid-range journeys where we might be carrying a lot of equipment- I’ll take the Caravan. For shorter flights or recreation- like weekend trips to the beach with family or friends- I love to get out in my Bonanza.

The way AOPA uses airplanes illustrates one of the great things about general aviation: Regardless of how- or why you travel- there’s an aircraft that offers the right combination of carrying capacity- speed- and range to get you where you need to go- when you need to be there.

More information from www.aopa.org

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