Private Pilots: Lobbying for A Better General Aviation Brand

By Travis Brown, Pilot & Lobbyist

Alan Klapmeier, former CEO of Cirrus Designs, may be right:  perhaps promoting general aviation, or what he calls Flying 2.0, is truly missionary work.  With everything at stake inside the next FAA reauthorization bill in Congress, now is the time for every AOPA pilot to tell their story to the public.

Fortunately, private pilots are not doing it alone.  Thanks to the AOPA campaign “General Aviation Serves America,” famous pilots and celebrities like Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman are providing us a stabilized approach towards effective issue advocacy.  Just in case you haven’t seen either of these short ads, both are included here.

It Starts with Your Personal Story:

For several years now, I have enjoyed the privileges of my private pilot certificate as a direct part of my frequent travel, across Missouri and all over this great nation.  Staying sharp as a pilot is an awesome personal freedom given to Americans, as well as an incredible responsibility.

As an entrepreneur, state lobbyist, and owner-operator of my own plane, nothing comes close to being able to respond quickly to issues and opportunities like utilizing general aviation.  In the Show-ME State, this means taking off and landing in a wide variety of situations:  accessing our rural communities, supporting small businesses for fueling & maintenance, and becoming frequent retail customers inside mid-size terminals.

Missouri is fortunate to have many state & federal elected officials who also understand this benefit through their own professional travels.  Virtually every statewide campaign at one point or another relies on their own private plane, a charter service, or assistance from an ally to get from place to place.  Most clients come to appreciate what faster response times and greater productivity can mean to their cause, campaigns, or issues once they understand how general aviation is typically-used.

The Big Picture Today:  FAA Re-Authorization Bill in Congress

Last week, the U.S. Senate took a great step forward with the FAA Reauthorization vote.  In the weeks ahead, the Senate must vote it off their floor, and take it to Conference Committee: the small, poorly-lit kitchen that usually has lots of sharp legislatives knives that most often determine a bill’s final fate. 

Inside this debate rests the future of NextGen, what type of guidance systems North America can expect to keep all users – public and private, as safe and accurate as possible.  General aviation pilots must remain a strong, unified voice in the ears of their Members of Congress now to ensure that a) NextGen systems remain a priority, b) our elected officials receive first-hand opinions and insights from real users, and c) conversations about user fees are balanced within the context of what every owner-operator pays for now through fuel tax consumption.

As a state-based lobbyist with sixteen years of experience with the legislative process, I know how easy your local grassroots voices can be displaced unless you are organized.  Despite the tendencies to drift to important corporate matters, or to resolve union debates, our Members of Congress do really want to hear from everyday constituents.  When you speak up with your call, your donation, or your blog, today’s technology affords you a “glass panel cockpit” of options to reach them. 


Here are Five Suggested Ways for You to Engage:

1) Tweet your Member of Congress:  Missouri’s U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, who sometimes flies in a Pilatus PC-12, stays in touch with nearly 30,000 followers by @clairecmc.  Social media or networks are mainstream channels for how busy executives share their thinking, and effective staff want to make sure you can connect.  I tend to prefer using my twitter account  since it offers up exponential growth to 23M users, and its speed of use is transforming micro-blogging as a whole.

2) Call, write, or arrange a meeting:  Missouri Congressman Sam Graves is a private pilot himself.  Offices like his have a process in place, either in Washington, DC, or back at home in Tarkio, MO, to schedule a personal meeting.  Don’t be discouraged if it takes several attempts to find the right procedure that enables your contact.  The pace and rhythm that most legislator calendars keep is pretty ambitious and often at odds with itself.

3) Get your local airports engaged in grassroots: The vast majority of Missouri public officials often travel in and out of our state capitol airport, courtesy of charter services like Jefferson City Flying Service. You might be surprised to learn how educating travelers each day with AOPA Online legislative updates, information sessions, and calls to action can make a difference.  Letting local celebrities know that you know what is going on can be extremely helpful.

4) Remind your local charities to weigh in their useful load:  Your freedom to operate without harmful user fees won’t simply limit your small business.  When private pilots cut their hours flown, volunteer flights for important charities usually suffer as well.  Two local examples of volunteer organizations committed to transporting children in need is Angel Flight Central, in Kansas City, MO (KMKC), or Wings of Hope, based from Chesterfield, MO (KSUS).  Find out if they are weighing in with calls to action.  If you’re a pilot waiting for return your passengers home via one of these great causes, then finding three minutes to call your Congressman on their behalf seems like a worthy use of ramp time.

5) Keep fun in general aviation.  Invite others to become a part of the solution.  Of course, this means inviting friends who know to become a pilot or to join you at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI.  Why not bring home some extra literature to educate your Member of Congress in the process?  Maybe some pictures about the future of very light jets, modern avionics, or ice protection systems?  However, it’s also about doing what you can outside the hanger, and off the runway.  Our local science centers can be a teaching resource, where flight academies inspire first graders to master flight simulators.  Our local history, like Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, needs to be retold to the next generation. 

If America’s private pilots can improve upon these outreach efforts, the future of our general aviation will improve out of this tough economy with more innovation, better ideas, and a strong infrastructure.  However, just like real flight, final authority and command for our grassroots journey rests with us.