Grassroots Advocacy Takes Dedication, Education & Passion

by Kyle Lewis
Regional Manager / Government Affairs & Airport Advocacy / Great Lakes Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2020 issue

Grassroots advocacy. What do you think that means? One might picture walking door to door passing out brochures or giving a 30-second memorized blank stare speech about a specific issue. Local politics in a sense. Grassroots advocacy in aviation is a little different; it takes much more dedication, more education, and passion. In my daily arena, especially in the airport advocacy business, every airport “problem” is local. I can’t justify using the word problem, because in many cases, the problems are actually “opportunities.”

I would like to share with you an experience I recently had while attending a small-town city council meeting. Just for awareness, my duties include attending small (and large) township, city council, and county commission meetings and the like, when the issue facing the local aviation community warrants our involvement.

Back to this specific case, the airport is undergoing a masterplan update and has faced some changes in operations from a commercial-run FBO, to a city-run FBO. There is a skydive operation at the airport; a beautiful turf runway, complementing a 6,100-foot paved runway; and tenants made up of homebuilders, antique aircraft owners and restorers, an active flight school, and maintenance facilities. It is really a picture-perfect general aviation facility – on the surface.

Without going into too much detail about specifics of all the players involved, the local users are concerned of losing the turf runway as part of the master plan update, and the parachute operation is concerned about losing their drop zone, which has been in place for over a decade. I attended the city council meeting, as the agenda called for public comments on the proposed drop zone changes, which one proposal suggested using a city park (on airport property) as an alternative. Other proposals moved the drop zone on or near the turf runway. I am sure you can imagine the angst over that.

The city council meeting began with the usual pleasantries of law enforcement updates, contract approvals, and then the public comment period began. I did not plan to speak; this was more of a “recon mission” to get a feel for how the public felt about the issue overall. Several pilots and tenants spoke passionately about the airport, its history, how safety is a top concern, and the importance of the turf runway to the aviation community. The owner of the skydive operation made his case – the best he could in a few minutes – but he did not lack emotion or passion! This is not just a hobby for him and his family… it is their livelihood.

Residents voiced concern of the possibility of losing access to a park where annual soccer tournaments are held if it was made into a parachute drop zone. Some citizens were even angry that it would even be considered.

Comments made which may not have been 100 percent accurate, moved me to offer comments as well. AOPA understands the concerns on all sides, and is empathetic to the tough job elected officials face when making decisions on complex aviation-related topics. I simply offered AOPA’s expertise on the subject matter and would like to see a thorough and transparent decision-making process that is fair to all parties involved, and which is in line with FAA policies and grant assurances.

This scenario that played out is grassroots advocacy. I was pleased to see a large turnout from the local aviation community, even if some of the tenants and pilots are not residents of the city that operate and sponsor the airport. Even a local airport is bigger than the real estate it occupies, and it is important on a regional and national level. That is the education factor that local decision-makers need to know and experience firsthand!

Another heartwarming moment in all of this was that there was no finger pointing amongst the local users of the airport. The common thread is coexistence and a compromise that will work for everyone. That’s what is truly being asked of the city council. Perhaps the best answer is to do nothing. Even the FAA deems the “do-nothing” approach as a satisfactory alternative. We will see. The issue is still playing out!

In other AOPA regional business, I will be attending several events and functions in the early spring of 2020.

• As the airshow and fly-in season kicks off, I will be staffing the AOPA area at Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, Florida, March 31-April 5, the latter part of the week, so if you are a member or pilot from the Midwest, please stop by and say hello!

• AOPA will be well represented at the Great Minnesota Aviation Gathering (GMAG), April 24-25, at Buffalo Municipal Airport (KCFE). Andy Miller will be joining me onsite for a Rusty Pilot seminar, and I will be presenting a topical discussion on airport advocacy.

• The very next week, April 29-May 1, I will be attending the Minnesota Airports Conference at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota. The conference is hosted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Minnesota Council of Airports (MCOA), and facilitated by the University of Minnesota and its Airport Technical Assistance Program (AirTAP). For details, see article elsewhere in this issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine.

• Moving into May, the Minnesota Seaplane Pilots Association (MSPA) will once again host its annual safety seminar at Madden’s on Gull Lake, near Brainerd, May 15-17. In addition to the many educational and informative sessions, I am looking forward to the “spot landing contest.”

• Directly following that event, AOPA staff will be convening at the 2020 Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) national conference in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, May 18-20. AOPA works closely with the RAF on airport advocacy issues, and this event will allow for other AOPA regional managers like myself to learn more about the RAF’s approach to airstrip preservation and assistance. The RAF was founded to preserve and protect recreational airstrips, which are usually private or held by the government for access to back-country areas. Their outreach has now expanded to small community airports, not usually eligible for state or federal funds, that require special assistance to remain open.

Have a safe and enjoyable spring, and I look forward to seeing many of you throughout the season. It is a privilege to serve you!

Kyle Lewis. Email: Office: 301.695.2229. Cell: 740.418.8950.

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