by Kyle Lewis
Airports & State Advocacy • Great Lakes RegionAircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2021
A basic ingredient of any successful airport community, for both the pilot and airport administration, is an active and focused airport tenant or local pilot association. There are many variations of these groups…some have hundreds of members, some may have only a few. The number involved is not entirely the key to success, but the mission is. AOPA’s Airport Support Network (ASN) revolves around the promotion and protection of local airports, and local airport groups are the backbone to that success.
Before digging into the structure of a successful airport association, myths and facts need to be investigated:
• Myth – Airport managers have a deep disdain for pilot/tenant-based associations. This is a false assumption. An overwhelming majority of airport managers welcome these groups (if the focus and structure are well intentioned). I have personally consulted with airport managers on how to start a local group, as they WANT the feedback from the airport user. Airport managers cannot successfully accomplish their job without this input.
• Fact – Properly structured local airport associations do have valuable insight on the day-to-day operation of the airport. Who is better positioned to provide this insight other than the pilots who are on the field the most? Carrying a consistent message is valuable when there may be an issue causing a divide between airport users and airport administration.
AOPA receives calls from members across the country seeking advice on how to handle problems that arise at their airport. In many cases, we can connect those folks with their respective “ASN Volunteer” and work a strategy at the local level.
One of the first questions we will ask is if there is a local airport association. If not, we will strongly encourage the formation of one if it makes sense. If there is an active group, we encourage the member to work those angles on a resolution.
Just a quick snapshot of some of the issues AOPA is currently engaged on some level in over 120 airport “cases” across the nation. These range from airport closures, land use, noise complaints, and local airport rules, regulations, and leases.
So how does one form one of these local groups? First and foremost, there must be a focused mission. Is the primary goal to be a social platform or should there be a strong advocacy focus? That can be determined by the local airport landscape. Many groups are successful at both! AOPA encourages a diverse group comprised of airport users, including FBO representation, pilots and tenants, and any other airport stakeholder or business that should have a voice in the group. Obviously that cross-section may have differing opinions, but if the focus and mission (airport access and sustainability are good ones) are the same, the local group can be successful.
EAA chapters can be a good start, but in many cases, the EAA chapter structure is not designed to take on large-scale advocacy efforts at the local level. An EAA chapter is a good “neighbor” of an airport association and can be an ally in providing outreach for the overall effort.
Formal or informal? Does it matter? Again, that answer is specific to the situation. Informal is okay if the “gaggle” of members are okay with that method. Sourcing funding – and tracking it – may become difficult under the informal method. Airport management may be a little wary of the long-term stability of informal groups, and perhaps give little credence to the overall messaging. A formally structured association under an LLC or similar organization will have the hierarchy in place to allow leadership transitions, fundraising capabilities, liability protections, and other inherent benefits of being formally recognized. I would suggest the help of an experienced attorney when organizing a formal group. Sometimes these formal organizations become de facto advisory boards to airport management. Over the history of AOPA’s Airport Support Network program, formalized airport associations have been instrumental in resolving airport problems.
Recently, the Lunken Airport Action Group (LAAG) at Cincinnati Lunken Airport in Ohio staved off a threat to tear down all the city-owned T-hangars. That action would have displaced nearly 60 GA aircraft, to be replaced with a development of a large corporate hangar serving only a few users. LAAG was formally chartered but had been dormant for a few years. The group’s leadership was able to gain traction with the city council and the mayor’s office, which led to a “sit down” meeting with the FAA, developers, and city officials. The result of that meeting served a dose of reality to the developers. When the developers realized that the burden to pay for all the required studies, airport planning, and other infrastructure upgrades would up the price tag by millions, they backed out. LAAG was successful by engaging the entire airport community and educating that community as to what was truth and what was rumor.
So how can you start an airport association? Work with airport management, that is key. Have a discussion with that person as to why it is important, and how such a group will have a positive impact on the airport environment. Get the word out. Social media is a powerful tool, when used properly. Hold an organizational meeting and decide whether a formal or informal group best suits the mission. AOPA has a multitude of resources available online, including a guide to forming airport support groups: https://www.aopa.org/advocacy/airports-and-airspace/airport-advocacy/resources
Enjoy the flying weather and promote your airport. It is a privilege to serve you! (firstname.lastname@example.org).