by Kyle Lewis
Airports & State Advocacy
Great Lakes Region
Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2022 Digital Issue
I want to pull the curtain back and showcase AOPA’s airport advocacy work. This being the 25th year of the AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN), I feel it is worth a look at how I, along with other AOPA staff, take aim at airport advocacy.
First, it is worth mentioning that AOPA is the only national organization that has a dedicated team with airport advocacy as a priority. This is a direct benefit to our members. Through AOPA’s Airport Support Network of over 1,900 volunteers, AOPA staff such as myself have intimate knowledge of challenges faced by pilots, and other airport users.
The key to our success is the ability to network and maintain relationships with regulatory authorities like FAA and individual state Departments of Transportation or aeronautics commissions, depending on the governance in each state. We work closely with state level pilot associations and become involved in the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) at the national and regional chapter level. AOPA works hard to stay involved in these groups and organizations across the country, being the voice of GA in technical advisory committees (TACs) for state aviation system planning. We attend state and regional airport/airport manager conferences to get a sense of what issues airports are facing. It is also wildly amazing to hear how airports are thriving. Operations have been on an uptick in the last 5 years, and many airports are undergoing tremendous growth! Airport sponsors (municipalities) are investing in their infrastructure with local dollars, and that is exciting to witness.
Since January of 2020, the AOPA Airports and State Advocacy Team consulted with members or airports on over 300 specific airport issues or concerns. These issues range from a quick phone call or email about airport funding or operations, to the more dramatic issues of Dillingham Airfield in Hawaii, Santa Monica, and Reid Hillview Airport in California, all under threat of closure. Our three largest issues being reported are hangar leases, airport development issues, and airport rules and regulations. Airport closure threats rank at 4th in our casework, with a large majority of these being private airports. AOPA can advise members in these situations, but private airports are private property, and we insist that a strong local pilot group be involved in these issues.
As hangar leases are a hot topic, it is prudent that you know what you are signing. Usually a standard T-hangar lease is straightforward, however, there can be some sticking points that need consideration, like insurance requirements. A land-lease and private hangar construction may be more complex and require legal review. Reversion clauses are suggested by FAA policy, so this is a buyer/builder beware situation. AOPA is happy to review a lease on terms of FAA compliance, but if there are questions concerning legal actions, we will point you to a state licensed aviation attorney. For members who subscribe to AOPA’s Legal Services Plan, we offer review of legal documents, such as aircraft purchases, hangar leases, etc.
What does a successful advocacy strategy look like? Obviously with airport closure, we focus on keeping the airport open. Success in other issues may be a bit more hidden, as the success is usually in proper education and formulating an expectation. This strategy requires a strong, unified, mission-oriented airport support group that can effectively communicate with airport stakeholders, and airport management. Our goal is to seek the correct answer, and the correct answer may not always be the favored answer. Keep in mind that if an airport has received federal grant dollars, they are bound by certain grant obligations. If there are potential violations of these assurances, the FAA has policy in place to address these. A “Part 13 informal” or “Part 16 formal” complaint may be the pathway to resolution, and AOPA is willing to consult with a member before that action is chosen. These should be the last option, as the issue is most likely able to be resolved at the local level, with common sense discussions to airport management. Part 13 and Part 16 complaints may take years to resolve, and the FAA is under no obligation to answer the informal Part 13 complaints at all.
AOPA’s Airport Support Network (ASN) is another tool in the toolbelt for local airport users to have as a resource. AOPA equips our ASN volunteers with resources and information to cover a variety of questions and topics. These include Airport Cooperation Research Project (ACRP) studies and reports on airport management, preservation of public-use airports, and developing airport business plans. We have catalogued more than 15 of these ACRP guidebooks that are available for free to our ASN volunteers.
We have resources that provide best practices for hosting an airport open house, how to speak with local political leaders, writing letters to the editor, FAA policy and Advisory Circulars, and access to topics that will help local airport users start an airport user group.