Apparently it will be official tomorrow. Phil Boyer is retiring and Craig L. Fuller will be the next President of AOPA. A hearty congratulations to them both. Before I get to my wish list for Craig and AOPA, let me talk a little about this important change and the great industry in which many of us are privileged to work.
In the 69 year history of AOPA, there have been only three Presidents, which speaks to the remarkable stability of the organization. Phil started in early 1991, so it will have been about an 18 year run for him, assuming he serves through the end of this year. When I say "run" I mean it. AOPA is the point of the spear for the General Aviation industry, and no job is more important than the President’s. Being AOPA President means being constantly on the run, and Phil’s earned a reputation as a tireless advocate for General Aviation.
As to the greatness of this industry, one needs only to look to...
the general aviation media and their reporting over the last year of Phil’s impending retirement. Part of journalism is getting the scoop on the competition and being first to release information. However, not a single word emerged in print over the last year about the impending change of leadership at AOPA. Yet what could be a bigger story?
You might conclude that this was an incredibly well kept secret and that the media didn’t know it. But you’d be wrong. I first heard the rumor at Oshkosh nearly a year ago and confirmed it in September. Friends of mine in the media have mentioned it to me multiple times since then--yet not a single word appeared in the press until now.
Why did they all refrain from publishing this? There are probably many reasons. Certainly there’s huge respect for AOPA. Everyone understood the importance of selecting the right new President and that finding one wouldn’t be easy. I wish had a dollar for every time over the past year that someone said to me "It’s going to be hard to find someone who can fill Phil Boyer’s shoes." The aviation media understood the importance of the selection process and no one wanted to screw it up by letting the cat out of the bag. The result is that AOPA’s Board of Trustees and their executive search firm had nine months to do their work in relative quiet without having to rush the process. My hat goes off to everyone in the media for keeping a lid on this story. Job well done.
Craig's name is not widely known in aviation circles, but that’s about to change. Obviously, he’s a pilot--that part of the job description was non-negotiable. He’s also an aircraft owner, which is essential to understanding the needs of a core portion of AOPA’s membership. I’ve heard that he previously owned a Cessna Cutlass and currently flies a Bonanza A36 out of Virginia.
Perhaps most important, he could be described as a "Washington insider." While that description is eschewed by people running for President of the United States, that kind of background is a decided asset for being President of AOPA. Politics is the process for getting things done, and nothing’s more important to the future of aviation then making sure that General Aviation is protected and preserved by the laws and regulations of this land. To some extent, it helps to be a Beltway insider with government experience and relationships. You can google Craig and find out more of his background, but it started with interning for then Governor of California Reagan and going on to be Chief of Staff for the elder George Bush when he served as Vice President.
Before getting to my wish list, let me preface it by saying that AOPA is an outstanding organization, and Phil’s leadership has taken it to new heights, particularly in terms of growing the membership to over 415,000 members. That’s remarkable given that the pilot population has declined more than 25% since 1980. Incidentally, 2007 was the first year in a long time when the pilot population actually increased, which is a tribute to AOPA, EAA and every pilot who has ever taken an interested friend along for a flight and encouraged them to get a pilot’s license. Keep up the great work!
So Craig, here’s my wish list for AOPA and you.
1. Establish a widespread, hard-hitting Aviation Outreach Program. We need to grow the pilot population if we’re going to continue to have the clout we need to get things done in Congress. By outreach, I mean going to the shopping malls and golf courses where people are spending their leisure time. One flight school in southern California trucks a brand new Cessna 172 around to a different shopping mall every week and signs up several thousand people a year for demo flights.
2. Embrace and use the new media as a vehicle for reaching potential new pilots. Create a free "Learn to Fly" application for the 18-24 year old population that’s totally captivated by Facebook. Develop a competition among Embry-Riddle, UND and other college students to develop the best Learn to Fly YouTube video that could “go viral” and expose millions of people to flying. Start AOPA Internet radio that broadcasts every night to listeners on the internet and through outlets like XM Radio.
3. Hire a Learn to Fly Vice President that will manage AOPA Learn to Fly initiatives and lead an GA industry coalition to increase the number of pilots.
4. Push the FAA to adopt an aggressive goal for reducing the general aviation accident rate by, for example, 50% by the year 2020. Stop trumpeting the decline in the number of accidents, since that decline is driven largely by a decrease in the total number of hours flown, not by any improvement in the underlying accident rate.
5. Work with the FAA to drive the definition of the “right” NextGen ATC solution that provides real benefits to pilots and doesn’t simply shift costs from the FAA to pilots.
6. Continue to fight user fees at every turn. The call for them will never go away.
There's never been a more exciting time in General Aviation, nor a time with so many challenges and external threats. Let’s all get to work and help Craig lead AOPA to even greater heights. God Speed.