Craig Fuller remembers the exact day he was bitten by the aviation bug. He was 14 years old and on vacation with his family in Oregon when he saw a sign advertising seaplane rides for $5. He begged his father to take him, and he did. He says, “I remember the sensation to this day of getting perspective from the air for the very first time.”
That plane ride put him on a path toward a career in aviation that began with flying lessons on a Cessna 150 when he was 16, and eventually led him to take the helm of the country’s No. 1 pilot organization—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). As the organization’s president for the last five years, Fuller has tapped into his own varied background that spans senior public affairs positions in business, association leadership, and executive positions in the federal government, including eight years of service in the White House from 1981 to 1989, to lead the AOPA and position it for the future.
Fuller recently shared his perspective on the state of general aviation—talking everything from user fees to pilot shortages—with Airport Business.
How have general aviation’s challenges evolved over the years?
Since AOPA’s founding in 1939, its foremost purpose has been to advocate on behalf of general aviation pilots to the federal, state and local government. In 1939, with World War II approaching, there was a fear that federal government might regulate or tax general aviation away. Nearly 75 years later, that mission is still very much the same. One of the most important things we’ve done in the last five years has been to help build the general aviation caucus both in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate. The Congressmen who are members of the caucus have been great supporters of general aviation.
The FAA recently reported there were 41 percent fewer pilot certificates issued in the last decade. What can be done to increase the pilot population?
It’s taken us a long time to fall from approximately 800,000 pilots to 600,000. It’s going to take us some time to build those numbers back up. We have to attack the problem in several different places if we want to be successful.
We learned a few years ago that 80 percent [of students] drop out before they complete their training to become a certified private pilot. Our research shows there are approximately 47 identifiable factors that go into creating a successful flight training experience. Some flight schools graduate many or almost all of their students, and others graduate almost none. In light of that, we decided to share our research with current and future student pilots, flight instructors and flight schools. As part of that effort, we launched an awards program to recognize excellence in flight training. We gave out the first of those awards at our Aviation Summit in 2012. The idea is to get individuals to look at what makes a good flight training program and nominate instructors and flight schools for this recognition to increase student success.
We also found being able to identify with and become part of a flying community is important. Today’s students are interested in being part of a community of aviators, and where you see that existing you see more completion. This discovery led us to look more closely at ways to establish the community … through the flying club. We have identified about 600 flying clubs, and the AOPA has launched a flying club initiative to help pilots form clubs. We have already had some good results. Clubs that were thinking about going out of business suddenly had more business because we were talking about them, and new flying clubs are forming.
What can be done to improve general aviation’s image?
We need to do a better job of telling opinion leaders, elected officials, and the general media just how much we contribute to the economy and to communities. Jobs are the No. 1 issue today ... mobility is a big part of that. The ability of a company to expand often ties into the ability of the company to fly in and out of the local airport.
We have so many incredibly generous people doing things like flying our wounded soldiers; flying in the Angel Flight program for those needing treatment; and flying animals in programs like Pilots N Paws. This happens every day. All of these stories need to be told. We have formed a group called General Aviation Serves America, and Harrison Ford was very generous in his participation, to help tell that story.
Talks of user fees have reared their ugly head again. What are your thoughts on this issue?
The fact is a $100 per flight user fee, regardless of who it applies to in the general aviation community, is a bad thing. It raises operating costs but also deters people from using air traffic control or practicing approaches they need to learn. And eventually, as has been the case nearly every time user fees have been adopted across the world, even though a certain aircraft is exempt in the beginning, once the bureaucracy is set up to collect this fee, it begins to expand to all aircraft.
The AOPA opposes user fees but it’s not that we oppose any kind of charge. We have even said to Congress: ‘If you need additional funds that go toward aviation then an additional fuel tax is something we’d be in favor of. ’However, there is little likelihood that a user fee will pass this year. It’s not getting much traction in Congress.
Let’s talk 100 LL
The threat to Avgas, 100 Low Lead, by environmental groups, is a policy matter we can do something about. Research for an alternative fuel is included in the budget. Everyone is focused on whether there is a fuel that will work as well as 100 LL. There are some encouraging developments but there is not any one fuel that is viewed as a drop-in substitute. There are aircraft flying with special fuels that are being vetted and evaluated. In the years ahead, I believe there will be an alternative for 100LL.
What is the biggest challenge threatening general aviation’s future?
We need to encourage more young people to explore aviation. AOPA started asking people if they have the aspiration to actually fly an airplane some day and found millions of people share that aspiration. Millions! For one reason or another they don’t ever do it. That says to me we need to get more creative in our outreach and help nurture the idea I had at age 14. This is an area I hope to explore further … after I give up my day job.