Shaping Perceptions

July 8, 2001


NATA, AOPA offer assistance for improving community relations

By Lindsay M. Hitch, Assistant Editor

July 2001

The public’s perception of an airport plays a large role in determining its long-term success. NATA and AOPA recommend ways to mold the public’s opinion and knowledge of the airport’s impact. Following is a look at their suggestions and hands-on tools.

The National Air Transportation Association offers its recently unveiled "Community Relations Toolkit," while the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Associa-tion has available "Obtaining Com-munity Support for Your Local Airport." With both, the theme is one of education.
Most opposition to airports stems from fear of aviation-related accidents, noise, or views of the airport as a tax drain rather than a contributor to the community’s economic growth, they say. For these reasons, many of the suggestions center around community education through airport events, involvement in community activities, and the media.
NATA and AOPA recommend airport open houses, airport friends/ support groups, speakers bureaus, partnerships with local education, assisting in disasters, fostering ties with local media, communication with local politicians, economic impact studies, and in general taking a visible stake in the community.

The NATA community relations handbook was released at its annual convention in May. Reflecting NATA’s membership, the toolkit is aimed at owners and operators of airport-based businesses and managers of general aviation airports. The manual’s suggestions range from simple ideas, like a paper airplane contest, to major activities, like an open house or airshow. Each airport is at a different stage in its community relations development, and each faces different problems, says NATA. The toolkit stresses trying the ideas that seem to fit, not necessarily trying all of them.
The toolkit is set up in four phases of relations improvement, and is intended to be followed step by step:
• Phase 1. "Developing a Community Relations Program" outlines a number of ways to get started.
• Phase 2. "Implementing Community Outreach Elements" builds on the ideas in Phase 1 and suggests more complex projects.
• Phase 3. "Communicating Effectively and Resolving Conflicts" provides advice for handling public opposition.
• Phase 4. "Pulling It All Together — Strategies for Action" outlines specific strategies to follow depending on the airport’s situation and goals.
The phases are somewhat interrelated, and as the toolkit’s suggestions are meant to be taken in part, it may prove most valuable to read the entire kit before implementing its ideas.
Phase 1 includes some information that may be helpful in supporting the airport argument and finding supporters. A list of airport and general aviation statistics may prove powerful when speaking to civic and voters groups. For example, do they know that "70 percent of general aviation flights are flown for business purposes" and that "general aviation airports are a major factor in relocation decisions by companies, both large and small"?
Finding a group of community members to begin an airport support group can be a great way to improve community relations without doing all the work in-house, according to NATA. Among the possible supporters mentioned in the toolkit are airport tenants and employees, agricultural agents, emergency medical teams, firefighters, law enforcement officers, military personnel, student pilots, and flight instructors. The kit also recommends recruiting from the organizations to which those people belong.

The major difference between the two associations’ handbooks is in the audiences for whom they are written. Because its membership is mainly airport users, AOPA’s "Obtaining Community Support for Your Local Airport" primarily focuses on efforts of an airport support group. The guidebook encourages working with airport managers and airport-based businesses in joint projects, but suggests activities the support group can do on its own, for the most part.
The community support guidebook is broken into five sections:
• organizing an airport group;
• public relations and political action;
• worth/value of the airport;
• airport noise, safety, and land use planning; and
• a resource guide.
Each section provides guidelines for specific aspects of public relations.
AOPA’s guidebook stresses two major points. First, an airport support group, even if organized initially by pilots, should include non-pilots and people not generally associated with the airport. Second, be prepared with facts. The easiest way to counter emotional arguments is with hard and fast statistics. The guidebook then goes on to list general statistics and explains how to determine numbers specific to each airport. AOPA’s materials also include an event planning checklist.
To obtain copies or for more information, contact NATA at (800)808-NATA or; or AOPA at (800)USA-AOPA or

AOPA’s Airport Support Network

Started in October 1997, the Airport Support Network is an airport advocacy group for AOPA members. The program includes a number of publications and visual aids for volunteers, including...
• Airports: A Valuable Community Resource, The Guide to Obtaining Community Support for Your Local Airport
• AOPA’s Guide to Land Use and Airport Noise
• The Complete Guide to Holding an Airport Open House
• Flying Friendly (video)
• Local Airports Across America (video)

11 Steps for Improving the Airport’s Image

NATA’s Community Relations Toolkit offers an eleven-step outline for use in improving the image and understanding of the airport. Some highlights ...

1) Remember to plan.
2) Find out who is looking for information about what’s going on regarding special interests in the community. Is it real estate developers and agents concerned with nearby property? Maybe schools, subdivisions, employment agencies? Make the calls, offer to meet with representatives, and give tours of aviation facilities.
3) Airports are usually tied to state or local government. Study the issues, form an opinion, and offer support when it makes sense. Be ready (with written statements) to tell the media.
4) Know the local media. Who reports on community events? Who writes about issues related to aviation and business? Contact these people and make recommendations.
5) Contact the airport and offer support of their efforts. Encourage employees to volunteer on standing or ad hoc committees which might need help. Offer to serve when a vacancy arises on the advisory committee.
6) Put the company’s best speaker forward. If given a chance to talk about what the company does, make sure the right person is delivering the message.
7) Canvas employees and create a list of organizations to which they belong. Let them know that company representatives are willing to meet with or speak to their groups if the occasion arises. Pitch in with sports team uniforms or perhaps a hole sponsorship at golf tournaments.
8) Be controversial without being combative. Community relations need to be nurtured ... it’s a relationship — not a war.
9) Look at the company facility as a possible site for civic groups to hold meetings. Hold an open house. Take the opportunity to conduct tours for guests. Give attendees parting gifts (pens, note pads, etc.).
10) When the company does something special, take pictures. If the Girl Scouts are on tour, snap a group photo. Be sure the troop gets copies and make an extra one to send to friends in the local media. If the company doesn’t tell people what it is doing, how will they know?
11)Get in touch with and support groups that are grooming the next generation of civic leaders, business owners, and journalists. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Jaycees, and Junior Achievers will grow up to be constituencies in the future. Explain aviation jargon, such as "secret" acronyms like FBO and avgas.