Priester's Charge

Nov. 8, 1999

Priester's Charge

NATA chairman is spearheading a campaign to educate citizens about the value of their airports

BY John F. Infanger, editorial director

November / December 1999

WHEELING, IL — For some two years, the National Air Transportation Association has been working diligently to gain momentum for its American Aviation Access Initiative, an effort to heighten the awareness of the value of our nation's airports and to upgrade the infrastructure — particularly at general aviation airports. Charlie Priester may prove to be the additional catalyst the association was looking for to accelerate the program.

Priester, 61, is president and CEO of Priester Aviation, an FBO at Palwaukee Airport, Chicago's primary corporate reliever that was once owned by the Priester family. He was named chairman of NATA at its annual meeting in May.

Since that time, Priester has taken on the initiative as the ship he wants to steer while at the NATA helm, leading it into turbulent waters that he says desperately need to be navigated.

"What we're talking about is access for citizens to not only the U.S. transportation system but to the transportation system of the world," he explains.

"The airways are no good to us unless we have a focal point, a terminal point, which happens to be the airport. It's no different than the terminals for the internet. If I don't have a terminal, I don't have access to the system."

While many airports, state organizations, and others have taken on the cause of educating the public about the value of their airports, Priester sees this initiative as offering a new approach. For one, the starting point is different, he points out: It calls for targeting six general aviation airports in the U.S. and hiring an independent consulting firm to conduct focus group sessions to determine how citizens view their airports. The RFP for that contract was sent out in late summer and a finalist was to be selected before the NATA fall board meeting.

"In my opinion," says Priester, "we've gone about this in the wrong way. We talk about airports and ask, Why don't you love your airport? We should be explaining that the airport is the vehicle that allows access to a transportation system that is magnificent, that allows all these other things (travel, economic development, organ transplants, etc.) to happen. It's the network that we are trying to be a part of.

"When I talk to a group, people know what I'm going to say. They need to hear the chief surgeon at the hospital, the labor leader, or the high school principal. These people talking the value of aviation and the airport will get people to listen.

"The airport is often seen as part of a small community, but it may actually serve three or four other communities that are within 30 minutes flight time. Now, citizens of the other communities aren't impacted by the negatives — the noise and so forth. But the community that surrounds the airport, unfortunately, has all the negatives. And that small community can control, or stifle, the growth of the airport and actually rob the neighboring communities of the benefit." One suggestion he offers is to consider tax incentives for those affected by airport noise.

A logical question may be: Why have NATA, which represents airport tenant companies, spearheading an initiative for airports? Answers Priester, "You're always going to have a quarterback, someone to take the ball and run with it. I think NATA is the logical organization to do that.

"As I reported to Congress when testifying before the subcommittee, it isn't general aviation, it's not the FBOs, or the charter operators who use the system. It's the citizens of the country that use the system. We simply provide the service and support.

"The users come to us. So, we have a better understanding on a day-by-day basis of what the users are telling us they need from the system. Consequently, we're better equipped to take this message to Congress. But, absolutely, we want airport groups and others to be a part of this."

The next step in the program, he explains, is to select the company that will be tasked with finding out how citizens perceive their local airport. Then, a stategy can be developed.

"We have to see what our focus groups uncover," he says. "Then we need to decide the best strategy — Should it be national? State level? Local? The level will drive the funding."

For information on the program, contact NATA at (800) 808-NATA.