Archive for September, 2013

What’s an advocate and what do they do?

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013
Conversations with my in-laws would be a lot easier if I were an accountant.  Whenever we meet, they kindly ask, “how are things going at work?”  Their eyes glaze over as I try to explain the transition from a ground-based navigation and surveillance system to one that is satellite-based.  They smile and nod, and I quickly change the subject to the weather.


In a previous post I detailed the organization of AOPA’s Government Affairs and provided a broad overview of how the division works.  Now, I’d like to dig a little deeper and provide insight as to how an individual Advocate carries out the mission of Government Affairs.

I work as the Manager of Airspace and Modernization for AOPA’s Government Affairs.  In this role, I am responsible for developing, implementing, and advocating AOPA’s position as it pertains to the National Airspace System and how pilots operate in it.  Very simply, I work the issues that happen in the airspace.  This includes instrument flight procedure development, NAVAID and airway management, obstruction evaluations, the transition to a satellite based airspace system, and a handful of other topics.  My actual day to day work falls into three broad categories.

Analyzing and Reporting

The majority of my time is spent researching, analyzing, and reporting on the issues that fall under the banner of Air Traffic Services.  Before I can advocate on an issue, I need to understand it inside and out.  I need to identify what the potential impact or benefit to general aviation is and what course of action will affect the result we’re looking for.

My coworker, Melissa McCaffrey, has the unenviable task of analyzing and reporting on thousand-page environmental studies.  These reports detail the potential environmental impact of an airspace boundary modification, for example.  While 90% of the document has no relevance to our membership, key pieces of information are often buried in unassuming sections and need to be ferreted out so we can develop comments in opposition or support.


Each week, I spend between 10 and 20 hours in meetings.  Most of these meetings happen at FAA headquarters in Washington, DC, but I often travel around the country for meetings on regional issues.  Occasionally the meetings are single day, single issue events.  More often, they are ongoing, committee type efforts.

Recently, I have been selected as co-chair of a committee that is tasked with making recommendations to the FAA on improvements to the U.S. NOTAM system.  It’s exciting, important work that will impact the lives of any pilot who uses NOTAMs.  One of the challenges with this, and many committees, is that we (general aviation) are outnumbered.  In a room of 2 dozen participants, there might be only 1 or 2 other individuals who represent some segment of general aviation.  Thankfully, these committees are usually consensus-based efforts.  This means the group works to achieve a workable solution that is palatable to all versus a perfect solution that is ideal for some.  Having strong working relationships with other stakeholders is critical under the consensus process.

Building Relationships

So much of what we do is reliant on having a strong network of knowledgeable, influential people.  Not just in the FAA, but throughout other associations and stakeholder groups.  This isn’t the shady kind of back room deals or insider information, but knowing who can assist me in addressing an issue.

Consider a recent example.  A member called in to report a disparity between the textual description of a TFR and the FAA provided graphic.  Thankfully, I had a great contact in the FAA’s System Operations Security office that was able to quickly correct the issue and prevent pilots from inadvertently entering a TFR.

It’s difficult to define my job to someone who isn’t familiar with aviation.  I think the easiest way to explain it is that I work to promote, preserve, and protect the freedom to fly.  The cool thing is, that happens to be AOPA’s mission statement.


I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Does this match with what you imagined Government Affairs employees did?

An inside look at AOPA’s Government Affairs department

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013
I often wonder about the accuracy of television portrayals of the workplace.  Is selling paper as much fun as it looks on The Office?  Are folks really making a fortune bidding on abandoned storage lockers?  Certainly the more mundane parts of these job are left out.  There’s a popular misunderstanding that AOPA gets things accomplished by storming FAA headquarters, pounding the table, and shouting ultimatums.  While this does happen on occasion, our day to day work is not must see TV.
Government Affairs Office

Government Affairs office at AOPA’s headquarters in Frederick, MD

Role of Government Affairs at AOPA

AOPA’s Government Affairs is one division made up of five departments.  In our Washington, DC offices, our Legislative Affairs team oversees Federal legislative issues such as the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, FAA funding, and the General Aviation Caucus.  The remaining 4 departments work from AOPA Headquarters in Frederick, MD.

The Airports and State Advocacy department is tasked with promoting and protecting airports around the country and state-level legislative issues such as property taxes.  Regulatory Affairs oversees issues related to aircraft and pilot certification including Airworthiness Directives and pilot medicals.  The Operations and International Affairs folks work collaboratively with AOPA International counterparts around the world.  Security issues such as the DC Flight Restricted Zone, Presidential TFRs, and the TSA are worked under Operations & International Affairs.

The final department, Airspace & Air Traffic Services, is tasked with airspace (boundaries and modifications), infrastructure (NAVAIDs, obstructions, etc.), and operational environment issues (instrument procedures, ATC interaction, etc.).  Together, these 5 departments represent around 30 people or 15% of the entire AOPA staff and serve as the front line of preserving and promoting our freedom to fly.

The Past, Present, and Future of Advocacy

A few months ago, Government Affairs hosted a purge party.  We had dozens of 5 drawer, extra-deep file cabinets holding the history of our advocacy efforts.  The cabinets were taking up valuable office space and the contents were obsolete and rarely, if ever, referenced.  It was fascinating to see some of these letters and documents, some dating back 30 years or more.  It struck me how much had changed.  Letters are no longer hammered out on a typewriter or addressed, “Dear Gentlemen,”  and purple-hued mimeographed duplicates are a distant memory.  Despite a change in the means, the method remains constant.  AOPA still accomplishes great work through analyzing issues, building relationships, and leveraging the organization’s experience and reputation.

Advocacy is really about communicating.  Each day we communicate our position on general aviation.  Whether its writing a letter to the FAA, meeting with a Senator, or participating on a panel to develop consensus recommendations.  Before these efforts ever see the light of day, hours upon hours are spent researching the issue, evaluating the impact or benefit to general aviation, and determining a path forward.

In my next article, I’ll provide more insight into the nuts and bolts of advocacy work including a breakdown of a typical work week and the nature of what it means to be an advocate.

How effective is this?

No single letter or meeting is going to make or break general aviation.  It is the collective, sustained effort over hundreds or thousands of interactions that will promote, preserve, and protect the freedom to fly. This is why AOPA’s experience and reputation has proven so valuable.  Fostering relationships with other organizations, regulators, and elected officials is critical in implementing the goals of our organization.  We don’t always see eye to eye, but the strength and breadth of our network ensures that when we need to be firm, it carries that much more weight.

AOPA’s Government Affairs is not nearly as dramatic as an episode of House of Cards.  While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be made into a reality TV show, the work is deeply satisfying.  I can honestly say that my co-workers are not hired-guns, but passionate defenders of the freedom to fly with a personal, vested interest in general aviation.