An inside look at AOPA’s Government Affairs department

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.

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