What’s an advocate and what do they do?

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?

5 Responses to “What’s an advocate and what do they do?”

  1. William Pessel says:

    Hi, I’m reading and looking forward to hearing more. I joined AOPA because I was impressed with its advocacy efforts, which I think are its core mission, and wanted my membership to support those efforts. So this stuff is important.

    The lack of comments thus far is a little concerning, but hopefully it’s because you’ve just provided an introduction to the process and haven’t yet touched on any of the substantive issues that might provoke comments from the membership. I got here as a result of the link from the AOPA epilot email, so its probably a good idea to keep that up.

    Hopefully in addition to letting us know what your office is doing your blog might highlight occasions when direct membership involvement can aid the process.

    • Tom Kramer says:

      First comment! Thanks William! Yes, the blog is new and only recently unveiled. I am hoping that as more folks discover it, and there are more articles published, there will be more direct engagement. I do plan to do articles on individual issues, but wanted to set the stage with some foundational insight first.

      I definitely plan to use the blog to highlight opportunities for members to get involved in issues.

      Thanks for reading and joining the conversation!

  2. William Pessel says:

    No problem, Tom. I’d like to see the operational, “day in the life,” part of it keep coming though, along with the other stuff.

    By the way, with reference to your statement “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,” I have a question. Who, if anyone, besides Ken Mead is working on the issue of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) now moving to exempt its records from public disclosure requirements?

    The reason I ask is because last week’s AOPA aviation newscast reported that the ACLU of Washington just entered into a settlement agreement with CBP aimed at compelling compliance with the Fourth Amendment, and I checked and noted that under the settlement CBP is obligated to keep records of all stops and searches so compliance can be verified. Going back a step, I know the ability to obtain records of government surveillance, stop and search activities has been and will continue to be a crucial element of civil rights lawsuits by citizens asserting Fourth Amendment and other constitutional violations — for example, in the lawsuit in Washington and in the lawsuit challenging “stop and frisk” in NYC (Floyd v. NYC).

    I would think AOPA should immediately reach out to groups like the ACLU and possibly other government watchdog groups to alert them to this move by CBP to shield its activities from public scrutiny. I would expect they might immediately recognize the danger it poses and get involved to challenge it. Maybe you can convey this suggestion to whoever at AOPA is working on this issue.


  3. Craig says:


    Thanks for the suggestion, you are right on the money as far as coordination with other associations and agencies that share a similar interest. In fact, AOPA has developed a comprehensive advocacy strategy for this particular issue that involves exploring ways to collaborate with the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as other aviation and individual associations similar to ours. Much of what we do on a daily basis here at AOPA never gets retransmitted to the members but rest assured we working this issue on multiple fronts. Thanks for the input.

  4. William Pessel says:

    You’re welcome, and thanks for the reply, Craig.

    I’m glad to hear you and AOPA are reaching out to these groups of likely allies. What I like about issues like this is how they present the opportunity to enlist the support of potential allies from all sides of the political spectrum. Lots of people can come together and agree it benefits us all to keep the government transparent and accountable to the people, right?

    Hopefully this blog gives you an opportunity to transmit more of what you do on a daily basis to the members. Keep up the good work.