Admit it- attending city council, county commission, airport board or other public meetings has the same allure for you as preparing a federal tax return by hand. Lengthy agendas, droll topics about non-pertinent issues and a litany of more enjoyable things to do with your time all conspire to make attending public meetings low on most everyone’s priority list.
But what about when something significant at your publicly-owned airport suddenly impacts you and your fellow users… in a big way? Have you been engaged? Are you up to speed? Do you know the key decision makers and the information and drivers behind their proposals or actions? If something is planned that you don’t support, can you influence a different course? Too often, the answer for most aircraft owners, pilots and airport users is “no”.
Prior to joining AOPA, I was fortunate to have enjoyed an airport management career that spanned more than two decades at large and small airports owned by cities, counties and independent airport authorities (“airport sponsors”, in the industry parlance). As a public official charged with effectively and efficiently managing a publicly owned asset, I always strived to operate the public’s airport in a transparent, informative, engaging and collaborative manner. I can tell you firsthand that the vast majority of airport professionals endeavor to do the same, and take great pride in providing a safe, efficient and well-planned community airport asset.
Unfortunately that is not universally true, and some airport sponsors and the staff they employ don’t always take the effort to engage their constituents on issues, proposals and plans that affect them and the airport they use. So what is an aircraft owner, pilot or airport tenant to do?
The answer is simple. If you don’t have an airport users/tenants/pilots association, start one. And do so even if you have the best airport manager you could wish for, and certainly before a significant issue affects you and your fellow aviators. A well-organized, consistently engaged users association is well worth your investment in time and resources, and will provide many benefits:
- A voice. The ability to weigh in proactively on key airport decisions with the organized voice of many is critically important. Remember- if you’re based at a public airport, you have a say in how it’s managed, operated and improved.
- Education. Airports, like aircraft, are complex machines driven by a multitude of unique requirements, standards and FAA regulations often not familiar to pilots and airport tenants. Knowledge is power, and being engaged is a great way to learn about the unique vagaries, constraints and opportunities at your airport, and how they affect you as an airport user.
- Collaboration. Collaboration and cooperation between the airport sponsor and airport users is a powerful tool. Trust me on this- it’s much easier for an airport to accomplish great things when users and the airport are working together.
- Weight. A unified voice can provide airport users with significant influence when weighing in with airport sponsors and elected officials on airport issues. While some airport managers are pilots, many are not, and a pilot perspective on airport issues is always valuable.
- Communication. Creation of a proactive, defined and inclusive communication channel between the airport sponsor and airport users allows for effective dialogue on issues before they become critical.
- Community Engagement. The ability to proactively engage the surrounding community on pressures against the airport that arise from noise, overflights, emissions and other airport impacts. Having a group of well-organized pilots weigh in at a public hearing on a new housing development right off a runway end can be far more impactful than one airport manager reciting FAA land use recommendations.
- Fun! Lastly, a users association can be fun! Many airport user/pilot/tenant associations have refined into social, pilot-centric communities as well. Is there a more enjoyable way to discuss your airport’s future than in a hangar over a beer and burger?
So if your airport does not have a users/tenants/pilots association- I would strongly encourage you to connect with your fellow pilots and organize one. There are many great examples out there, including the Reno-Stead (Nevada) Airport Association, and the Grand Junction (Colorado) Airport Users and Tenants Association. And whether you have one or not, stay engaged at your airport. Take the time to get to know your airport manager and elected officials. Attend key public meetings, workshops and design charrettes that affect your airport’s future. Help host an airport open house. Get out and talk to the non-aviation groups in your community about the value of the airport and the importance of general aviation.
And above all, insist that elected officials, airport board members and airport staff at your airport are consistently transparent, engaged and communicative with you and your fellow users, pilots and tenants. Remember- it’s a public airport and it belongs to you.