A missed opportunity for the aviation community

As reports filtered out of the airline/airport executives’ meeting with President Trump, I was taken back in time to my earliest days in the White House on the staff of Ronald Reagan as his assistant for cabinet affairs. Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) David Stockman had considerable Washington experience as a former congressional staffer as well as a member of Congress.  He offered wise counsel about groups trying to affect policy inside the White House. His warning was that in Washington there are strong clients with weak cases and weak clients with strong cases.

I never forgot this message and found it proven true all too often when groups with considerable influence landed across the table with an ill-considered policy preference or the lack of any effort to build a broad consensus around their recommendations.

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Most of the focus this week out of the one aviation meeting scheduled with President Trump has been on narrow policy preferences of airline CEOs. While they have every right to take the President’s time on their preferences, the aviation community lost a huge opportunity to outline the path forward for modernizing the nation’s air transportation system, something the very airlines represented in the room have been actively engaged in designing throughout this decade.

The effort has been centered in an advisory group created at the request of the FAA called the NextGen Advisory Committee(NAC). Since 2010, the NAC’s efforts are showing clear results and benefits for those operating in the national air space. More importantly, the entire aviation community is at the table with the FAA leadership defining priorities and developing recommendations.

But, instead of taking advantage of a broad based, representative group from the aviation community and presenting a strong case, a “strong client” with a “weak case” kept almost everyone else out.

Did someone think leaving out general aviation, business aviation, air traffic controllers, pilot organizations, aircraft and avionics manufacturers as well as other stakeholders would enhance this meeting?

Even worse, the accounts suggest the presentation gave an impression that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has somehow been engaged in a costly exercise to modernize the air traffic management system with the wrong equipment absent any guidance from the all-knowing airline executives. Leaving the President with the impression that our air traffic management system is “out of wack” serves no one’s interests and it is unfair in the extreme to those engaged in a collaborative process to advance air traffic management in the world’s largest, safest and most complex air transportation system.

The fact is that the current FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, has led a process over the past several years through the RTCA’s NextGen Advisory Committee that has involved the key aviation stakeholders, including the airlines appearing in the White House. Remarkably, since it was established, the NAC has been chaired every year by a series of very thoughtful and capable airline CEOs.

It is fair to say that the early concepts for modernizing the air traffic management system have been modified as more was learned and with fluctuations in funding. But, this was all done with the aviation community working with the FAA through the NAC to set priorities.  And now, this same group is measuring results.

As 2016 was ending, the FAA Administrator took time to document the path traveled as our air traffic management system has been modernized. His extensive letter on this subject to Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneGOP ObamaCare fight faces do-or-die procedural vote Four GOP senators will vote against taking up healthcare bill without changes Week ahead in tech: Lawmakers turn focus to self-driving cars MORE (R-S.D.) is posted on the FAA web site. This would have been the basis for a very productive discussion where airlines, general aviation, business aviation, manufacturers, controllers, pilots, airport executives and the FAA could have appeared to discuss the many points on which there is agreement directly related to the investments needed for the future.

As one who has participated in what is an unprecedented level of collaboration related to the complex development and implementation of policies and procedures around our nation’s air transportation system, it is disappointing to see opportunities missed and misimpressions imparted any time a President of the United States is willing to focus on the real needs of the aviation community. We can and we need to do better.

Craig Fuller is the chairman of The Fuller Company. He serves as an advisor to the FAA as vice-chairman of the FAA’s Management Advisory Committee. He has served on the NextGen Advisory Committee while president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and currently serves as the Chairman of the RTCA in which the NAC resides. He has been an active pilot for four decades. He is a member of the APCO WORLDWIDE International Advisory Council.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.