All Articles Leadership Inspiration Spotlight on Association Leadership: Craig Fuller on challenges facing general aviation

Spotlight on Association Leadership: Craig Fuller on challenges facing general aviation

4 min read


Craig Fuller has been president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association since 2009. He is only the fourth person to hold this position since AOPA was founded in 1939. He brings to the job a career that includes senior public-affairs positions in business, association leadership and executive positions in the federal government, including eight years of service in the White House, from 1981 to 1989.

I spoke with him about his leadership philosophy and challenges facing the general-aviation industry. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Describe your leadership philosophy.

Today, leaders in any organization must: 1) develop and communicate a clear strategy for the organization; 2) retain and recruit the very best people; and 3) make sure the right people are in the right positions in the organization. Get these things right, and success will follow.

Which leaders in the industry have influenced you?

In the general-aviation community, I have looked to the founders of many of our companies. People like Cessna, Piper, Beech and others who pioneered the design and development of aircraft and an industry that was built to last. It’s proven very resilient even in the toughest times and the aircraft they designed still fly … some with very few structural modifications.

I also have great admiration for two individuals who looked at how aircraft and pilots were navigating and said a new approach was needed. The two people — Gary Burrell and Min Kao — formed Garmin in 1989 and changed for the better navigation in the air, on land and in the sea using GPS … and, they had a little help from another leader I respect, Ronald Reagan. As president, he opened the GPS system up for commercial use.

What about leaders in other sectors?

Here at AOPA, we are involved with media, so I look to leaders in this space a good deal. I have always respected David Bradley for the commitment he has to The National Journal and the notion that you can produce a weekly policy publication that is both informative and entertaining. I also admire Roger Ailes for creating a television news phenomenon at Fox News.

What is the biggest challenge your industry is facing this year?

The slow growth in the economy mixed with the increasing price of fuel is a huge threat to growth in general aviation.

What is the biggest challenge your association is facing?

On the policy front, the $100 per flight operation user fee proposal contained in President Barack Obama’s budget poses a challenge made more manageable by the fact that there is such widespread opposition to this idea in Congress every time it is proposed.

Beyond the beltway, we as a country are facing a serious pilot shortage in this country and we are working hard to develop better approaches to growing the pilot population.

If a recent college graduate came to you and said they one day wanted your job, what advice would you give them?

Pursue those things you are passionate about. Leadership comes to those with experience who strive to make a difference in every environment in which they find themselves. Some have a target and pursue it with focus. For others, a general direction is followed and a history of performance provides new and challenging opportunities.

In my case, I have always had a passion for public policy and leading organizations. And, of course, my passion for flying started at a young age. I actually read with some personal disappointment a story about a new person taking over AOPA in 1991. I thought at the time that being president of AOPA would be an extraordinary experience and I wished I’d paid more attention to the plans of the sitting president who elected to retire.

Eighteen years later, the opportunity came my way when I least expected it. So, I guess patience plays an important role as well.

Image credit: Craig Fuller