John McCain Brought Spirited Advocacy, Controversy to Bizav
The business and general aviation industry lost a staunch ally and equally formidable foe with the passing of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) on Saturday, August 25, at the age of 81. The decorated Vietnam War veteran, who had battled brain cancer for more than a year, was the Republican candidate for president in 2008 and served in the U.S. Senate for 32 years after a four-year stint in the House of Representatives. He was known for his strong independent streak and often referred to as a maverick.
He brought this style to his stewardship of aviation issues as a leader of the Senate's aviation subcommittee and then of the full Commerce Committee, which he steered for well over a decade as chairman and ranking member, beginning in 1997.
McCain, who completed flight school in 1960 and flew fighters in the U.S. Navy, had a deep interest in aviation issues. He was a spirited advocate of general aviation product-liability reform, becoming one of the driving forces in the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994. “Product liability has been the single greatest obstacle to the success and survival of the American light aircraft industry,” he had told colleagues.
Representing Arizona, he also paid attention to air-tour safety and the dispute surrounding operations over Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP). In the face of calls from numerous corners of the environmental community for restrictions and/or bans of operators over GNCP, he brokered a compromise with a measure that allowed for reasonable restriction but also recognized the contributions of air tour helicopters that employed noise-reducing technologies.
At the same time, he sometimes was at odds with the industry, particularly over his stance that business aviation should pay user fees. In his usual up-front manner, he had expressed a sentiment that corporate "fat cat friends" fly in business jets and "pay nothing.” He held a hearing in September 1995, while the NBAA Convention was taking place in Las Vegas. As a result, then NBAA president Jack Olcott and then GAMA president Ed Stimpson were forced to make a quick return to Washington, D.C., to testify in what proved to be a difficult forum.
While McCain pushed for fees on business aviation, he was clear that recreational aviation should be exempt. When AOPA weighed in against user fees, the dispute became almost on a personal level with McCain then questioning the proposed appointment of then AOPA president Phil Boyer to the FAA management advisory council.
McCain had pushed for air-traffic-control organization reform, arguing, “The limits of our overstretched air traffic control [ATC] system have become painfully apparent over the last few years.”
The business and general aviation community ultimately prevailed and a decade later McCain—who despite his support of the user fees had remained a business and general aviation advocate—had somewhat shifted his position. In 2011 he joined 11 other senators who had signed on to a letter urging then President Barack Obama to drop a proposal for a $100-per-flight fee on general aviation. “While we agree that the deficit must be reduced, increasing taxes on corporate jets and other GA aircraft will only further stifle economic recovery," the letter stated, pointing out that the industry employs 1.2 million people and generates $150 billion in economic activity.
Aviation was a passion shared with McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, a private pilot who had flown her husband around Arizona during some of his campaigns.