It was on a severe clear flight from Philadelphia to an island in Long Island Sound just off the Connecticut coast in the early 1970s that retiring National Air Transportation Association (NATA) president and CEO Jim Coyne got hooked on general aviation.
Coyne, his new wife Holly and a friend had chartered the single-engine, four-seat Grumman American for the trip that took them over New York City to the tiny airstrip on Fisher’s Island. Then and there the Coynes decided to become pilots. Soon they were renting airplanes and eventually bought an old Piper Arrow.
After serving as a Pennsylvania congressman for one term, and working in the Reagan White House, Coyne entered association work and eventually founded the American Tort Reform Association in 1986. As serendipity would have it, the general aviation industry was engaged in its own battle for tort reform around that same time.
Under the leadership of Ed Stimpson, then-president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and Cessna’s Russ Meyer, who was the chairman of GAMA at the time, the GA industry began proselytizing about federal tort reform to stem the bleeding from lawsuits that were strangling the GA manufacturing industry.
At about the same time, NATA had begun a search to find a new president. As Coyne told the association’s Aviation Business Journal, “I had a very unusual combination of qualifications: I was an enthusiastic and passionate pilot, I had a lot of experience in politics and I was a real proponent of tort reform,” he recalled. “I think that combination is what eventually brought me before the search firm, and the rest is history.”
Eighteen years of history, to be exact. And, although he is stepping down as president and CEO of NATA, Coyne plans to remain in the aviation industry. The day that AIN talked with Coyne, he had flown his Beech Baron from Leesburg (Va.) Executive Airport to Teterboro, N.J. Although he has had the Baron since 1978, he also has been flying a CitationJet on NATA business for five years.
Over the ensuing years, Coyne has become one of the strongest, most outspoken and perhaps most articulate of advocates for general aviation. Looking back at his tenure at NATA, he lists the organization’s Safety 1st Online Professional Line Service Training program as one of the most important innovations that NATA has accomplished during his watch. “But it’s not just me,” he hastened to add. “It was the whole staff, our members and the board who recognized the opportunity for NATA to help out.”
One of the driving forces for Safety 1st was the growing cost of repairing an airplane, especially if it was damaged on the ramp or in the hangar. The second driving force was the inconsistency of safety and service around the country when flying into an unfamiliar FBO. “On a scale of one to 10, you were just as likely to find a one as you were lucky to find a 10,” said Coyne. “We felt that if ever there was a time to raise the bar on aviation safety, it was under NATA’s leadership. No one else was concerned about it, and we felt there was a real opportunity.”
A third driving force was the training technologies that evolved in in the 1990s, with videotapes, DVDs and Internet-based training. “We were working with people who are really good at that,” he remembered. “We were trying to create a standard across the country.”
Charter and More
Coyne also was the mover for the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF), having gotten the idea during a long flight back from a Flight Safety Foundation convention. While ACSF began as part of NATA, the idea all along was that it would become autonomous. “I was just the catalyst that got it started,” he said. “Charter, I think, is a tougher type of aviation than the airlines. You’re going into different airports, you have a very unscheduled type of environment, sometimes you are asked to fly when the airlines aren’t flying because of bad weather or something.”
Coyne also was instrumental in organizing the general aviation caucuses in the House and Senate. “I guess one of my 15 seconds of fame came when I wrote a letter to President Obama criticizing him for his attacks on general aviation right after he came into office in 2009,” he noted. “It’s something I feel passionate about. NATA, day in and day out, will always have a job, making sure that our elected officials understand [all facets of general aviation].”
So what’s next for the Coynes?
Like the seasoned politician that he is, Coyne would say only, “We are looking forward to staying active in aviation. Holly and I are both pilots and we will be working with aviation companies.”