TEN QUESTIONS FOR ED BOLEN (NBAA)
Category: Business Aviation Interviews & Profiles
Author: Dave Higdon
Ten Questions for NBAA president Ed Bolen.
Depending on the day, the issue and the venue, NBAA staff and their energetic president Ed Bolen have shown up in many of the usual places - but an unusually large number of times addressing a host of live-and-vexing issues. Sometimes, one of Congress’ panels served as the venue, at other times the FAA. At times, FAA funding dominated the topics, at other times the Block Aircraft Registration Request program, and at still others, national politics and tax policies.
Needless to say, as combative as some players and as combat-prone as some of these issues seem to have been, the tone from Bolen is always more than reasonable and far more at ease – while remaining as insistent as the press clips sound when portraying the veteran leader’s message.
The worlds of business, economics, politics and regulation seem riper than average with issues in the past year. The list of issues - many of which were discussed with Bolen during the following interview - are wholly domestic in nature and somewhat Beltway-centric, with little international component and only one area of regional impact - namely the state-taxing issues.
In reality, NBAA’s efforts and activities span a more-diverse landscape as it continues to engage actively with regional Business Aviation organizations, in part to help deliver the message of Business Aviation’s benefits to both communities and companies. The association also supports a range of regional meetings (and we’re not talking about its diverse training and consulting schedule for schedulers and dispatchers, flight attendants and flight department managers and maintenance department heads - NBAA offers plenty of those too).
NBAA’s activities address the association’s wide influence internationally – directly, representing its domestic operating members and through regional international groups such as the European Business Aviation Association, and counterparts in Latin America and Asia. In addition to helping launch those associations, NBAA has helped those groups launch their own regional meetings.
After a stint heading up the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Bolen joined NBAA as president in September 2004, only a few weeks ahead of that year’s mid-October convention dates in Las Vegas. This year’s convention runs from October 10-12, seven conventions later - the first return to Las Vegas since that 2004 meeting. That year’s static display at Henderson Executive Airport left many in the industry feeling that the convention wasn’t appreciated by the local authorities. Time changes everyone and everything, though, and both NBAA and the Vegas hosts are anxious to erase any lingering, dusty memories of the 2004 event.
By many measures it appears that vendors, exhibitors and - most importantly - members are embracing the return to Las Vegas in strong numbers. This was indeed a good time to speak with Bolen for this year’s ‘Ten Questions Interview’.
WAS: Seven years is a long time away from a convention city so enthusiastically embraced by a membership that it helped make the Association’s few visits to Las Vegas among NBAA’s best-attended meetings. A lot went into getting back to Vegas, we understand. Can you give us some insights into what made NBAA ready to return and how it will differ from 2004?
Bolen: We’ve made some changes to ensure we don’t run into some of the air traffic and other issues that have troubled us before. Let me have Steve Brown [NBAA’s Senior Vice President, Operations & Administration] pick up on that.
Brown: Since we were last in Las Vegas they have developed a new commercial airport out in Tonopah. We got together with FAA to look at de-conflicting the procedures between Tonopah and McCarran. Then we agreed on using Henderson as the main airport, but with some changes.
What we did was basically take all the Air Traffic Control procedures associated with Henderson and designed those to not conflict with McCarran traffic. Previously arrivals for those two airports rubbed up against each other and interfered with the flow to both – the procedures weren’t de-conflicted. Now we have in place new approaches and arrival procedures, they’ve been published and used, and they make everything much better for both airports, and for ATC. Those changes increased traffic flow to both airports.
If you remember the facilities there - the gravel road - that’s all been changed, and the airport at Henderson has been expanded with more taxiway and more area for the static display. It also allows for spending less time on the runway, which helps get more traffic in and out of Henderson.
Finally, in 2004 there was an appearance that Henderson wasn’t really part of Vegas – it was out there with a big gap between. Now Henderson is obviously part of Las Vegas. The area has built up, the highway access is better and there’s faster transportation between the convention center and Henderson.
WAS: We continue to hear plenty about business uncertainty and businesses holding tight to resources, but looking at the show plans, the NBAA convention appears to be as booked as ever. How do the advance registrations and exhibitors’ commitments stack up against recent years?
Bolen: I think it would be fair to say last year’s was a very successful Convention for us [amid a year of economic struggle]. We’re looking at this year’s convention being at least at, or above last year’s numbers – across the board. So we expect attendance to be up, exhibitors to be up, and for the static display to be up.
We feel very comfortable that the show this year will be every bit as good as, or even better than what we had last year in Atlanta. The economic environment is not dissimilar to what we had last year. The past 12 months have been relatively stable, with some small improvement and we expect to have a better convention.
WAS: What would you tell our 535 federal lawmakers about the impact of their failure to reauthorize the FAA and the real-world impact of the agency operating on 21 continuing resolutions over four years?
Bolen: You know, we feel very fortunate to have positive relationships with members from both sides of the aisle, and in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. When you can look up there and know that a lot of members want to be publicly identified with aviation it’s a good thing.
There is frustration that Congress has not been able to pass a long-term reauthorization bill - and the problems holding this up are not all issues in aviation. The process up there allows non-germane issues to come into play and tangle up legislation, and that’s been the problem.
In any endeavor, it’s good to know the long-term plan and what the resources are going to be. It’s not helpful to be working from short-term extension to short-term extension as the FAA has been forced to do. Projects start and stop; paperwork increases; expenses increase; delays add up. It’s good to have a long-term plan and that’s why I think a long-term solution for FAA is important.
WAS: It seems that the disproportionate focus on debt and deficit helped reignite a small level of interest in instituting a user fee schedule to fund the FAA. NBAA was among the groups who turned out to resist those interests. Are there any other discredited ideas you expect to hear from one corner or another of this Congress that are dressed up as a solution for something?
Bolen: Congress is trying to find a way to reduce the deficit. On one side of the aisle they want to do that with no new taxes and on the other side of the aisle they’re saying any deal must include revenue enhancements.
Through our long, protracted and thorough debate on user fees, we saw at the end a bill with no user fees; the president submitted a budget with no user fees. Yet somehow in this environment we have to reduce the deficit and that puts everything back on the table.
User fees are a bad idea and in Washington it’s almost impossible to permanently kill a bad idea. After a while, someone will note that it’s been a while and that maybe they should review the issue again. We have to be ready to react to that.
WAS: Can you tell us how the development of the two General Aviation caucus groups in the House and Senate is helping Business Aviation and General Aviation?
Bolen: Over the course of the past couple of years there has been a very progressive educational campaign that’s been going on with members of Congress. The No Plane No Gain program, along with AOPA’s GA Serves America campaign has helped inform our elected officials.
When we hear ‘Now I know the importance of this industry, I want to know about issues that promote it, and issues that could hurt it,’ it’s a good feeling. That statement shows some understanding and shows that the door is open to work with that lawmaker. We’ve got a large group on both sides of the Capital who want to be identified with our industry. That’s pretty good for us when issues come along that require rapid attention. They’ve said, ‘I care, I want to know.’
WAS: NBAA seems to have increased its outreach on regional levels, encouraging the development of a network of regionally-based Business Aviation groups. How do the regional connections help NBAA advance its missions, and how are these groups helping their local environments?
Bolen: NBAA has long-recognized the need to organize and mobilize at a grass-roots level. So for a number of years we’ve tried to facilitate the creation of regional and local associations. We try to help facilitate that through our regional representatives who work with the local representatives. We feel it’s important for our community to have a strong grass-roots capability.
What we’ve seen is that these groups have developed a tremendous record of good works in their own areas, in safety, in legislative outreach – and that’s been critical in the past couple of years when states have looked to taxing aircraft when they’ve been strapped for money.
Whenever lawmakers start to search for funds, the path often leads them to the airport and the aircraft there. Via our local associations and other organizations, we’ve been able to get our message through. It’s very important to have people who are functioning and living, on a day-to-day basis in these places, who can lead on these local and state issues – and who can provide grass-roots movement when we’ve needed it to be heard in Washington.
WAS: What impact, if any, did the partial FAA shutdown have on Business Aviation, operationally or developmentally?
Bolen: During the shut-down period – and the good news is it was a relatively short shut-down – the FAA continued to function operationally. In other words, the Air Traffic Control system continued to assure that airplanes could keep moving; and doing so safely.
What we did see were a number of projects at airports that were shut down, and those workers idled. That adds costs, cuts into a short construction season, and adds to delays. Some products in development suffered some delays in their progress toward getting to market: certification processes, facilities and equipment-type work.
The good news was that the shut-down was short and most things kept moving. The reality is that it was very costly, and it was distracting. I hope we don’t have to go through it again.
WAS: We know NBAA hears regularly from members about the challenges of owning or operating a business aircraft today. Is there one aspect that operators and owners find particularly challenging to their embrace of a business aircraft?
Bolen: I think there can be frustration when they see, or sense Business Aviation being portrayed in a negative light. They see and understand the benefit of these aircraft to the companies that use them as well as to their communities and the entire country. These are business tools being used in a very beneficial and efficient way – for the companies, communities and the country at large. When they feel that’s not appreciated that frustrates them.
WAS: Planemakers continue to forecast a future with thousands more business-turbine aircraft operating here and around the globe. With the only thing looking bleaker than pilot starts being flight-training completions, will the operators of those airplanes be able to find qualified candidates to fly them?
Bolen: The future pilot population is a concern of - and a priority for - the entire aviation community. We at NBAA are certainly keen to see this get better. And we support those outreach programs, such as the EAA’s Young Eagles program. NBAA offers scholarships to help people prepare for careers in aviation too.
I’d like to underscore it’s not just the pilot population that’s a concern, but also the number of maintenance and avionics technicians. We need these all to grow. Programs like Build-A-Plane and others are devoted to building those populations. These generate a lot of passion, and we’re concentrating on how to translate that into people wanting to be a part of aviation.
WAS: If you could write your ideal FAA reauthorization what would be its five best elements?
Bolen: I think the FAA reauthorization bills that have been passed by the House and Senate have all-in-all been pretty good bills. The one thing you want to see in this bill is that it’s long-term. When we finally get a bill, I hope it’s for a significant length of time – one that covers multiple years.
Second: we need a bill that keeps us investing in aviation, to keep ours the safest, most efficient, and most-diverse aviation system in the world. NextGen is acknowledged to be a transformative system – making sure we do that is another important point. So something that’s long-term; keeps us a leader; and that makes sure inventors and entrepreneurs can bring new products and services to market is critically important.
Continuing to facilitate programs like certified design organizations is very important. Making sure the contribution our community makes to FAA funding is as efficient and fair as possible is another point. That’s why we are always supportive of fuel excise taxes – even increased fuel taxes – because we know that’s the fairest, most efficient way for us to contribute our fair share to the system.
Finally, since Business Aviation and General Aviation are inherently international, continuing to facilitate their reach is important.
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