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AEA Moving Forward:
Members staff the front lines of future avionics.

It seems to be that the realm of avionics acronyms and initials stands even larger than before. All of those acronyms exist in the here-and-now world of aviation; all exist in reality for some pilots and some technicians; most- however- remain abstract in their impact for most technicians and most aviators - but not for much longer.

That window of abstract futurism incrementally narrows with each step edging the aviation community closer to a new age of air traffic management – a system reinvention underpinned by several of those new technologies; technologies already moving into tower cabs- center control rooms and aircraft- even as their full impact remains years ahead.

And that means these terms and the changes they portend are well implanted in the minds of thousands of avionics technicians and shops- even those not yet directly impacted – because they know they will be- sooner rather than later. For the members of the Aircraft Electronics Association- that future is really the present.

About three months back ADS-B – Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast – went live in the Gulf of Mexico. With that new connection for controllers in Houston Center- ADS-B-equipped helicopters flying over a major portion of the Gulf now benefits from positive control equal to that of IFR traffic over most of the US landmass. The new equipment is flying on a minority percentage of the helicopters flying in support of off-shore oil platforms and pipelines – the maintenance shops of those ships spent months preparing their aircraft.

And that follows years of work testing- planning and preparing to install the underlying infrastructure- much of it involving AEA shop- technician and supplier members. More than a year prior- the southern half of Florida went live with ADS-B surveillance at Miami Center; a few weeks ago- ADS-B and related systems went live at Philadelphia International Airport- making the Pennsylvania metropolis the first major city to get ADS-B service in tower and approach facilities. AEA members played a role in all those advances.

The association itself helped get us to this point by participating in the information exchanges occurring between industry- regulators and lawmakers - exchanges that serve to keep avionics moving ahead and avionics technicians and businesses helping navigate the course.

Under the continued guidance of Paula Derks- AEA remains involved on multiple fronts- engaging with members in the field as well as with the centers of aviation authority in Washington- D.C.

The most-successful trade associations generally take on issues at both the grass-roots level where members dwell- and at levels that while far removed from the members’ lives- impact them directly nonetheless. AEA has long engaged itself on multiple levels in its efforts to help its members succeed by helping them serve up the finest- best-support and most-informed work and products available.

It almost sounds simplistic to pronounce that a successful business is one able to provide its customers with the solutions they need and products they want. But at the customer level- the simple truth applies – although providing those solutions and products itself may require training- knowledge and access that is far from simple or simplistic.

Based in two-year-old headquarters adjoining Lee’s Summit Regional Airport in Western Missouri- Derks and the AEA staff work on multiple levels on behalf of Association membership. Association vice president Ric Peri tracks Federal-level issues from AEA’s Washington office- while AEA staff in Lee’s Summit and the District of Columbia work with members to get the best out of the association’s representation- training programs and interaction with manufacturers.

We prevailed on Derks for this latest “Ten Questions Interview” with World Aircraft Sales Magazine just a few short weeks ahead of AEA’s 53rd annual convention- April 7-10 at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in the Orlandoarea community of Kissimmee- Florida. With one of the association’s best convention line-ups ever on tap- the event continues to reflect the realities of the avionics community.

WAS: What a treat to start an interview knowing at least a bit of what’s been tiresomely repetitive is off the boards - so let’s start with AEA’s reaction to the first full DoT and FAA budget proposal to come from the Obama Administration: Are you comfortable with the elimination of the user fees proposed and the changes in excise taxes replacing those fee ideas?

Derks: For now- let’s just say we are ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the elimination of user fees from the budget proposal. We can never be totally comfortable that the concept of user fees will forever disappear from the radar screen. Obviously- we have been strong proponents of funding the FAA and the national air transportation system through its current mechanism: aviation excise taxes. This system has been in place for years and has worked well. We believe it can continue to work in a fair and equitable way for everyone involved for many years to come.

By changing to a user-fee type scheme- we predicted an administrative burden to collect fees would have ensued and an already struggling industry would further suffer. It speaks volumes that Congressional General Aviation Caucuses have been formed with more than 100 congressmen and 25 members of the Senate joining in support of general aviation and against user fees. I think the White House recognized this and reacted accordingly.

WAS: We also seem poised to see that long-delayed FAA authorization bill come out of Congress- with leadership promising hearings by the time you are in Orlando for your convention. Do the proposals you’ve seen put aviation on track to make the transitions wanted and needed by the community – such as NextGen?

Derks: It does appear promising that the Senate will approve S.1451 FAA Reauthorization. The final hurdle will be between the House and the Senate in reaching a final compromise on the provisions of the reauthorization.

The proposed package of $16.5 billion to run the FAA includes $1.1 billion for modernizing the air transportation system- commonly referred to as NextGen. We are hopeful this package will put us on track to modernizing the national air transportation system and create a demand for muchneeded jobs in the aviation industry.

WAS: Last year the FAA finally issued TSOs for major elements of the ADS-B system; we’re still awaiting a final NPRM on implementation. In AEA’s view- what needs to happen next- how should it happen and how soon to continue progress toward NextGen as the new ATC system?

Derks: Due to the heavy snowstorms in the D.C. area over the last several weeks- the entire city basically had to shut down for a week and the ADSB NPRM has been delayed another month and won’t be published until the middle of May. ADS-B is the surveillance piece of NextGen. In order to be effective- the FAA needs to begin offering operational benefit to the aircraft equipped with this technology as soon as possible- otherwise- there is no benefit for early equipage and the operating community will delay equipage until the last minute.

We want to help prepare our members - both the manufacturers of the equipment as well as the avionics technicians installing the equipment - for the monumental task ahead of meeting the mandates that will be implemented by the FAA. The next few years will be challenging for everyone involved as we work towards this new system. But- it will be an exciting challenge.

WAS: We seem to have seen a waning of the negative attention brought a year ago by Detroit automakers and Wall Street investment firms – but it doesn’t seem like it’s mattering much to the recovery of the general aviation market. What have your members experienced in the past year? Have owners been turning more to upgrades in the wake of the collapse in aircraft sales?

Derks: I- personally- have been asking my members those exact questions- and the answers are surprisingly different. Some avionics shops are staying really busy with retrofits; others are quite slow and are experiencing lay-offs. That is never a good thing. But- if there is a bright spot- it most certainly seems to be in the retrofit market.

Operators are not shopping for new airplanes right now. Instead- they are holding on to their current aircraft and opting instead to upgrade their cabins and their panels with new options. Thankfully- the avionics manufacturers are continuing to amaze the flying community with state-of-the-art technologies that enhance situational awareness while promoting safer flight- producing greater fuel efficiency- productivity and simply making flying even more fun.

It may be a while before the assembly lines of new aircraft ramps back up- so in the meantime- my members are taking advantage of installing these new avionics systems- and- of course- gearing up for future ADS-B requirements as well.

WAS: With the issuance of TSOs covering more of the equipment needs for upgrading to ADS-B capability- can we expect to see new products at AEA’s convention in April? And coming into the field for aircraft upgrades?

Derks: With just four short weeks before opening day of the AEA convention (at the time of writing this article) we have 30 avionics manufacturers lined up to introduce new products at our convention. The most popular session during our convention is aptly named the “New Product Introductions.”

This fast-paced- high-tech session gives each presenter exactly four minutes to take the stage and tell the packed ballroom about its new product. I can’t predict these new systems will be ADS-B-specific based on the short time period in-between our show and the TSO’s release- but you can bet the aviation media is in the front row waiting to report what’s new in the world of avionics and coming to an aircraft near you in the coming months.

So- while the international economy has definitely suffered in the last 18 months- the research and development of new avionics has certainly not suffered during that same time period. To me- that is indicative of the passion and the fortitude of the general aviation electronics industry.

WAS: Cabin electronics separate from cockpit systems seem to be a growing element in the aircraft electronics community- with in-flight entertainment systems and broadband services increasingly demanded by operators. Are retrofits of these non-cockpit systems helping your members stay busy during the downturn? Or are cockpit upgrades still the leading force in supporting your members’ businesses?

Derks: It’s a mixed bag. Obviously- cockpit flight displays are a major player in sales. However- aircraft owners are insistent in wanting the same types of conveniences in their cabins as they have in their homes and offices on the ground.

They want to watch videos- surf the net- listen to music on their MP3 player- send and receive emails- and have the advantage of an office-in-the-sky. And- that is all possible today with cabin entertainment systems and high-speed broadband connectivity. Several of our avionics shops tell me cabin entertainment is what’s keeping them in business right now.

WAS: A year ago- the general aviation community faced-down an onerous security proposal from the Transportation Security Administration; this year the TSA is revising the Large Aircraft Security Program but is getting equally bad reviews for its proposal to impose expansive rules on repair stations – many of them AEA members.

What is AEA’s view of the TSA’s repair-station proposal and what has AEA advised its members to say in response?

Derks: First- let me commend the TSA for being open and forthright in their preparedness to listen to industry. The TSA Repair Station Security Program was mandated by Congress and as such- TSA is trying to make its regulations as reasonable and risk-based as possible.

There are a number of areas where we have been in contact with TSA as well as the Small Business Administration (SBA) and other government offices. The greatest area of focus is to use a traditional risk-based model for identifying high-risk repair stations and deploying appropriate security measures while requiring the least amount of oversight for the least risk facilities- such as radio and instrument repair stations that are not located at an airport- and do not have access to the aircraft.

We also are asking the TSA to harmonize their security regulations so that the floor of the repair station program is the same as the floor for the Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) – as an example: if TSA determines that the safety and security risk for the LASP is to aircraft over 100-000 pounds – then the safety and security risk for repair stations should be for shops working on aircraft larger than 100-000 pounds.

WAS: Most of AEA’s members are small businesses facing the same small business challenges that most companies share – regardless of product or service offered. Are AEA’s member shops getting the resources they need to grow when general aviation returns to growth mode?

Derks: We have always prided ourselves on offering our members vital programs and services specific to the avionics industry - regulatory representation- technical training- avionics training- and more. Recently- the AEA is working harder than ever to seek out affiliate programs outside of the realm of aviation to offer our members in order to help enhance their businesses.

Not only are we offering training programs to teach customer service and marketing skills- but accounting and collection services- setting up group discounts with shipping vendors- and developing relationships with office supply chains- as well as offering a group insurance program for product liability and workers’ compensation.

In today’s climate- it’s more than focusing solely on aviation-related benefits and services; the AEA is trying to offer our members a more well-rounded approach to running a successful and economical small business.

We actually meet regularly with the US Small Business Administration in Washington- D.C. to introduce the SBA to our membership and the types of small businesses we represent. We try to make our members aware of the many programs the SBA offers small businesses.

WAS: The degree to which a convention hall is selling- and the level of advance registrations – together these parameters often give some insight into how strong a group is- and how confident its members are ahead of a major event. Last year when we visited- AEA’s exhibit hall was nearly sold out and advance registrations ran ahead of the prior year. A month ahead of AEA number 53- how do these numbers compare?

Derks: Last year at this time- the aviation industry was starting its downward spiral: the business aircraft industry was being hit hard by the general news media taking aim against the use of corporate airplanes. Our attendance reflected the negative press and we were off for the first time in history by approximately 15 percent.

Hopefully- this year’s attendance will reflect a slight increase over last year’s. Our exhibit hall is nearly full- and advance registrations are steady- so that is encouraging. This year’s program offers nearly 80 hours of FAA-recognized training for avionics technicians- and exhibitors are offering more than $15-000 in incentives for avionics shops to take advantage of during the trade show- so these are really good reasons to be in Orlando. Not to mention the pure advantage of networking at our convention.

WAS: With the move to a new HQ two years ago- AEA was able to expand its training offerings; next- the association put its Technical Training Exams on-line to help members qualify for its Avionics Training Excellence Award. Where next is AEA’s training programming headed?

Derks: We have all kinds of training offerings planned for the remainder of 2010 and beyond. Not only do we plan to continue offering training classes in our state-of-the-art training classroom here at our new headquarters- the Derby Center for Professional Development- but we will begin offering more and more online training classes and webinars on the AEA website at www.aea.net.

Recently- we hosted a Wi-Fi Summit at the Derby Center attended by 90 industry and regulatory representatives. The purpose was to bring together industry and the regulators to discuss the challenges of certification and installation of Wi-Fi products into business aviation applications. Of course- we will continue to host regulatory-focused training- as well as system-specific training.

We also are looking at business management type training topics including customer service- sales- marketing and accounting practices for the avionics professional.

More information from www.aea.net

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