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A recent visit to one of my favorite all-general aviation airports recently felt more like a visit to the neighborhood school during summer break – it was eerily quiet- and uncharacteristically slow.Where a couple of guys stayed busy storing and pulling airplanes from their hangars- or pumping fuel or selling charts- there was only the old manager now – and he wasn’t being taxed by the level of work. “It’s been like this all year-” snorted an ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st October 2009
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Bizav At Work At Home
Imagine the quiet without it.

A recent visit to one of my favorite all-general aviation airports recently felt more like a visit to the neighborhood school during summer break – it was eerily quiet- and uncharacteristically slow.

Where a couple of guys stayed busy storing and pulling airplanes from their hangars- or pumping fuel or selling charts- there was only the old manager now – and he wasn’t being taxed by the level of work. “It’s been like this all year-” snorted an old-timer at the field- a fixture in the community’s aviation fabric – someone supposedly old enough to have seen it all before- but sage enough to not put it exactly that way.

“I’ve been working in this business a long time- but never saw anything like this year before-” he confessed.

Here- like at hundreds- maybe thousands of other general aviation airports- businesses are being hurt by the downturn in flying – because active flying by a busy cadre of operators generate a lot of jobs for people outside the cockpits of the aircraft used: Cleaners and detailers- schedulers- pilots and maintenance technicians- shop technicians at third-party vendors- plus the ramp and desk personnel involved in keeping business aircraft useful and efficient - all are taking hits from the steep decline in business flying.

That means thousands of airport workers - struggling without their old jobs - hanging in- hoping for a return to more-appropriately busy skies. For each who has lost an airport post- there is usually a family now missing a regular paycheck- maybe their health insurance coverage- and watching their savings dwindle as the breadwinner seeks work elsewhere. This downturn is not just a factory problem. But the health of business aviation in the future could well depend on business aviation’s ability to retain today the workers with the jobs that make business aviation work.

Waving me into his shop for a cup of coffee- our airport fixture shrugged and continued- “One thing is for sure: I don’t expect to see it like this ever again… I won’t live that long- and I wouldn’t want to see this agony ever again in any case.”

The conversation turned to the downturn in the economy- the impact on private aviation and - in particular - the business flying that disproportionately benefited this rural- publicly owned airport.

“It used to be that we had a couple more people working the ramp during the day- a couple of mechanics scratching out a living- even a couple of flight instructors – and they were already hanging on by their fingernails. Then those damned Detroit guys ‘screwed our pooch’ and helped flush a lot of us down the… well- you know-” he said- cracking the first smile he’d shown.

“I don’t care whether they use an airplane in their business – that’s their businesses. But they shouldn’t be creating a world of hurt for the rest of us- and the rest of us are the ones getting hurt. None of those people who used to work here have jobs here anymore – all because of that trash the auto executives brought down on the rest of us. If they want to drive- fine- drive; just don’t make the airplane out to be the villain and hurt the livelihood of the rest of us in this business.”

‘The rest’ of the aviation community is most-certainly feeling the pain from the contraction of business flying brought by the double-punch of a crisis economy collapsing around us- and the political fallout brought on by the Big Three Automakers when their top executives flew to D.C. for a hearing before a House committee - where they went to beg for financial assistance.

When one Congressman asked whether the executives would agree- on the spot- to sell their business jets where they sat and fly commercial back to Detroit- it was a meaningless moment of political theater to most of the lawmakers. To the public- it was the Kiss of Death for business flying – and that kiss has affected the work of business aviation far-and-wide- beyond the most-visible impact on new plane sales and new plane production.

Six people lost their positions at my friendly rural airport when the two owners of two based business-turbine aircraft decided to curtail their flying.

“It was an image with which we wanted no part-” the owner of one of those aircraft told me. “The little jet isn’t for sale – it’s just not flying much these days- and when it does- it’s on urgent- short-lead-time trips.

“We were flying four- five times a month- 15-25 hours a month- always returning with tanks less than half full-” the light jet owner explained. “We probably accounted for 1-000 to 1-200 gallons a month on our own… my neighbor was buying a little less-” he added.

The ‘neighbor’ in this case owns a single-engine propjet that’s flying about half the hours it flew a year ago. That’s another 500- 600 gallons of fuel a month not sold by the airport. And these are just two operators at an airport with about 100 based aircraft.

“We’re down- across the board- about 60 percent-” observed the airport manager. “We can’t pay people on that level of activity.”

A few hundred miles further east- at another- larger all-General Aviation field- aircraft still moved- the corporate jets were still present and flying… but the environment still felt- sounded and looked like a hollow reflection of 2006- 2007 and most of 2008.

One FBO’s charter jets are seeing far less use- so one less crew has a job there today. Maintenance workers are also down a couple of positions- while the ramp staff has been trimmed slightly.

“The ramp workers are generally our front door- our service counter – the first point of contact for transient customers-” said a manager of one of two FBOs at this field in the Ohio River Valley. “We’re trying to maintain staffing there – but we are asking them to take up some of the slack created by reducing our cleaning and detailing staffing.”

As the airports get larger- busier and more oriented to servicing business turbine aircraft- the damage goes deeper and becomes more visible. For some of these airports – places like Louisville’s Bowman Field; Waukegan Regional in Illinois; Peachtree-deKalb in Atlanta- Georgia; Double Eagle II in Albuquerque- New Mexico; or Van Nuys in California – the business declines can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single entity this year. The cumulative damage on staff is running into the thousands in terms of job cuts across the country.

The reason is simple: the work of business aviation requires the work of people and services to keep the planes safe- airworthy and cost-efficient. As the fleet hours drop- so drops the need for the support work- making for airports that feel strangely hushed compared to normal.

As an avionics foreman told me at an Ohio River Valley airport- “There are a couple of neighbors of mine – I live adjacent to the airport – who like to tease me about how much they’re enjoying the quieter atmosphere. Let me tell you something about working in aviation: airplanes flying equal job security for tens of thousands of us.

Silence is overrated. If it’s too quiet- so are your shops – and you can’t pay the bills off of quiet shops. “Silence is definitely- vastly overrated.”

These days- the segment of aviation with the strongest hiring plans is the one pilots know almost solely by sound: the air traffic controllers with whom pilots talk from taxi to shut-down. The FAA- facing the potential retirement of thousands of controllers- is working hard to hire- train and place replacement controllers. That hiring is running around 1-200-or-so per year- planned for the next decade or so.

Unlike some communities- which are looking at the downturn and questioning long-term projects developed to meet future-growth needs- the FAA is actively pursuing the numbers it will need to staff and operate the nation’s towers- TRACONs and En Route Centers stretching out toward 2020.

The FAA sees the likelihood of a recovery in 2011-2012- and doesn’t want to be caught behind the curve on the staffing necessary to operate the system and keep up with the growth expected after the recovery has become established.

From ATC workers to people working on the NextGen development- even with modernization the FAA needs to hire thousands of people just to keep up with replacements – even as changes raise hopes of needing fewer people. The people are retiring now- and the labor-saving changes are still years away.

We know well by now that aviation employment in the private sector has hit the big planemakers hard in terms of production and staffing. Wichita’s planemakers- for example- have shed more than 12-000 jobs between them since December 2008. A lower number of workers at vendors and support companies have also been laid off- furloughed- or offered early retirement.

Factories are enforcing no-pay furloughs on many of the employees they’ve retained. Major service centers are not as busy- cutting into the number and earnings of mechanics and other technicians. And pilots- just a year ago considered a commodity in short supply- are slowly finding themselves in a surplus pool.

One friend- who’s lucky enough to still hold his cockpit job- is grateful for a forward-looking boss.

“My boss knows our business is always filled with short-notice work and he wants to be in a position to never decline a trip – even if it means keeping three of us when two would generally work-” the pilot explained. “Other outfits should take note- because when the market comes back- the need for pilots will come back – and a lot of them may no longer be available for another flying job...”

He brings up an important point. No one believes the current contraction will become permanent; economic growth- we hear- will resume – and when growth returns- business aviation will grow again too. But many of today’s qualified aviation practitioners- absent a way to stay in aviation- may not be available.

“Personally- a pilot shortage would help me make more money… but at the expense of sleep – or at least being home more than I’m gone-” the charter pilot explained. “The last thing we need is to see a recovery start with a shortage of pilots handicapping the recovery. We need more pilots- anyway!”

If the most recent economic numbers are indeed indicative of an economy bottomed out and ready to grow- general aviation - and specifically business aviation - may want to consider how it’ll staff back up in the 2010- 2011 timeframe- when the bounce is expected to happen.

Pilots; a shortage in-the-making; maintenance technicians- a shortage in progress: For business aviation to work for those whose work needs the corporate plane- the corporate plane needs people to maintain and fly. For business aviation to succeed and thrive- supporting and rebuilding the support jobs should be a top priority soon – yesterday would do nicely!

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