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10 Questions For NBAA’s Ed Bolen
The more things stay the same- the more they change.


A year ago- just ahead of the annual convention of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)- little of today’s picture yet existed in full detail. Deliveries of factory-new business turbine aircraft were headed for another all-time high – following prior record-delivery years in 2007- 2006 and 2005.

In the run-up to the 2008 Convention the business aviation community heard buoyant forecasts of continued good times bolstered by coming years of long-term growth – the evidence- once said and oft repeated- was in the record-high order backlogs.

Conventional wisdom held the view- the opinion- actually- that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was finally- at last- hearing the input on general aviation security issues provided by practitioners and proponents of private aviation.

The biggest change expected in the months ahead was political- not business related. A presidential election- scant days away- guaranteed new management in the White House- and that would bring new unknowns to the table. Underlying all of these conditions and barely submerged beneath the exuberance of the community- members of that global village tried to come to grips with its gut instincts - its palpable senses that tough times loomed ahead. It was hoped those tough times would be “manageable”- “largely benign” and “all but forgotten… in a year-or-so.”

Well- here we stand- “a year-or-so” later and the business aviation community labors under the damage of assaults from forces and directions never anticipated by even the most-dour of the forecasters of late 2008. So much anticipation and optimism came collapsing into industrial rubble within a few short weeks of the convention’s end. The only element of the above outlooks that came to pass as predicted involved the presidential election.

Instead of a mild dip in sales- manufacturers experienced double-digit plunges in orders and equally high – and even more devastating – withdrawals from firm orders that swelled those backlogs. Orders cancelled- orders deferred- orders slowing to levels of years- if not decades- ago brought the necessary slashing of production and the painful shedding of thousands of aircraft workers- white- and blue-collar- alike.

Pre-owned sales have- according to some- stopped their precipitous decline- but assertions that we’ve hit bottom are couched and cautious- with abundant hedging space. Heading into the 2009 NBAA annual meeting- decidedly little that can be described as unbridled optimism is in the atmosphere.

The manufacturing- sales and utilization downturns of the past 12 months make the two-year-old downturn in pre-owned sales look like a minor dip in the road compared to the sinkhole that other factors that influenced the period have made of things. Those factors include: TSA; Finance and credit; Image and reality; Politicians and scoring points. There’s little about business aviation in the past 12 months that hasn’t – or still doesn’t – feel like it’s under assault by forces outside the community. And there’s virtually nothing of these issues untouched or ignored by Ed Bolen and his professional- capable staff at NBAA.

With our gratitude- Bolen again agreed to sit for a ‘Ten Questions Interview’ with World Aircraft Sales Magazine- and- once again- he’s served up some sobering doses of reality with just a hint of the optimism much needed at every corner of general aviation today.

WAS: Looking back on a year filled with tough times and difficult issues- it’s sometimes difficult to brainstorm a list of the positive movements in the past 12 months. What do you see in the past 12 months that represents a positive step or helpful development for business aviation?

Bolen: Well- there’s no question but that this has been one of the most challenging years in the history of business aviation – issue challenges- image challenges- political challenges. But there have been some positive steps: First of all- our industry has come together and engaged in a wide range of issues; it’s speaking out and mobilized- and I see that as very encouraging.

Looking at issues- the House announced it would look at a proposal to say it would consider language to make any company receiving TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) funds divest any aircraft they had. The community came together and spoke out- and that proposal was pulled.

The LASP (Large Aircraft Security Program) - all 262 pages of it - came out last fall and it was quite onerous- and would not add to our security. The community asked for an extension – NBAA and AOPA- in particular – and we got an extended comment period- we got the TSA to hold field hearings.

More than 7-000 comments were received and NBAA helped facilitate that. Congress got involved in a good way. We’ve been told the weight limit will go up; the prohibited-items list will be removed; the watch list and private auditing will be removed for aircraft under 100-000 pounds.

That’s an example of our community making progress on the legislative front and the regulatory front- and that’s very positive. The image challenges have seen some progress. We launched the ‘No Plane No Gain’ program- and made appearances on national television programs. AOPA started its publicity campaign. In Washington we’ve seen the creation of the General Aviation Caucus in the House; and the House passed a resolution last month saying that general aviation is a good thing for America.

Our community has recognized the challenges that we face; we’ve come together in a cohesive- highly mobilized kind of way. And though it’s been a challenging year- challenges make you stronger - we are emerging from this a stronger- more-focused community.

WAS: Taking the same question and applying a different angle - what issue- in your view- went downhill the most for business aviation?

Bolen: The most significant event of the past year involved the image of business aviation. I think when the automobile executives went to Washington and refused to explain why they used business aviation- and how business aviation benefited their companies- a lot of people concluded that business aviation was not a benefit to business or the country.

That was not a good thing and as a result we had to put a lot of time and effort into correcting that image. Outside the economy- I think that image challenge was the most significant challenge the business aviation community has seen in a long- long time.

WAS: A year ago- many players within business aviation voiced a view that the TSA had developed a “thorough understanding of general aviation and its place in the system-” to quote you among them in echoing other aviation-group officials; the expectation for the next step was viewed as largely another area for furthering “voluntary security efforts” beyond those already undertaken by the private-aviation community.

Then- during the NBAA Convention in 2008- we saw the actual nature of the Large Aircraft Security Program NPRM; and in the days following last year’s NBAA meeting- the word “blindsided” was used by many of the community’s best-known officials.

A couple of weeks ago- NBAA’s Security Council met with the new General Aviation Manager- Brian Delauter- to hear about TSA’s efforts on LASP- the TSA Playbook and Security Directive 8F/G. Is this ship we call the TSA starting to turn in a rational direction? Is the new management showing any signs of being more knowledgeable- reasonable and collaborative than the one that gave us the universally reviled LASP?

Bolen: Since its inception- the general aviation community has reached out to the TSA and provided information to the TSA. I think what we realized is that just because we were providing the information did not mean it was being thoroughly understood.

When we looked at the LASP proposal we realized that TSA did not really understand the differences between general aviation and commercial operations. That’s why we encouraged them to have things like the public hearings in the field.

We’ve been encouraged by the meetings we’ve had with TSA. Since the comment period closed- TSA has brought in a general aviation manager FROM the general aviation community. We haven’t seen the final results- but from their public statements- things like the federal air marshals- the prohibited-items list and the third-party watch lists are going away. So we’re encouraged.

Two of the most fundamental flaws of the LASP are that it didn’t recognize the differences between general aviation and commercial aviation. And- second- the name- LARGE aircraft is certainly NOT a large aircraft as the TSA defined it.

WAS: A year ago- the biggest economic development that seemed to impact private aircraft and business aviation use stemmed from high fuel prices - but then fuel prices returned to about their pre-run-up level- and the economy started us on the ride we’re enduring today. What is the state of business aviation use today?

Bolen: Business aviation- like commercial aviation- has historically followed economic cycles; when the economy expands- business aviation has expanded. When the economy contracts- business aviation contracts - and what we’ve seen in the last year is the most severe economic contraction we’ve seen in decades. It’s had an impact on business aviation.

At the same time we had the image of business aviation being disparaged- and that compounded the problem. As a result- it has been a particularly tough year – hours flown- fuel sold- pre-owned inventories- new-plane sales. It’s been a particularly devastating year for business aviation.

WAS: Which element of our current economic malaise impacted business aviation most severely: financial distress or political assaults?

Bolen: As I said before- we have always been inextricably linked to economic cycles. This is the most severe economic downturn in decades. Clearly- the political issues exacerbated the challenges.

The tandem of the two has made it extraordinary to deal with. Promoting the importance of business aviation and its importance to our economy has taken its place in dealing with this.

WAS: A year ago- NBAA was well along in its plans to hold its first ever stand-alone event geared to the smallest operators in business aviation - the businesses which employ piston single- piston twin and- to a degree propjet singles. Then the economy knocked the stilts out from under American business growth and that event is being combined with this year’s main Convention.

Does NBAA still have ambitions to better target and serve that segment with its own separate event should times return strong enough to support it?

Bolen: NBAA is absolutely committed to serving that community - that segment of business aviation - with excellence. How we go about delivering that service will be based on feedback from that segment of the community.

We’re looking forward to the first Light Business Airplane Conference this month in Orlando- to the two days of hearing from those operators and learning more of how we can serve them with excellence. We’re looking forward to an outstanding conference and going from there.

WAS: Speaking of the main NBAA Convention- the 2008 show seemed to defy expectations- as had the popular flying shows of Sun ‘n Fun and AirVenture. This year- we already know that a couple of large players have pulled out their exhibition hall stands altogether- and we hear rumblings of others downsizing what they plan to do. Nevertheless- it’s delegate attendance that really paints the picture people will remember of any given show.

What is NBAA’s expectation for delegate attendance at this year’s convention- and how is the hall exhibit situation shaping up?

Bolen: I think that we are feeling very good that this year’s show will be a very good annual meeting and Convention. NBAA- as you know- has several other meetings throughout the year – schedulers and dispatchers- flight attendants- EBACE – at all of them- the feedback has been very good from the delegates and the exhibitors.

In most cases we’ve seen the attendance being down from 2008; but 2008 was generally a record year for all of our events. 2009 is a different year.

At the attendee level- we’ve been seeing better (attendance). At the vendor level- we’ve seen fewer people sent. But at all of these shows- attendance has been very worthwhile- for delegates and exhibitors- alike. Every major vendor and service provider in our community will be there.

How they attend will be a choice they make. But Orlando this month is clearly the place to be for our community.

WAS: Just over six months ago- NBAA partnered with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) to launch a new public image campaign- but one that uses a familiar name: “No Plane No Gain.” In concert with GAMA president Pete Bunce- you recently featured your six-month report on the program- citing the campaign’s progress in educating elected officials and policymakers about the value of business aviation to citizens- companies and communities. All very helpful and smart.

Does GA in general need a “No Plane No Gain” program specifically for Congress- the White House and TSA?

Bolen: “No Plane No Gain” is an all-new- comprehensive public-relations campaign that has been designed for today’s environment. It takes advantage of new media opportunities- like the internet- Twitter- Facebook- as well as traditional outlets like television and print.

It’s all-new – but it is under the banner of a familiar message for the community. And that message is simple: if there’s no plane- there’s no gain for the company- for the community without airline service- for the thousands of companies that depend on aircraft- or for the humanitarian needs our aircraft help serve.

Our target audience is opinion leaders and media faces. NPR said it was a public-relations campaign tailored for the talk shows. It’s complementary to the messages about general aviation- and it’s complementary to promote a positive image of general aviation - while specific to business aviation.

WAS: During the August recess of Congress- NBAA staff have been traveling a great deal outside ‘The Beltway’ to talk to members about the industry’s policy priorities and progress on them. What- in return- have members and operators been telling your staff about their needs- problems and issues that will get translated into action back inside The Beltway?

Bolen: NBAA’s agenda - its priorities - are essentially set by our members. They do a great job of letting us know what’s important to them and helping us understand what their local challenges are- and how they translate into national level. Those issues- security issues- user fees- access- those areas where NBAA has put time and effort- are clearly the burning issues for our members.

WAS: More so this year than in any recent year- regulars to the NBAA Convention have wondered aloud how many more NBAA Conventions will be going to the Orange County Convention Center – a question that seems to hint at a desire to get back to some of those sites that helped NBAA set new attendance records.

Many of these folks still fondly speak of going to New Orleans - pre-Katrina- of course. And we remember the fun of Vegas – before Las Vegas officials developed an officially inhospitable attitude – before the current downturn. So the last question centers on two areas: what cities other than Atlanta and Orlando can handle this meeting- and what sites are in the rotation for the next five NBAA Conventions?

Bolen: We will be in Atlanta next year; in 2011- we will be back in Las Vegas. We have had some very positive communications with the folks in Las Vegas- and with changes at Henderson we are confident we will have an excellent convention there. For 2012- we’re back in Orlando- and out in 2013 back in Las Vegas.

As for New Orleans- we continue to work with- and watch New Orleans- a community we very much like. We’ve had smaller conferences there and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to getting it back into the rotation.

For more information visit www.nbaa.org

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