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February 2006

Business Aviation 2005 Review

It’s OK to exhale now that last year’s top 10 issues did less harm than feared.

We are on to a New Year now- a month in and far from the champagne and celebratory effusiveness of the Holidays where it’s a little easier to look back at the year that just was – a year in which business aviation survived some threatening issues and showed how important private aircraft can be in times of national crisis.

We know you’ve already looked back – with relief if not exactly fondness. The resurrected threats of user fees gained little traction; mindless schemes to impose airline-style security measures on private aviation proved equally ineffective. Even brainless talk of new ADIZ airspace around multiple cities went where most brainless ideas thankfully go – directly into oblivion.

On the ‘to-cheer-about’ front- we had a handful of new jets land in the fleet- most notably Sino-Swearingen’s SJ30-2- a numbers standout that’s finally going to get into the hands of its long-patient customers. Of course- we won’t neglect to mention some of the other newly certified models- including the G150- Gulfstream’s newest certified last fall; and the Citation CJ2+ and CJ1+- which follow in the mold of the CJ3.

New launches included the Bombardier Global XRS- followed by the Challenger 605 and Learjet 60XR launched at NBAA; Cessna’s Encore+; and the return of Linden Blue with his innovative Spectrum 33 composite VLJ.

Mother Nature combined with a couple of body blows to the United States that brought out the best in private aviation and the people who make it run.

Go ahead; enjoy that bit of relief. Relax and sigh with contentment. We’re through 2005 - but don’t look back too fondly or too long. As you’ll see in our look back at the year just passed- too many of those delightfully frightening ideas linger just off the stage of public debate – and a couple haven’t actually left the stage at all.

Those issues are queued up and waiting for their cue to rouse the rabble once again with irascibly false fodder in the hope of putting more of today’s business aviation users in more seats of more airliners – at the expense of all of us.

Without further ado- for good or bad- here’s our take on the Top 10 Issues business aviation survived against and thrived with in 2005.

10. RVSM

Do you feel more liberated now than a year ago? Are your flights more efficient and easier to accomplish than at the end of 2004? If you feel so- it’s likely the advent of RVSM helped.

A hot topic for years preceding its implementation at the start of 2005- Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums held the potential to be a spoiler for many an operator of older- less-easily modified business jets. Requirements for better altimeters- air-data sensors- autopilots and the like meant that those lacking the equipment are locked out of altitudes above 29-000 msl.

For most operators- though- manufacturers and aftermarket mod shops had their aircraft covered- converted and ready to participate when the FAA switched over to 1-000-foot vertical-separation standards for the airspace starting at FL290 and higher. Previously- the 2-000-foot separation standards meant no one could use the altitudes in between FL290- FL310- FL330- etc.

Thanks to RVSM those high-altitude airways can accommodate far more traffic than before because controllers can use those previously unavailable altitudes between the old available ones. That means more airplanes in the air – at least in theory – and fewer delays based on ATC’s need to maintain vertical separation of 2-000 feet.

Of course- RVSM did nothing to improve airport capacity- runway acceptance rates and lateral separation requirements in terminal areas where we often start and end flights. Other technologies hold promise to improve airport flow and terminal arrivals and departures. But even lacking those changes- RVSM has made flying to less busy areas less challenging than before. And for that- we should all be happy.

9. ADIZ Proliferation

The story from 2005 was what didn’t happen. Many mayors wanted them; they’ve even lobbied for them - but the FAA- thankfully- wasn’t convinced. Maybe- just maybe- the FAA’s resistance to such pressures stems from experience with that ‘temporary’ Air Defense Identification Zone encompassing the Washington Metro Area.

That ADIZ hasn’t exactly been a model of success. In fact- efforts by FAA in 2005 to make the Washington Capital ADIZ permanent generated tremendous resistance; virtually every aviation trade group representing operators and pilots – save- of course- the ATA – came together to reject the proposal. Members of Congress even questioned the need.

The final rule- thankfully- has not come about. Regretfully- the mindset that brought about the ADIZ remains – as do the problems it creates for private operators of all stripes: lengthy clearance delays; holds outside the ADIZ; ATC overwork; flow complications.

FAA- to its credit- late last year launched a website to train pilots on the ADIZ and access procedures. Meanwhile- still unfulfilled: efforts by our sundry aviation groups to end the ‘temporary’ ADIZ- permanently.

8. Growth

2005 was a ‘boomer’ of a year for business aviation- the year in which the reversals started in 2001 finally gave way. Aircraft deliveries increased; advance sales increased; pilot hiring increased; order backlogs grew.

That last item means good things for the manufacturers and for business aviation-related industry such as FBOs- avionics shops- fuelers and support companies. It also means good things for business aviation when time comes to fight some of the battles we’ll talk about below.

And the resumption of growth means even more aircraft flying for more companies hiring more pilots – fractional operators- in particular. So watch out for 2006. By all expectations- this year will make last year look lethargic.

7. DCA Reopening

2005 will go down as the year Washington National Airport returned to the land of the free-to-fly-everywhere operators of business and corporate aircraft.

More than four years after the unilateral and unjustified closure of DCA to private aircraft- the Transportation Security Administration- its parent- the dubiously named Department of Homeland Security- and the FAA finally heeded Congress – tardily- as usual – and established a system by which a limited number of private flights can access the airport daily.

Of course- as both NBAA’s Ed Bolen and GAMA’s Pete Bunce note- the current system is far from perfect – light years far- in our view. But it is- admittedly- a start. Hopefully- it’s a start that will take less than space-travel time to evolve into something reasonable and affordable by more operators.

6. Fuel Costs

In a year that saw more bankruptcy action among commercial carriers than in anytime in its history- the jolt in fuel prices went a long way to contributing to those carriers’ financial distress – almost as much as their business practices. And parts of those fuel jolts can be attributed to the impact of two major hurricanes- world markets and a continuing climate of instability in the Middle East.

The same phenomenon hit corporate operators- as well- vastly increasing their direct operating costs and- in some cases- impacting how often operators opted to fly personnel on company aircraft. However- as the year waned- operators found ways to cut their fuel costs- fuel prices declined somewhat – but were still far from where they started – and changes in flying patterns helped to keep those corporate aircraft earning their keep.

5. Safety

2005 won’t go down as the safest in business aviation history; not with several high-profile accidents spread across the year. Let’s be honest – this wasn’t your typical year for business aviation safety. Coming after years of solid gains- though- it’s hard to see 2005 as much more than a sad statistical blip. Nonetheless- it was a blip the user groups took quite seriously- as they have in the past. That’s the bad news.

The good news came in how the user groups looked for solutions and avoided recriminations. And the high point of the year in safety terms has to go to Bombardier- which hosted its largest-ever Safety Standdown in Wichita last October. About 430 pilots and corporate aircraft crew members spent four days immersed in training to be- to think and to act safer.

Two of those days involved the kind of hands-on training that saves lives – evacuating smoke-filled cabins- emerging from submerged aircraft- shocking the heart of a stricken human back to a survivable rhythm with a portable defibrillator.

Two more days subjected the class members to headwork lectures- judgment exercises and the type of human factors and aerodynamic enlightenment missing from the performance-based training that dominates pilot training. Hats off to Bombardier for continuing its free Safety Standdown. Long may it run!

Here’s looking for a safer 2006 – a statement made knowing we’re already a fatal accident into the year.

4. Assault on VLJ beach

This year promises business aviation the first two entries in the long-running ‘Race of the VLJs’- as both Cessna and Eclipse progress toward the finish line with their Citation Mustang and Eclipse 500 respectively. By year’s end- dozens of these two VLJ models should be attracting swarms of gawkers on ramps across the country as the newest kids in business aviation.

Within five years- their numbers will likely swell into the thousands – based solely on the sales and production plans of Eclipse 500s- alone. The annual business aviation forecast by Honeywell predicts 8-000 or so VLJs will be flying in the system 10 years from now.

The prospect of thousands of VLJs swarming across the continental airspace hasn’t been lost on those fine folks in the airline industry – and with good reason- from their perspectives. Large numbers of VLJs are expected to become on-demand charter aircraft- competing directly with airlines and established charter businesses with a new model for low-cost point-to-point air travel. Just what the struggling airlines need- isn’t it? A new source of competition with a cost structure that will let a VLJ charter customer fly four people 500 miles to the airport of their liking at a cost less than a single walk-up ticket for a flight from Wichita to Houston – about $1-200.

So it’s no surprise that the airline industry late last year began sounding its horn to Congress about the presumed threats VLJs present to safety- federal funding and ATC capacity. That opening salvo came in November from Basil J. Barimo- vice president- operations and safety for the Air Transport Association when he appeared before the Commerce- Science and Transportation Committee of the U.S. Senate November 17 on aviation safety.

Six pages into his prepared statement- Barimo highlighted two 'emerging issues' for the FAA – both based on the 'possibility of new risks emerging.' Though he didn’t specify who exactly is at risk- he focused on VLJs as the risk for one and a related element in the other.

First- Barimo offered a litany of questions concerning VLJs:

• How will the FAA ensure that VLJ pilots- particularly private pilots operat- ing their own (or jointly owned) micro- jets- obtain and maintain the skills needed to operate safely in commercial airspace?

  • • Are current pilot certification standards appropriate for this new generation of aircraft?  Are current maintenance standards for privately owned aircraft appropriate for this new generation of aircraft?

    • Will FAA maintenance surveillance programs ensure the safety of these aircraft if owned and operated privately as well as by air taxi operators?

    • Are the second- and third-tier airports where these aircraft are expected to operate fully prepared to respond to a safety incident?

    In discussing the second of those 'new risks-' Barimo commented on the need to expand ATC capacity – based on FAA forecasts of a 300-percent increase in traffic by 2025 – largely- he said- due to the increased demand by VLJs and other small aircraft.

    Fortunately for business aviation in general and the VLJ manufacturers specifically- the business aviation community can point to the years of success it has in training and qualifying pilots; the great long-term safety rate of business aviation; and the fact that private operators don’t tend to congregate mostly at the 500-odd airports air carriers use. And the FAA’s oversight hasn’t suffered in business aviation the way it has in commercial flying.

    Interestingly- Barimo’s footnotes offer insights into the ATA’s thinking on VLJs in other areas in which the airlines feel threatened: security of private aircraft and federal funding for airports and FAA safety programs. In the case of the former- the ATA wants private and charter operators to 'be subject to the same level of security as all other commercial operations-' and- for the latter- implies- again- that private aviation doesn’t pay its fair share of the FAA’s costs.

    Needless to say but worth repeating- nonetheless- most of the Fortune 500 and thousands of other corporate and private aircraft operators don’t agree. Forewarned is forearmed.

    3. Security

    As noted above- the Air Transport Association is already laying the groundwork for lobbying Congress to force airline-style security on- particularly- VLJ charter operations – a salvo you can count on ATA expanding to include all of private aviation if there’s any hint Congress will go along with the VLJ argument.

    You’d think the experience of the past four years would be enough to convince even critics driven by self-serving financial considerations that their arguments won’t fly. The 12-5 program for charter security seems to work as needed; the NBAA Security Access Certificate program is moving ahead.

    Private airport security has been addressed by the TSA and AOPA. And private operators still don’t haul strangers around in their aircraft. After all- what’s more secure than knowing the people flying with you?

    Thanks to the stellar efforts of the sundry alphabet groups again in 2005- several truly onerous legislative proposals to 'beef up' private aviation security got the reception they deserved – no action. But- as always- vigilance remains necessary to prevent some stealth proposal from slipping unnoticed into another piece of lawmaking in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises in 2006.

    2. User Fees

    The elephant is back in the room- but so far the pachyderm remains only a looming threat. Thanks- again- to the financially strapped airline industry and the fiscally blind FAA- the fight to rewrite how the FAA is funded is in full swing once again. Every indicator out there refutes the FAA’s and White House’s contention that some new system is needed to 'fix' a 'broken' system based on simple- efficient-to-administer excise taxes.

    Air fares are increasing- not decreasing- ratcheting up revenues from airline tickets; general aviation fuel fees- while slumped somewhat in the third quarter- seem back on track and growing again – thanks in large measure to increased business aviation utilization.

    But expect none of these logical arguments to sway those for whom putting more of the funding burden on general aviation is solely a business issue. Nothing irks the airlines more than losing passengers to private aircraft and- in their view- nothing will do more to discourage this ongoing shift than a system that costs the private operator more than today’s fair-and-balanced fuel levies.

    And this time- as NBAA president Ed Bolen told us- the airlines are united in their push. Thankfully- the NBAA- NATA- AOPA and EAA remain steadfast in their opposition and resolute in their efforts to protect private aviation from the commercial airline onslaught.

    1. Hurricane Katrina and Association Coordination

    Business aviation could hardly have shined brighter and better served humanity than it did in its collective response to Hurricane Katrina.

    In the hours following the devastation to the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana- Mississippi and Alabama- business aircraft operators started flying-in thousands of tons of needed supplies- relief workers- hardware and hope.

    Thanks to the individual efforts of association staffers at NBAA- NATA- AOPA and EAA- of Angel Flight and scores of ad hoc groups- the residents of New Orleans and the coastal areas received desperately needed materials- food- water and medical supplies- relief personnel and doctors and nurses.

    Corporate and private aircraft operators also helped evacuate the wounded. And on top of all that- these same groups and individuals dug deep into their own pockets to provide tens of thousands of dollars in cash for use purchasing even more supplies- clothing- formula and food.

    Seldom has private aviation had an opportunity to shine at this level – and at no time in my memory has it shined better.

    That’s our look back at 2005. Here’s hoping our 2006 is happier- more prosperous- and safer than ever. It will make writing next year’s look back a happier and easier task.


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