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A remark was used early on at the recent Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) fly-in from an old Emerson- Lake & Palmer song: “Welcome back to the show that never ends.” Although the context of that speaker was a bit different- it applies nonetheless to the broad world of private aviation. Much of the time so much seems to be happening within the community that it seems as if change is the biggest ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st October 2008
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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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Another Year...
A 61st Convention ...
and 10 Questions for NBAA president & CEO Ed Bolen.

A remark was used early on at the recent Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) fly-in from an old Emerson- Lake & Palmer song: “Welcome back to the show that never ends.” Although the context of that speaker was a bit different- it applies nonetheless to the broad world of private aviation.

Much of the time so much seems to be happening within the community that it seems as if change is the biggest constant. Yet it’s the constants that continue to most animate the community – and among the most-prominent of those consistencies is an optimistic outlook toward the potential of the future.

Private aircraft operators- pilots and aircraft owners appear universally sure of the potential of brave new technologies- such as WAAS and ADS-B. Free flight and inclement-weather access to airports free of ground-based landing aids- instant traffic and weather awareness- the ability to see all other ADS-B traffic – they all hold appeal to a huge percentage of users.

Among the more-seasoned comes a learned skepticism that can border on cynicism when the topic of government capabilities to deliver the new technology on time and on budget - and these are the lesser of the big doubts. The current biggest doubt: that the agency will actually make traffic flow benefit overall with the fulfillment of these new technologies- WAAS and ADS-B.

To be fair- the FAA continues to make steady progress in creating the new approaches that exploit the capabilities of WAAS-standard GPS navigators and FMS systems. And installation of ADS-B continues. Transition plans and new procedures for a GPS/ADS-B Air Traffic Control structure- however- are not as far along- but the deadline for equipping to participate is a full 12 years out.

Most of the public-contact staff of the FAA does an excellent job overall- from handling air traffic under a hostile management- to overseeing manufacturing- safety and airport development- to name the most prominent issues in view. Sometimes- however- it seems that the folks behind the scenes work against the best interests of the users and the public servants in ATC. Witness the current slots effort at LGA. It’s hard to find any constituents of the FAA in agreement.

Even what is going well seems at risk of interruption or disruption because Congress and the White House have not brought to fruition a law reauthorizing the FAA and setting guidelines for its future spending abilities. This fact obviously does little to give aviation adherents any warm-and-fuzzy feelings about Congress and the White House.

Yet we can’t fully reflect the feelings of the minions of private aviation without mentioning that new acronym air travelers love to loathe: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Leaked word that the agency of the Department of Homeland Security is preparing to ratchet up its focus on general aviation stirs its own responses separate from the often low opinions of the FAA.

This news came just ahead of recent revelations that a TSA inspector used as a ladder step sensitive external sensors on several airliners – damaging and- in turn- grounding the aircraft. The TSA is unrepentant- setting up a de facto standard that includes wonton vandalism of aircraft as a valid inspection tool.

The lack of any remorse about the aircraft damage served only to sharpen the negative nature of the response from aircraft owners upon hearing rumbles that the TSA wants to grant itself regulatory authority to enter any aircraft at any time based solely on its authority to do so as a form of anti-terror protection. So- as you can see- aviation is truly a show that never ends.

Angst and optimism: even measures
It’s a show that seems to generate angst and optimism in equal measures – almost in opposing waves that cancel out one another. And it’s within this atmosphere that aviation adherents turn to select groups of professionals to help them absorb- understand and act on these unending catalysts.

That’s where we come to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). Ed Bolen- President of NBAA- has enjoyed several years at the helm now. Quick with a quip- sharp and tenacious in representing NBAA constituents- Bolen is at once cheery and at the same time pragmatic – not to mention unrepentant in his advocacy. NBAA’s staff handles a little of everything in the course of a day- from helping member companies to form and operate a flight department- to international travel mores- tax and FAA regulatory traps and- not the least- by representing the thousands of American firms that choose to make private aircraft an element in their business’ operation.

The association also stages one of the nation’s top trade shows and the world’s premier event for business aviation in the form of the annual convention that runs October 6-8 in Orlando- Florida.

In what’s become a tradition between Bolen and World Aircraft Sales Magazine- we visited ahead of the convention to deal with Ten Questions on the current health of business aviation- the association and the upcoming event.

WAS: In so many ways- many key issues are more-or-less unchanged since we talked last September: We’re still on the cusp wondering how ADS-B will change ATC; we’re still feeling the TSA edge closer to doing the “something” they seem to feel they just have to do; and we’re still in FAA limbo without a full five-year reauthorization of the FAA. So tell us what progress we should acknowledge from this time last year? Where has the private aviation community moved forward to a better place?

Bolen: I think a good thing for people to realize is that the airlines have spent tens of millions of dollars pushing User Fees and trying to wrest control of ATC – and they have not succeeded. The House brought out a bill that rejected User Fees; the Senate brought to the floor a bill that did not include User Fees. And I think people should feel pretty good that the airlines have cranked up the effort and have not succeeded. We have been able to beat back that push in Congress.

Of course- the bill is not done; we don’t know whether they will get one out this Congress. We don’t know whether we’ll face it like this again next time- but so far- we’ve been able to beat back this effort and show what we can accomplish when we work together.

WAS: We’ve seen two years of the FAA being operated on the basis of continuing resolutions - and that obviously has its costs - are there areas in which NBAA believes the agency has lost momentum or focus because of the lack of a multi-year reauthorization?

Bolen: Well- the FAA has said publicly that all its NextGen projects are on-time and on-budget. So it appears that the FAA can make progress even under these circumstances. It’s difficult for the FAA to plan ahead without an authorization- though; that’s why we’ve worked so hard to get a bill passed. The FAA has shown it doesn’t stop. It may fall to the next Congress to complete reauthorization.

WAS: What needs to happen- in your view- to produce progress on FAA reauthorization and get the agency what critics know it needs?

Bolen: The FAA bill that ultimately started again in the Senate this spring was not controversial for its positions. So I think this is just part of the larger legislative process. The pending adjournment of Congress may spur members to get this done… I don’t think we’re very far from getting this done- but as many know- sometimes in Washington the last couple of yards are the hardest.

WAS: If we get a bill early next year and the new president – whoever that turns out to be – signs off- how long do you believe we’re looking for the community to catch up… if it can catch up?

Bolen: If you look in our community- we were early adopters of GPS technologies. We equipped our airplanes for RVSM. I think the GA community has done a pretty good job at staying at the forefront of technology. I think we’re in pretty good shape for the Next Generation air-traffic system.

WAS: Looking to the other of aviation’s current top two federal agencies- would you share NBAA’s view of plans by the Transportation Security Administration to undertake new steps to monitor private aviation?

Bolen: The whole GA community and NBAA have worked with TSA since it was created. I think what we have sensed from them is a thorough understanding of GA and its place in the system. We’ve undertaken voluntary security efforts and we’re going to hear more we can take. It’s clear the agency has in mind what it calls a large aircraft security program. It’s been to OMB (the Office of Management & Budget)- was then sent back to TSA- and we understand it’s back again at OMB.

We certainly will work with TSA to advocate for any security rules that are reasonable and effective. We hope we’ll see a rule that enhances security and promotes mobility.

WAS: How would your membership react to a TSA regulation claiming the right to access and inspect private aircraft on the claim it’s only trying to protect us from terrorists?

Bolen: I think what we want to do - what we’ve worked with the TSA to do - is to promote security and promote modality. We want the rules to be reasonable and workable. Clearly- in the aftermath of 9/11- the reaction was not reasonable. GA was grounded for an extended period of time- far longer than any other mode of transportation. What we want to see is a program that clearly adapts security- that can be effective- and honor American values - and mobility is part of that.

WAS: Turning to economic issues - the production side of business aviation continues to go great guns- if you will- with growing overseas sales taking a larger share of output and backlogs extending out five and more years. Meantime- the airlines continue to wreak havoc on their most-desired passengers- the full-fare- business- and first-class flyers. Yet domestic expansion of business aviation appears less robust than we might expect. Are tough economic times causing operators to rethink the benefits of their aircraft?

Bolen: High fuel issues are affecting Americans in all that they do. If you look at business aircraft operators- all of them are implementing some form of fuel-cost mitigation efforts. It may be flying slower- pursuing fuel contracts or flying less. Clearly- the high price of fuel is affecting everybody. One thing we know is that GA has been around for a long time and is not immune to economic cycles. So in hard times- it’s not unreasonable to expect those times to have an impact.

But aircraft for many companies are an integral part of their business – moving people- hardware- connecting to small communities – and even in hard times- aircraft are an important element in the transportation system of the country. And for our members- that remains so- even through the ups and downs of the economy.

WAS: Considering the reports of slower domestic sales growth- is the U.S. market finally reaching a point closer to saturation- in which growth will be smaller?

Bolen: The long-term projections for business aviation are still positive. Sales and projections to build that will be updated at our convention- and will show some encouraging numbers. New models- increased productivity - these will influence the growth in the market.

WAS: Next spring- NBAA plans to hold its first-ever meeting and trade show geared toward the smallest of the aircraft-operating businesses- the owner-flown- piston-to-propjet single population. How much potential does NBAA see in providing a more appropriate venue and service set to this often overlooked segment of business aviation?

Bolen: NBAA has really made an effort to reach out to the smaller (aircraft-operating) community to show that we’re relevant and that we provide the tools necessary to effectively operate their aircraft. What we have heard from them is that they would like a show focused on how they are using the airplane to help their businesses. This is an idea that came from the community itself- and we are trying to answer that need with a show that focuses on how small businesses are using aircraft to help them succeed. We think there’s a lot of potential out there.

WAS: Looking at recent information from NBAA- this year’s convention shapes up to potentially be another record-setter. You attended Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun- both of which seemed to defy low expectations from today’s tough economic times. Given the strength of those signature events and the advance data on your upcoming convention- how do you read this information as an indicator of the health of business and general aviation?

Bolen: We’re excited about this year’s convention. We’ve been sold-out since July – the earliest we’ve ever sold out. So there’s a lot of excitement from this. We’ve got some great sessions- a lot of good information; we’re expecting a crowd upwards of 30 thousand. Naturally- we’re anxious to make sure that people get the maximum benefit from attending so we can go out and do it again.

More information from www.nbaa.org

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