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Business aviation- we hear- is up. Well- it’s up- some… except in some areas where it’s somewhat flat – or off a bit… until it’s showing signs of… of… what? Sometimes- trying to sieve the median curve from among a slew of unsynchronized curves can be a little like trying to untangle knotted spaghetti: it’s difficult to grasp- a bit slippery and it’s sliding around the plate.

Dave Higdon   |   1st October 2010
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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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Ten Questions For Ed Bolen
Business Aviation 2010 - the view from the head of NBAA.

Business aviation- we hear- is up. Well- it’s up- some… except in some areas where it’s somewhat flat – or off a bit… until it’s showing signs of… of… what? Sometimes- trying to sieve the median curve from among a slew of unsynchronized curves can be a little like trying to untangle knotted spaghetti: it’s difficult to grasp- a bit slippery and it’s sliding around the plate.

Is this a sign that private aviation rises and falls on the strength and viability of the overall economy even more than we tend to recognize? Maybe that’s what makes “calling the ball” on today’s business aviation world so confusing. Is the community on a steady climb? Or only parts of it? Or have parts not yet stopped descending?

The strength of the market- flight hours- new aircraft manufacturing- pre-owned for-sale turbine inventory: they all seem to fluctuate in independent and unrelated directions. Use goes up for a couple of segments- it goes down for another; pre-owned for-sale inventory drops closer to typical historic percentages – but only for certain models. All the while- the overall story varies depending on segment.

Relating to new aircraft deliveries- GAMA numbers were down – measurably – but billings dropped disproportionately little. These varied elements exert differing degrees of influence on different segments of the community - all- however- combine to influence the whole.

As we gaze across the general aviation population- however- we remember that for one distinct strata of our community- not even the external pressures change; their jobs continue affected indirectly by the vagaries of the market and directly by influences of the body politic. These are the people within the aviation trade and member associations.

To the membership association- holding on to those dues-payers during difficult times can mean a difference in available resources important to representing those members effectively enough to stave-off problems and challenges related less directly to economic conditions and more aligned with political and regulatory activities.

The association staff works vicariously- experiencing the woes of their membership- while also tilting at the roadblocks and the ramparts surrounding politicians and regulators. One person familiar with this position is Ed Bolen- President and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association.

A son of Kansas- a pilot- former Congressional committee counsel and General Aviation Manufacturers Association boss- Bolen has worked the front lines of the aviation legislative- political- industrial and regulatory landscapes for more than two decades.

With the bulk of his career spent working aviation at the interchange of private and public interests- Bolen in recent months seems more visible than ever and more engaged at the grass roots level – evidenced- in part- by his week-long stay at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA’s) 2010 Oshkosh AirVenture…again.

It’s that presence - the genuine sense of interest and insight he imparts - that helps keep Bolen winning high marks for the work NBAA does for its members. Even in casual conversation about the aviation community- Bolen offers up sharp answers and contributes thoughtful questions that reveal a detailed knowledge that defies the stereotype of the hierarchical trade-association executive who relies more on in-house experts to supply and brief the boss on any expected expert-level content.

At AirVenture Bolen noted that our traditional pre-convention conversation was approaching- so he wasn’t surprised to receive the invitation to sit down for this year’s Ten Questions Interview and talk about the state of the community- the health of his association- and to reflect some on his six years in the post. The fruits of that talk follow:

WAS: Ed- let’s start at the association: How well has NBAA fared in maintaining membership and programs since the market turned down in 2008?

Bolen: We’re very pleased. We have been able to hold on to our membership; our numbers are right where they were in 2008- and we feel good about that. We’ve been through a lot of challenges and it feels good - we had the challenges of the automakers and the political issues; we launched No Plane No Gain…

We went to members and asked whether they would be willing to pay more than required by their dues. What we found was about 25 percent of our members contributed more than they were required to. We felt good that they found a way to do that. We wanted to find a way to get them more services- and their response has been very encouraging to us…

WAS: How has your staff managed to retain such membership strength when simple economics might otherwise make an NBAA membership check an easy one to tear up?

Bolen: In difficult times I think the business aviation community recognizes that the issues we endure – LASP [the controversial proposed Large Aircraft Security Program- introduced by the Transportation Security Administration in 2008] other security issues- fighting user fees- for example – we need to put forth a positive image and we need to mobilize. We need everybody and we need everybody to do their part. That’s why- I think- we’ve been able to retain our membership because we’ve been able to remain relevant in a challenging period.

WAS: During August as Congress recessed for its summer break- NBAA staff fanned out across the country to brief members and hear their concerns. Can you give us some insights into the top three concerns you’re hearing from members these days?

Bolen: I think there are a number of concerns- but the topic we kept hearing about - the need to keep No Plane No Gain fresh and relevant - underlined the need to keep promoting a positive image of business aviation. Other topics included the need to get FAA reauthorization; LASP; and the future of AvGas.

That’s more than three. The point is that there’s a lot on the minds of a lot of people. So we’ve got a pretty large agenda for the aviation community.

WAS: The FAA recently finalized new rules that will- over the coming three years- require every aircraft owner to update or affirm registration information. What potential complications are you communicating to your members and what pitfalls does NBAA see in the process?

Bolen: Over the past several years we’ve taken on a number of challenges and been pretty effective as a community in responding. The aircraft registration has been a frustrating issue.

We went to the FAA early to voice our concerns; we went to the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and voiced our concerns. This is one issue where we didn’t see the concerns we voiced make it into the final rule. The result is this triennial re-registration rule that we’re very concerned about.

We’re concerned about the pitfalls of someone missing something here- and the ramifications are significant. We’re going to work very hard to make sure the members are aware of the rule- familiar with the process and help them make sure no inadvertent errors get into the process. The consequences are so significant.

WAS: Congress recently extended the FAA’s operating authority (once again) through another temporary continuing resolution. It’s now been about four years since the FAA had a multi-year budget blueprint from which it could work. What programs and progress suffer from Congress’ inability to complete a relatively simple task like FAA reauthorization?

Bolen: It’s at least 14- maybe 15 continuing resolutions [to keep FAA funded]. I think whether you’re a company or an individual- some direction is helpful. Here at NBAA- we have our five-year plan. Even families plan for spending.

We think it’s important for the FAA to have a plan- to be able to plan and work longer than a few months out- and to make progress on the long-term projects. Great countries- great economies are built on great transportation- and we think the aviation system of a great nation like America deserves long-term investment.

WAS: It’s going-on two years since the Transportation Security Administration stunned general aviation interests into unvarnished anger and resistance over the proposed Large Aircraft Security Program. Now with a TSA head in place and a general aviation manager into his second year on the job- should we expect to see a revised LASP soon?

Further- from what you know- should we expect another reaction like the one from the fall of 2008?

Bolen: We are hearing from the TSA itself that it hopes to have a new proposal by the end of the year. The suggestions are certainly that it has a better understanding of our community; that the TSA has worked hard to understand our ideas that will protect mobility and enhance security.

We are encouraged that TSA people are participating in general aviation events- including NBAA’s Annual Meeting & Convention. So we’re encouraged that the institution is becoming one that is working toward facilitating transportation while enhancing security – and not sacrificing one for the other.

WAS: The General Aviation Manufacturers Association and NBAA have demonstrably cooperated- and coordinated a united front in the resurrected and revised No Plane No Gain campaign. Is there a next step or new efforts we should prepare to watch for?

Bolen: We are committed to keeping No Plane No Gain fresh and relevant for our community. And that means consistently adding to the tools in the No Plane No Gain toolbox.

Since the program was introduced in January 2009- you’ve seen surveys on how business aviation is actually used in the U.S.; toolkits to help companies evaluate the value of the airplane to their companies; and a campaign that uses not just print ads- but new-media like Twitter – as well as a website with its own dynamic elements.

We are now taking steps to keep it fresh and relevant- and you’ve seen some of the new people stepping out to speak for the No Plane No Gain program: Last year we had Arnold Palmer- a man of respect and integrity in the eyes of the public. In August- Neil Armstrong started voicing his support for No Plane No Gain and is appearing in advertising. This month- Warren Buffett is lending his support to the No Plane No Gain program- again appearing in advertising for the program.

Those three are foremost people of their times; they demand respect and have credibility. Their support should help make the world understand that business aviation is essential.

WAS: Among my pet concerns is the community’s seeming impotence in its efforts to generate student starts and hand-prop growth back into the pilot population; voices in my head clamor for efforts beyond publicity- bargain intro flights and espousing the joys of flying to those just outside the fence – but looking for a way in that makes sense to their lives.

Has the time come - some of those voices ask me - for the general aviation industry and the community that it supports to start its own equivalent to the Civilian Pilot Training Corps of the pre-World War II era? The logic of their thinking: Helping pay for new pilots will pay long-term by making more customers for all the good of aviation – flight schools for advanced ratings; shops for making old planes good deals for new pilots; and factories who find more customers both able and interested in flying their latest stuff.

Bolen: I think all of us who are fortunate enough to be in the aviation community have had a torch passed to us to inspire and grow this great industry. It’s our responsibility to pass on that torch with the flame still as bright.

I think you’re seeing a lot of aviation organizations working to contribute to the growth of aviation and the pilot population. At the NBAA convention we’re launching an all-new career day on the floor to help encourage new people.

We spend six figures a year on development and to promote aviation; our certified aviation manager program- while not geared to new people- helps retain good talent to the benefit of the aviation community. There’s a lot going on- whether you look at what GAMA is doing with Build-a-Plane- EAA’s Young Eagles program- AOPA’s efforts – a lot is going on geared to inspiring and attracting a new generation. Sometimes the best idea is not a new idea. We are committed to a brighter future.

WAS: In September- you started your seventh year at NBAA. During your tenure the association has dealt with a hurricane-forced relocation of the convention; recalcitrant venue officials; an historic economic downturn; and threats to operators’ freedom to be mobile unlike almost anything ever conceived. Was there a moment of high elation and one of equally deep frustration that stick out for you?

Bolen: Don’t forget we had the airlines launch a multimillion-dollar campaign to shift their tax burden- offload $2 billion in taxes onto general aviation and seize control of the Air Traffic Control system. In the past several years- the NBAA and the entire business aviation community has been under some extreme pressure. I think the great thing is that under pressure you can find out what’s at the core.

What we’ve found out is- at its core- the business aviation community is a strong community and NBAA is a strong organization. I’m proud that at no point have we played the victim. We’ve mobilized and organized and this organization and the community have made their size and their significance felt. We’ve been able to help shape our destiny.

WAS: Let’s conclude with a rundown on the NBAA convention schedule for the next couple of conventions: It sounds like the meeting gets to return to some old- once-favored venues – ones unused in recent years for differing reasons.

Bolen: In 2011 we’re going back to the West Coast. It’s been a long time since we’ve been west of the Mississippi and we’re happy to be going back to Las Vegas. Then for 2012- we’re going back to Orlando. They’ve been a great community for us - very supportive.

After that we’re going to try to alternate between east and west coasts to help keep as accessible to more members - so the rotation will alternate between Las Vegas and Orlando for the next few years.

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