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All our prior conversations with NATA’s veteran president - Jim Coyne - have tended to address the association’s very full mission manifest- and the many elements of the association’s membership. Virtually every segment of members’ businesses experienced overlapping challenges after the 9/11 attacks of nearly a decade ago - and distance from that dark day has not insulated aviation practitioners from its continuing effects.

Dave Higdon   |   1st June 2011
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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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An Interview with NATA’s Jim Coyne
Helping Members Overcome the Slump- Advance Safety and Security.

All our prior conversations with NATA’s veteran president - Jim Coyne - have tended to address the association’s very full mission manifest- and the many elements of the association’s membership. Virtually every segment of members’ businesses experienced overlapping challenges after the 9/11 attacks of nearly a decade ago - and distance from that dark day has not insulated aviation practitioners from its continuing effects.

Today- nearly 10 years downwind from that world-changing morning- NATA members and their clientele continue with the systems and mechanisms spawned by the attacks- with a higher level of security awareness and activity- and with more eyes scrutinizing their activities- regardless of the business type.

Couple that with an unforeseen economic calamity that hit many aviation-service businesses with an impact beyond even that of the attack-aftermath downturn in flying and it may very well sound as though NATA thrives amid the challenges.

As leader of NATA- Coyne’s prior career equips him well to combat such challenges- and includes time in private enterprise and government – serving in both the Legislative and Executive branches of the U.S. government. He has interacted at the federal level as a member of Congress- a president’s special assistant- as a business executive and (in particular) as a pilot and aircraft owner- a status that continues to this day.

World Aircraft Sales Magazine prevailed upon Mr. Coyne to bring us up-to-date on the health and well-being of the businesses his association represents- as well as the association and its activities.

WAS: It’s too long since our last conversation and in a way seems as if too little has changed. Another association president reminded us recently that we’d talked about the successes of AIR 21 when celebrating the passage of VISION 100 – and now we’re on (as of this writing) the eighteenth Continuing Resolution to keep the FAA open.

We previously talked with you about FAA reauthorization. That’s still pending - three Congresses later! Now one chamber wants to cut FAA funding at a time when industry supports more- and of excise tax increases to fund more. How do we fare as an aviation community- in your view of the pending bill?

Coyne: First I have to caution: we never know what the bill will ultimately say until it’s done. Yogi Berra had it right – it’s not over until it’s over.

It is not at all clear now how the final bill is going to come out – whether the Senate’s views will go over in the House or whether the House will go along with some of the Senate’s preferences. As it is- the House hasn’t yet even appointed its committee members to the conference.

Hopefully they will have got this resolved by the end of May - but don’t count on Congress to do their job any more quickly than usual. An effect of the killing of Osama bin Laden may be to shift the focus of congress to other things. As to whether it’s positive or negative- I think we have to look at it as a positive that they’re this far along. The most important thing it does when passed is to allow the FAA to behave more like a normal agency with predictable- known funding.

I would be disappointed- even dismayed- if the Senate’s two-year approach prevails. They (the FAA) could really use four- or even five years. The inability of the FAA to do things because they never know whether funding will cover it in four or five months is incredibly frustrating- and hurtful for the community.

Another positive thing in the bill: it doesn’t create user fees – but on the negative side- the House wants to cut spending and doesn’t include the higher excise taxes that the industry asked for.

As it is- we are already not making sufficient investments in our infrastructure to even maintain- let alone improve it. We are falling behind the rest of the world badly- and the bill does nothing to improve that. The other elements of the bill that leave us chagrined is that the bill doesn’t promote and build on aviation; the government seems to want to lead on rail rather than invest to maintain our leadership position in aviation.

Our leadership in aviation has been taken for granted for a couple of generations and it’s at serious risk from other countries. I’m terribly frustrated that the last three presidential administrations have seemed to have a very poor understanding of the vital importance of this component of our national transportation network.

I’m hopeful we can still get better out of the bill and that things will change for the positive in the Conference – but I’m not willing to make any predictions. The big question is how hard the House will push for its view of the very- very constrained investment in aviation.

WAS: On a related topic- how would you assess the impact - the progress made or momentum lost in the aviation community - during these many years of reauthorization indecision?

Coyne: Clearly there have been a lot of projects that have been delayed. If you’re working to develop a new aircraft or new maintenance procedures (for example)- for the last three years you have not been able to get good progress from the FAA. Some of the problem is bureaucracy – but a lot has been related to the funding uncertainty and staffing problems that resulted.

Just getting someone to review and sign a routine piece of paper seems to take longer than ever before. The management at the FAA has never been great- but the last 10 years has seen increased friction between management and the workforce. The things happening with controllers recently is indicative of the problem. And while the controllers have received the publicity- the problem exists across the agency.

The staff doesn’t feel appreciated or listened to; the work isn’t getting done- and the support has been lacking. Part of this problem is a function of the governance and the commitment it takes to wrestle with a big bureaucracy. Part of it is the labor friction that’s existed for years.

The old generations of FAA employees really loved aviation – what we have- and had was done in part because of dedicated aviation people in the FAA. There was great pride in building on what the Wright Brothers started. The new generation of FAA – both management and staff – doesn’t seem connected to aviation.

WAS: We’ve talked when the times held stories of striving to survive- and also when much of GA was thriving and growing - how difficult was this past recession for your members to weather?

Coyne: Overall- these have been very tough times. But there are bright spots. NATA members generally are entrepreneurs with the attitude that there are products to be made and customers to be found in hard times and in good. I know of businesses that have seen their activity grow more than ever in the past three years.

But there are others where we have seen a drop off in all segments over the past three years. We continue to be hammered by external affairs- weather and fuel prices – especially for piston-aircraft operators. Flight schools have had a lot of challenges.

The charter industry has weathered the storm and is mostly surviving. I know there are charter operators who are doing it for tax reasons – they charter the airplane from themselves – but most certificate holders are in the business of flying charters.

Fuel costs in particular can be extremely challenging to overcome. I believe a lot of the petroleum increase has been driven by speculation. Eliminating Osama bin Laden may help bring down the price again. If we can get back under $100-a-barrel we could see these businesses get healthier again. In many respects- aviation has some advantages over other modes of transport because people in aviation highly value their time- and are more prone to fly for the time-savings.

WAS: Flight instruction seems to be enjoying better times at the institutional level- but tougher times at the individual-student level - overall- are flight-training operations yet back to their pre-9/11 activity levels?

Coyne:We’re not instructing as many foreign students as we used to because of the stupid- complex rules that foreign students have to clear. We have lost about half of our foreign students in the past decade. Here in the U.S. some of the hoops we force people through just make it harder than it has to be. People don’t realize that students will throw in the towel when they face too many bureaucratic hurdles.

When you look at the growth forecast for the airlines – not even mentioning charter- business and individual flying – we should be experiencing a major boom in flight training. We need to make flight training more relevant to today’s technologies and systems- too. We’re going to see more people in the next 12 months as the airlines continue to expand and look for pilots

WAS: Drop-outs in flight training are- from the findings of recent studies- an issue that needs addressing: What do you believe must transpire to put our pilot population back into a positive rate of climb?

Coyne: First- the FAA has to be willing to say part of its job is to promote aviation; to get more pilots; to streamline the training process and not be twiddling its thumbs while the pilot population shrinks. Any modern- world-class country (China- Japan and Europe) needs pilots - and we should be leading- not falling behind. But there’s not a single person at the FAA today who views it as their job to promote aviation and to grow the pilot population. They could make a big difference if they made it easier to do the training – resolving some of the nonsense on medical certificates we could do without.

Second- the (flight training) businesses have got to change: They need to recognize that students today have a lot more options for spending their time and money- as well as a different degree of comfort with technology – and they have to change to reflect that.

Third- we have to come up with ways to sell flight training- to package it- and tailor to the individual student – for example- one package for the student interested in an airline career versus a package for the person interested in flying for personal reasons- or as a corporate pilot.

One added point: State and local governments need to be more supportive. Some airports are actually trying to discourage flight training. Communities could benefit from the business more students would bring.

WAS: Moving on- NATA took a significant role in the creation of the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF) and its resources for charter customers and providers. What’s been the biggest challenge to establishing the acceptance and support for ACSF and its programs?

Coyne: The biggest challenge has been the downturn in the industry. I had the idea for this Foundation about five years ago when coming back from a meeting of the board of the Flight Safety Foundation - the counterpart for the airline business. The Foundation seemed like a good approach.

So we phoned about 50 charter providers and got this going. Then the downturn came and brought its challenges to operations and revenue. Getting people to contribute was tougher- yet we’ve seen it continue to grow. We started conferences that had never happened before. Now that we have our programs running- people are signing up and we’re making progress. Our goal is to bring down the accident-rate by a factor of 10 over the coming years. So many of these accidents are wholly avoidable- and that’s where we’re working to have an impact.

The training- auditing and safety standards are helping operators with their work and giving them a way to communicate their dedication to safety and how they pursue that. Jim Christiansen and Bryan Burns- Chairman and President- ACSF respectively have done a great job.

WAS: How well is the charter community faring today; is it back to solid growth- or does it continue to struggle to hold its own?

Coyne: It’s definitely on a growth curve. The biggest incentive to charter was the TSA’s extreme over-reaction to its mandate and the terrible stories it has generated – don’t touch my junk; the offensive searching of children; the detaining of elderly people in wheelchairs. People put off by all these stories looked for a way to get around it- and charter was one way to do it.

I hate to put the onus on the security and airlines people- but it’s the truth. NATA members never want to grow at the expense of other aviation business – we want all of aviation to grow…but it’s sad that some of the charter growth has come because of the onerous atmosphere at the air-carrier airports.

Anybody who can afford to charter wants to do it – and not just because of the invasion of privacy and intrusiveness- but also for the convenience and the big-time savings. We have a lot to be proud of in what we do for our individual customers and what we give them – time.

WAS: No matter how or where we practice aviation- the front line remains the FBO segment- which rises and falls on the activity level of everything else in general aviation – from hours flown and aircraft rented- to transients passing through and students enrolled. What’s been the impact of the recent downturn on the FBO population these past three years?

Coyne: On balance for the FBOs- the last decade has been a pretty good one – the past couple of years notwithstanding. We had a lot of consolidation in the business- a lot of new people and new money- and a lot of people did very well.

FBOs are very entrepreneurial people. Even the folks who head up the biggest (FBO) chains are men and women who are really dedicated to building their businesses and doing well by their customers. I don’t know of another business that has as many truly entrepreneurial people as interested and dedicated to their businesses and their customers.

They’ve done fairly well weathering this storm. Remember- geography plays a large role in how well FBOs fare. In some parts of the country- business has done really well with higher oil prices (like Texas- or on Wall Street where they’re making money).

It’s important to understand it’s like that line about real estate: “location- location- location”. It’s impossible to generalize the health of the FBO industry - it depends on where they are- and the markets they serve. Nonetheless- with so many things coming back – stock market- jobs and profits – I’m optimistic for their future.

Demographics play a role- and as we get new people coming in we’ve got reason to be optimistic. In some places we have issues with local governments or other competition wanting to drive off one or another- but there’s a lot to be optimistic about right now.

Both the independents and the chains have spent the past few years better managing their finances- and while profits may have declined they’ve kept their heads above water.

WAS: For the first time in almost a decade- General Aviation security issues seemed to stabilize in 2010. The TSA and the GA community seem more closely aligned in expectations and understanding. Nevertheless- we continue to see issues within DHS – uncomfortable ramp encounters with law enforcement officials acting on erroneous intelligence. What needs to happen to assure DHS and GA that DHS at least uses information and guidance that’s accurate?

Coyne: Within these organizations we need pilots - people with real general aviation experience sitting at the table with the other security folks. If you put five people together without GA experience and task them with the role of assuring the security of general aviation- you’re not going to like the outcome. In the last couple of years they’ve hired people who know this stuff- who are pilots and general aviation people.

Second- we need to question the overall justification for this extreme focus on aviation. It’s been my contention for years that the reason for this focus on aviation is because it’s the only mode of transportation that requires federal certificates- for the pilots and the airplanes.

They have the authority to tap us because they have all this information on us. We need to ask why they aren’t paying equal attention to the other modes - boats- motorcycles- trucks and cars. Aviation people are above average law-abiding people - but because we’re such a law-abiding community- the security officials have found it easier to pick on us. I continue to believe we’ve got to change the fundamental vision of these (security) organizations.

We’ve seen changes with the right people at TSA; now we need to get them to go further with the other modes.

WAS: You’ve been associated with activities in and around the Nation’s Capital for many years now- both as an insider and- more recently- as a knowledgeable “outsider” interacting with the government. How do D.C.’s non-pilot insiders really view General Aviation- and people who fly their own airplanes as we do?

Coyne: The difference between people who understand GA and those who don’t isn’t all that difficult to bridge with exposure. But it takes that exposure.

I remember when a senator announced- “I have just found out that anybody in America can become a pilot. We should stop that; it shouldn’t be possible for just anyone to get a license.” But- of course- in America anyone can – and that’s the way it should be. We do have people who- frankly- when they hear the word “aviation” automatically think “airline”. It’s like talking to someone who’s had only Cheez Whiz all their life and they don’t know there’s something called “camembert.” They’re both cheeses. But you can’t really explain the differences without getting them to sample the camembert.

It’s especially important for people at DoT and FAA to understand- and within Congress we’ve got (probably) half who have no idea. It’s a never-ending process- working to make them understand- and to enlighten them. It’s something we’ll be doing forever.

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