CHANTILLY, VA — In June the National Air Transportation Association hosted a reformulated version of its annual meeting, combining its Air Charter Summit with its FBO Leadership Conference. Several hundred operators and government officials met near Dulles International Airport, with a primary topic of discussion the image problem that general aviation has today following the industry bashing that has occurred in Washington during the past year. NATA president James Coyne terms it “a war on wealth.” The economy was also a central part of presentations here, along with updates from the Federal Aviation Administration on Part 135 regulations and the proposed regulation on safety management system (SMS) implementation, still under development at the agency.
Peter Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, says that the rhetoric in Washington against business aviation has taken a toll both on new aircraft orders as well as resulting layoffs.
To combat the image issue, Bunce says that he and representatives from the manufacturers have held some 64 meetings with representatives on Capitol Hill as well as with a senior White House advisor. Comments Joe Lombardo, president of Gulfstream Aerospace, “I think we got our message heard, especially when the topic of jobs was discussed.”
The reps also took their campaign to Cahokia, IL to relate to local officials the impact that one company, Midcoast Aviation at St. Louis Downtown Airport, can have on the local economy. One point made was that companies that did business with Midcoast accounted for some 7,500 hotel rooms annually. “That message hit a nerve,” says Lombardo.
NATA’s Coyne says he is proposing that the industry hold up President Obama as the “poster child for private aviation.” As President he has logged more hours in Air Force One than any of his predecessors, says Coyne, who points out that various operators in attendance flew the new President during his campaign run.
Finding new opportunities
Despite the image issue, Gulfstream’s Lombardo says it is the economic downturn that has had the greatest impact on his company, which recently announced an additional 2,000 furloughs of employees.
Comments industry veteran Richard Van Gemert, vice president with Jet Aviation, “We’re a very capital-intensive industry, and there’s no capital in the system.” [Van Gemert was awarded NATA’s William A. ‘Bill’ Ong Memorial Award during the meeting, citing extraordinary achievement.]
“We’ve got a tremendous excess of supply versus demand,” says Van Gemert, who doesn’t see that situation changing significantly until 2013.
James C. Christiansen, president of fractional provider NetJets, says that the “demonization” of business aviation has the potential to be turned into a positive for his company and charter providers. Charter, he says, can put general aviation “at arm’s length” for business executives who seek to “legitimize their business aviation interests.
“This is the time to keep your message out in front of prospective clients,” he says.
Bill Haberstock, president and CEO of Million Air Salt Lake City, reports that his company’s charter division is refining its product for the new marketplace. “We’re also refining our marketing for our new product,” he says. What are the new needs of the customer? he asks.
Haberstock says that a component of a new marketing approach needs to include a differentiation of the product, with the target being “marginal” operators who may be “upside down” with aircraft or who may have Part 135 compliance issues. “We have not been doing that in our industry,” he says, adding that “we have to ensure that cheap” is not acceptable as an industry.
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