The president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, Ed Bolen, is the type of person that industry wants heading up a leading trade group. He has lived and breathed general aviation, from safety boards to Presidential appointments to previously leading the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. He was also a central player in passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (almost overnight, Cessna began making piston aircraft again). Bolen, a recreational pilot, took over the left seat at NBAA in 2004 and has been part of the wave of unprecedented prosperity for corporate aviation. However, in an era of record high fuel prices and uncertainty in Washington, the optimism is muted.
Besides his aviation achievements, Bolen was majority general counsel to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, and served as legislative director for Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), a long-time aviation champion.
The industry sector meets October 6-8 in Orlando for this year’s annual NBAA Meeting & Convention. In preparation, Bolen discussed business aviation and the challenges facing the industry in an interview with AIRPORT BUSINESS. Here are edited excerpts ...
AIRPORT BUSINESS: Broad brush, how is business aviation faring in today’s economic climate?
Bolen: It’s clear that the price of fuel is affecting everybody. Talking to the manufacturers, talking to the FAA, it looks like jet-A is down 15 to 20 percent; avgas 30 to 35 percent. Pretty significant stuff.
AB: How would you characterize the mood of your members?
Bolen: It’s clearly the big issue. Any gathering you go to, it’s the topic. People are talking about various mitigation strategies — whether they’re tankering; flying slower; spending more time fuel planning; only going to airports with two FBOs. It’s all about trying to mitigate the costs associated with fuel prices.
AB: In another era, the state of economic affairs might have led to drastic cuts by corporate flight deparments. It appears, however, that the industry segment isn’t being hit nearly as hard by economic downturns.
Bolen: We’ve seen less of the closing of flight departments, even going back to the 2001 recession. I think what we are seeing is that so many companies have built their business model around the use of the airplane — they need it for productivity; they need it for just-in-time manufacturing; they need it to visit their distribution plants; to bring customers in. It’s so integral to their business model that it makes eliminating business aviation really untenable. That’s why we’re seeing the huge focus on mitigation of the fuel prices.
AB: As communities around the U.S. see commercial airline service disappear, do you see the role of business aviation being heightened?
Bolen: A lot of our members are headquartered in or have operations in small towns or rural communities. It’s one of the reasons that business aviation has been so important to companies situated there. They’ve long had a pretty tenuous grasp on commercial aviation. Every community likes having a commercial alternative available.
But yes, I think the cutbacks in air service, either frequency or elimination, is a big deal in towns all over the United States. In a lot of ways that’s why those communities are such big supporters of general aviation.
AB: Is is safe to say that the FAA reauthorization bill is in limbo, and that we can expect another extension by Congress?
Bolen: It’s hard to know. The House has passed an FAA bill; the Senate brought an FAA bill this spring to the floor that really had all of the aviation issues resolved. It got tied up for a bunch of non-aviation issues.
AB: Much has been made of the congestion at New York’s airports and the DOT’s desire to impose slot auctions. It’s an issue that may wind up in court. What is NBAA’s perspective on this?
Bolen: We’re all disappointed. It was last fall that the President called on the DOT to assemble an ad hoc team to get ideas on what could be done. We participated in that. That group came up with something like 77 ideas that could quickly be implemented and could yield some capacity gains. It’s disappointing to see a lot of those things have not been done. Instead they’ve kind of fallen into this situation which, as you point out, nobody is very happy about.
AB: NBAA’s website makes a strong case that business aviation isn’t part of the problem.
Bolen: It’s not just our finding; that’s what the DOT has found; the [working committee] looked at it. When you look at general aviation being 1.5 to 2 percent of the operations, clearly we’re not the cause of delays. And when you look at operations in the New York area and you see that commercial flights are going up by 14 percent and GA operations are going down by 9 percent, any effort to try to link general aviation to congestion or delays at those three major airports doesn’t hold water.
AB: What’s your take on the issue of FAA and inspections, be they maintenance or with Part 135s?
Bolen: The Secretary of Transportation appointed a working group [to review] that issue and they hopefully will release their report soon. Clearly, everybody in industry expects the FAA to set standards; operators to follow standards; and enforcement to be fair and even. It’s troubling when you hear reports that it may not be as even as we would all hope it would be.
To what extent that is going on out there, I think there’s a general feeling in the community that things feel different.
AB: Talk out of Washington lately has general aviation security resurfacing as an issue. Any red flags?
Bolen: It is clear that over the last year to year and a half, the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security has been voicing concerns about general aviation. We’ve been trying to understand all of those concerns and trying to make sure that we as a community are very proactive in identifying and implementing security ideas. At same time, trying to do those that are sophisticated enough that they improve security but don’t hurt mobility.
AB: On the airport side, Santa Monica continues to be a long-time issue airport for NBAA.
Bolen: A long-time issue airport, yes. The record at Santa Monica shows that they have voiced a number of concerns and tried a number of attempts to try to limit operations there. I don’t think any of them hold a lot of water. If you look at the current injunction, we support what FAA is doing and we strongly agree that Santa Monica doesn’t have the authority or the jurisdiction to adopt these bans. In a lot of ways it’s the same story; they’re trying to put a fresh coat of paint on it. At the end of the day, it’s an airport that has always tried to limit, restrict, or ban jet operations.
AB: The Static Display is a popular component of the annual NBAA Convention. Logistically, it presents more challenges as the show grows. Do you see a time when you’ll have fixed assets at airports to continue to host the Static?
Bolen: We’ll keep trying to find ways to both provide a strong static display that exhibits the airplanes and the technologies, but does not become limiting in terms of where we go and how we operate.