In Support of Air Taxi Operators

The surge in Part 135 charter activity over the past decade and the expanding scope of aircraft being utilized for charter have given rise to three new associations over the past year. Their initial focus is on three major areas — safety, public policy, and promotion of the industry. Meanwhile, the group which historically has represented the interests of Part 135 air taxis, the National Air Transportation Association, has concurrently been boosting its focus on the industry sector, evidenced by the introduction last summer of NATA’s first annual Air Charter Summit. Here’s a quick review of the players and their developing agendas.

The Air Taxi Association (ATXA) came onto the scene June 21, 2007, aiming to “unite the air taxi industry and provide services to increase demand for personal air travel at business airline prices,” according to a press release. Also in June, the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF) was established.

Then at the annual convention of the National Business Aviation Association in September, the Next Generation Air Mobility Coalition (NGAMC) was formed, announcing its intent to “develop public policies unique to their emerging industry.”

The associations are separate entities, with some overlapping interests. DayJet, SATSAir and Linear Air are on the policy-setting board of ATXA and make up three of the five members listed on the initial NGAMC release. Dr. Bruce J. Holmes, director of Aeronautical Research at DayJet, serves as both the chairman of the board of ATXA and NGAMC’s representative on the Early Adopters Council of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JDPO) at FAA. [Dr. Holmes declined to be interviewed for this article.]

Building A Community, Audience
“The next generation air taxi marketplace was becoming an absolute reality with all of our members beginning to fly and some of our members passing incredible milestones,” says Joe Leader, ATXA president. “I think you can mark in the history books that 2007 was the year that the next generation air taxi promise was seen by everyone to begin to become reality.”

ATXA, Leader says, is determined to bring that reality to fruition quickly.

“ATXA is focused on leading the revolution in direct, on-demand air travel at phenomenally reduced prices,” Leader continues. “Our mission is to stimulate consumer demand and other best business practices that speed the adoption of the air taxi model, or the next generation air taxi model, in a manner that benefits both the industry and our world.”

ATXA is taking it one state at a time, starting with Virginia. A core initiative is ConnectIT, an industry-neutral common portal for air taxi operators and airports to book reservations in real time. Leader says ATXA will roll the initiative out to other states throughout 2008. Other membership benefits include access to online news and discussion forums and industry discounts. And, ATXA held its first International Air Taxi Conference in late January.

“We’ve created an environment where our operators and their supporting organizations are all reaching out and working together for the birth of a new type of industry,” Leader says.

ATXA has 15 principle founding members, and another 15 founding members for a recently announced ATXA Europe.

Leader says he expects members to include air taxi operators as well as “supporting infrastructure organizations” like airports, FBOs, and service and financial providers.

“We’ve really been embraced by next generation companies that have very assertive business models that do what air taxis really need to do for mass market acceptance,” Leader says. “Which is to bring the price point down so that it’s not simply the business elite flying, it’s really more accessible to companies that value their employees’ time.”

He says that alerting people of expanded flight options by way of air taxis is a primary mission for ATXA. “The demand is there,” Leader says. “What isn’t there is the realization that this is suddenly a phenomenally viable option for so many people.”

Leader does see awareness improving, citing the 20 percent of SATSAir passengers using the service for leisure travel. “That’s a very important shift because as people realize that they can take a quick family trip within a few hundred miles at a very reasonable price, it changes the dynamics of how people can travel.

“That’s the greatest hurdle, from most customers’ perspective. This is something that they never thought they could afford that suddenly they very easily can.”

Leader says another hurdle is the environmental concern. “One of the things that people don’t realize on a per passenger basis that with the Cirrus SR22 or Eclipse 500 VLJ, it’s about as much emissions per person as your typical SUV. So it has a minimal environmental footprint.”

He says industry reception to date has been welcoming. “We’ve really been warmly received by other associations because we’re not a lobbying association,” Leader says. “We’re a membership and community-based association. So since we’re not a lobbying association, I think that’s caused the friendly embrace of our efforts. We’ve enjoyed working with both NBAA and NATA on common objectives.”

Representing the VLJs
The Next Generation Air Mobility Coalition may have a more difficult road ahead in gaining industry acceptance.

“We’re a generalized advocacy and educational organization,” explains Tom Blank, executive director of NGAMC and vice chairman of public policy company Wexler and Walker. “But certainly lobbying is one of the activities that we will be engaged in.”

NGAMC’s first order of business is focused on adoption of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Blank says that the sooner NextGen is implemented the better for NGAMC members.

“These aircraft are already equipped with the collision avoidance systems and other technologies that will allow them to operate more efficiently inside the system,” Blank says. “So what you’ve seen here is that a lot of the traditional aviation groups are supportive of NextGen, but they’re more worried about the costs and how they’re going to be divided up than the NGAMC members.

“What the NGAMC members need to have accomplished is establish and improve industry viability as soon as possible, and hook that industry viability to an expanded air traffic control capability.”

To help adopt NextGen, NGAMC is on an Early Adopters Council with the JDPO and hopes to primarily lead by example. “We want to see as many aircraft as possible that are capable of using [NextGen] get out there into the system,” Blank says. “Out of all of that we think that FAA and the Congress and the aviation community will begin to see the promise of NextGen delivered. Hopefully, in that atmosphere, we’ll see a broader consensus that we really must come together to get NextGen.”

Blank says the Early Adopters Council will also collect information on the air taxi industry’s needs and impact on the system.

NGAMC has other priorities as well. “We have some degree of concern about diminishing GA infrastructure,” Blank says. To prevent it, Blank says NGAMC hopes to get in front of local governments making decisions about the future of an airport, and present the merits of air taxis economically.

Blank says NGAMC’s goals are “complementary” to the efforts of other industry organizations. Membership is primarily made up of air taxis, manufacturers, and suppliers, but Blank says he hopes some communities will consider joining.

ASCF: An Eye on Safety
Charlie Priester, chairman of Air Charter Safety Foundation and chair of Priester Aviation, Wheeling, IL, says it was clear that now is the time to begin ACSF. He equates it to the founding of the FlightSafety Foundation, formed when airlines recognized that projected growth could lead to unacceptable accident rates in the future without positive action to prevent it.

“If we stand back and take the projected growth for charter in the next year, we’re almost in an identical situation as the airlines were back in the late ‘50s,” Priester says. ACSF will collect charter activity data beyond FAA statistics — training, auditing, safety management programs and the safety culture.

Emergency response plans for charter operators are a priority, as is standardizing a uniform auditing procedure. Another challenge facing the group, Priester says, is the variety of aircraft being flown by charter operators. “In the charter industry today there’s a pretty broad gamut,” he says.

ACSF will hold an Air Charter Safety Symposium in mid-February, and plans to hold more events in the future. Membership includes an extensive board of governors and executive committee, and is focused on Part 135 charter and Part91-Subpart K operators.

Meanwhile, Back at NATA
NATA President Jim Coyne says he’s keeping an open mind about the new associations. “We have no problem having different people to work with,” Coyne says. “We’ve worked with different associations like NBAA and AOPA and a wide range of sister organizations.”

Still, concern lingers that the new associations might be ultimately after more than what they say. “There’s some people who speculate that the goal here is to create a new part of the FAA regulations just for air taxi operators,” Coyne notes. “I would doubt that that’s going to happen. I think over time all of these different companies providing commercial air taxi service will realize that the part 135 regulations are the best place for them to be.”

“Not that it’s perfect, Lord knows.”

For the most part, the associations agree on this issue. “Part 135 works perfectly well for air taxis,” Leader at ATXA says. “But I think that there is general acceptance in the marketplace, and even in the government, that there needs to be put in place regulations that make Part 135 more efficient for air taxi utilization.”

In the meantime, industry support seems to be the main theme for the associations. “I think that we feel like the ATXA has an altogether different mission than what we’ve conceived for NGAMC,” Blank explains. “We’re always looking to partner with other organizations as appropriate where we bring complementary skill sets.”

“I can’t comment on NGAMC but we fully support their efforts,” Leader notes.

As to the coming growth of charter as a whole, Blank says, “There are all the signs of an emerging and successful industry out there.”

Comments Coyne, “There’s no doubt that just as the airlines were dominant in the 20th century, I think air charter is going to be the hugely more important transportation service in the 21st century.”