On Funding, ATC, Ground Services

The aviation services sector will meet in Orlando in March at the annual NATA convention and Aviation Industry Expo. Here's a look at the key issues on the docket via an interview with NATA president Jim Coyne.

DALLAS — The National Air Transportation Association meets in March for its annual meeting, which has been restructured to reflect changes in membership over the past decade. Besides key business management issues on the agenda, a host of industry issues will be discussed. At the top of the issues agenda, says NATA president James Coyne, are how the aviation system will be funded after FY07; the future of the air traffic control system; changes in FAR Part 135 regulations (see page 30); and, the ongoing debate of who provides services at airports — private companies or airports themselves.

During the association's recent committee meetings held in Dallas in February, Coyne in an interview related that the dramatic increase in charter and consolidation among the fixed based operator segment of NATA's membership have caused the group to rethink its annual convention. As a result, the annual meeting in March has been repackaged into the FBO Leadership Conference, with a pre-conference FBO/Airport Symposium, co-sponsored by the American Association of Airport Executives.

The leadership conference will focus more on business management issues for airport-based businesses. Part 135 air taxi firms will now have a new air charter summit of their own, scheduled for later this spring. At the same time, NATA is pushing for more membership among airports, particularly general aviation facilities, and plans to name an airport manager to its Board of Directors for the first time ever.

Explains Coyne,"We want to try and give our members a more customized annual meeting experience. There's been a fair amount of specialization over the past 20 years. There are probably only about 50 of our members who have both an FBO and a charter certificate.

"We want to reach out to the airport operators and to build an airport-centric convention around the FBOs. The Air Charter Summit will focus on the Part 135 operators; the charter issues are really big issues this year, especially with the operational control issue."

Consolidation in the FBO sector has also been a primary driver."There are now close to 25 chains," says Coyne,"and even some of the chains have been consolidated. In the 13 years since I've been [president of NATA], there are probably a hundred privately held FBOs that are now parts of chains. That's a significant consolidation.

"We want to try and get the FBO managers focusing on the FBO leadership; general managers are a target too, especially with the chains. We want to bring in that degree of professional management assistance."

The User Fee Debate
In early February, the Bush Administration released its preliminary FY2008 budget, which goes into effect October 1st of this year. In that budget was an Administration proposal to restructure how the aviation trust fund is funded. While at press time the DOT and FAA had not clearly delineated exact details of the proposal, it's expected to reflect much of what the airlines and the Air Transport Association have been proposing — primarily, new user fees for business aviation.

Central to the debate is FAA's assertion that the current funding mechanisms are inadequate for meeting the needs of the system long term. However, former DOT Inspector General Ken Mead, who earned a reputation for candor in his studies of DOT/FAA activities, also came out with a report in which he maintains the current system is adequate. Comments Coyne,"I don't think there's any doubt about it."

Coyne says that FAA is under pressure from the Administration to get a handle on operational costs. One obstacle here, he says, is air traffic controller salaries."I can see the White House's argument that the operation budget at FAA is out of control," he says."FAA is trying to deal with it but they're not dealing with it head on. They're coming at it obliquely, because they know that if they confront the controllers head on with these issues of productivity and salaries, especially after the brutal renegotiation of last year and now with the Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, they can't win the argument."

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