Set the Standard

NATA President Tom Hendricks shares his thoughts on what it will take for the United States to continue to set the gold standard for aviation. Commitment, education, improvements and funding all play a role in U.S. aviation’s continued success

We are very coordinated with other aviation associations including AAAE, NBAA, AOPA, GAMA, HAI, EAA; all groups that have a slightly different constituency than us. We take advantage of every chance we have to raise the profile of aviation in any venue we’re offered. It is our duty that the public and lawmakers know the importance of aviation to the economy. One example, I routinely use is from my prior life, as the director of line operations at Delta. In 2006 they decided to open up service to Africa. I was responsible for making sure we could fly safely in Africa because we didn’t have any experience there. I sent teams into Africa, I went there myself several times, and I flew the inaugural flight out of Lagos Nigeria to Atlanta. I tell people: If you want to see what the world looks like without a vibrant aviation system go to Africa. You’ll see businesses and general aviation aircraft in larger cities but they are largely devoid elsewhere. It’s a real economic constraint. People can’t move goods and services efficiently. They don’t have the means we have here in the U.S. to grow their businesses, because the infrastructure is just not there. I try to draw that contrast to show that what we have in America is a fully developed mature transportation system and we can’t take that for granted. We’ve got to continue to invest in it.


In November, Congress gave final approval to a bill that requires the FAA to streamline the certification methods for smaller general aviation aircraft, advancing an initiative that should reduce the cost of upgrading existing aircraft and bringing new aircraft to market. Can you discuss why this move was absolutely critical to general aviation’s future?

We have the safest most comprehensive air transportation system in the world and we’ve all played a role in that—industry, government, labor, regulators, Congress. But technology is evolving so rapidly that we were missing opportunities to improve safety performance because our certification processes remained in a legacy mindset. We needed to break free from that … so we don’t have this very bureaucratic process preventing us from bringing new safety enhancing technologies to bear. We don’t want the U.S to lose its competitive edge. We don’t want to lose our position as the gold standard throughout the world of aviation.


Can you talk about the importance of maintaining our infrastructure and what you feel is most needed?

We have to keep investing in airport infrastructure. We’ve got to keep investing in NAVAIDS. We’ve got to modernize our air traffic system. We have a very safe and stable, yet old, air traffic system. It’s very complex. Our air traffic controllers do a fabulous job of managing air traffic across the U.S. It’s very safe. But our legacy equipment is getting older and more expensive to maintain. We’re seeing other parts of the world that never had the ability to conduct operations like we do leap-frogging over us. China, Australia and other areas of the world are embracing next generation technologies. We have got to invest [in these technologies] and show there are benefits to these investments. We don’t have any choice but to modernize the air traffic system in the U.S. It’s an important infrastructure. There’s also an airport piece to this. If we get those two right, you’re going to see capital investment return in aircraft that are equipped with modern avionics to take advantage of the modernized infrastructure.


Do you have any concerns about the industry supply of qualified personnel?

Yes, I do have concerns about the supply of pilots and people in all trades of aviation from air traffic controllers and mechanics to people working on the ramp. We’ve got to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that these positions enable commerce throughout the world. We’ve got to attract young people to this profession so that it continues to grow and prosper throughout the future.

The FAA rule on pilot flight time causes me great concern. I think a rule that assigns an arbitrary number of flight hours to pilot qualification is flawed. In my 40 years of flying, my experience has been that the quality of the training is the most important factor in whether someone is qualified to fly in a commercial environment. The FAA missed the mark on the rule by assigning an arbitrary number of hours. We should focus more, like other parts of the world are, on the type, structure and quality of the training pilots are provided, rather than an arbitrary number.

I think we are going to have to come back and revisit that FAA rule in the future because we’re going to see a big challenge to fill the flight decks of commercial aircraft. That’s going to transfer down into other segments of aviation as pilots try to work their way up. I’ve got concerns about other segments as well. We’re seeing companies have a difficult time attracting aircraft maintenance technicians. We’ve got to be very thoughtful when we propose legislation that drives regulation like this.


What can be done to attract people to the industry?

We Recommend