Set the Standard

Jan. 1, 2014
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

Tom Hendricks remembers his first solo flight like it was yesterday.

“It was in a Cherokee 140 in Hamilton, Ohio,” he says. “And it was completely unexpected.”

He explains he had a crusty old flight instructor who didn’t shy away from pointing out his flaws, and he had convinced himself he would never please him enough to fly solo. But on that day, his instructor stepped off the plane and told him to “keep it running.”

“The flight was fabulous and a huge confidence builder,” he says. And, that early flight filled him with a passion for aviation that never left.

Hendricks followed his heart and made aviation his career. The retired Air Force Reserve colonel and career fighter pilot, also served on active duty as a U.S. Navy officer on the USS Midway (CV-41) and as an instructor pilot at the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School. He oversaw day-to-day flight operations at Delta Air Lines as director of line operations then moved to a position as senior vice president of safety, security and operations for Airlines for America (A4A). Today he spends his time as the president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), a position he’s held since 2012.

He says, “I’m in a great place right now. I love what I’m doing and I’m able to really take advantage of my experience in aviation and help make it better.”

But he adds, if he accomplishes anything in his current role, he hopes it is to instill the same passion for aviation in young people today. “I view that as a very important responsibility of someone like myself; to make sure we reach out to young people and try to attract them to the industry,” he says.

Airport Business had a chance to sit down with Hendricks at the 2013 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition and discuss NATA’s efforts to propel the aviation industry into the future.

What do you believe are the largest issues facing the industry?

Economic uncertainties continue to be the biggest drag on NATA’s members. There is a general reluctance to make large capital investments until we have a better understanding of what the future looks like from the overall U.S. global and economic perspective. I think uncertainty continues to dampen large capital investments, which in turn drive business growth and job creation. People are very much in a wait-and-see mode.

As the federal government looks for ways to address its budgetary issues, there are those who predict general and business aviation will be targeted. What can be done to show decision-makers the importance of these segments of aviation?

The federal government is going through a rough period. The FAA gets about $16 billion from the federal government. The infrastructure is aging. That includes airports, navigational aids, runways and taxiways, and airplanes. We’ve got to keep reinvesting in this industry that creates so much value, not only for just aviation but for all businesses.

One of the challenges we have is educating Congress and the general public about the importance of all segments of the aviation economy. There is no place like the U.S. in terms of our ability to transport goods and services, the job creation, the freedom we have to fly … no other place on the planet can bring these sorts of capabilities to bear. We need to continually remind Congress and the public that we have to be careful about taking aviation for granted because it’s become ubiquitous.

What is NATA doing to tell the aviation story so everyone fully understands its importance?

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 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 success?

 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 supply of qualified personnel in the aviation industry?

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’ve got to ensure people are attracted to the industry and that we have an environment where they can get involved in learning to fly, learning to work on aircraft, learning to qualify themselves for air traffic control responsibilities, and so on. It’s a solemn responsibility for those of us who’ve been in the industry for a long time. At the same time, we’ve got to continually take opportunities to push back on regulations and legislation that works against that goal.