one on one: gary driggers

May 8, 2002

One on one: gary driggers

Incoming NATA chair discusses security, other industry issues

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

May 2002

INDIANAPOLIS - At it's annual convention here, the National Air Transportation Association named Gary Driggers its chairman. Driggers sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to talk about issues facing aviation businesses in the year ahead. Here's an edited transcript of that session.

Driggers is the vice chairman of Midcoast Aviation, a subsidiary of Sabreliner Corporation. Midcoast operates fixed base operations at Lambert International, St. Louis Downtown, and Spirit of St. Louis airports, and at Little Rock, AR.

AIRPORT BUSINESS: As you look at the year ahead, what do you see as key issues facing airports and tenants?
Driggers: I really think the agenda is going to come to us in the next year. Since the events of 9/11, there are so many unknowns, especially in the area of airport security.

I think there are a number of issues that are going to happen in the next 12 months from the FAA, from [the TSA], that we're going to have to address and make sure we have a very proactive approach and make sure that we don't wind up being overly regulated by some knee-jerk reaction.
AB: What changes related to security have you implemented at Midcoast Aviation since 9/11?
Driggers: We basically locked down our facility, making sure that people who needed access had access.

We took all of the vehicles off of the ramp, except for those that needed to be there - fuel trucks, tugs. At a couple of our airports where there's no commercial service and security is more relaxed than Lambert International, we tried to put into effect those same types of things that we do at our category X airport. One of the things that we did at all of our facilities is we had signs printed up that stated that this is a secure area, you will be scrutinized, that access will only be granted to those who need it. We kind of deputized all of our employees to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.

One of the things that I'm concerned about is to make sure that we don't turn our businesses and our industry into armed camps. We can't forget why people use personal and business aircraft; there's a big convenience factor. Otherwise, we have just gone out and unnecessarily destroyed an industry.
AB: There remain concerns about access to the system via general aviation airports as well.
Driggers: It's hard to argue with the logic that the primary focus is to be as locked down as an airline airport. I personally don't think the threat's as great. Can we stop every student that gets into an airplane from doing something like happened in Tampa? Of course not. You're never going to have 100 percent lockdown.

I'm glad I don't have the Secret Service's job; they've got a big mission. I don't blame them for being nervous and gun shy, but we need to help educate rather than argue. We need to teach them what we know about our business to understand that it's not as dangerous as maybe they perceive it to be. But from the outside looking in I can see where it's a concern. The easiest thing to solve anything is to overshoot the problem, cover up everything.
AB: Government and industry are working to reopen Washington Reagan National Airport to general aviation. Do you see a potential that processes put into place at DCA could become a template from the government for other airports?
Driggers: The precedent-setting nature of what we might do at National is something we need to keep our eye on. We need to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that whatever regs are put into place are not overly oppressive. We have to understand the use at National that we had in the past is gone.

A couple of years ago the FAA's philosophy was, such as with the fractional regulatory debate, that they really wanted the input of industry. Help us understand what we ought to do. We have got to do that same procedure; we've got to gain that confidence [with TSA]. Let us work with you on what the best possible course of action might be, rather than have it come unilaterally from some source that really doesn't understand our business. We [NATA] represent everybody from ultralights on grass strips to companies servicing 747s.

The one thing that I think might be getting lost is the amount of self-regulation that we do on a daily basis. Since 9/11 we've done more. I don't think there's an appreciation for what we do every day, for the most part, and I don't think we're getting enough credit. An unsafe operation, an irresponsible operation, is not going to be the quintessential way to run a business. There's an awful lot of thought process that goes into doing it right, and most people do it right.

As a former corporate pilot, I don't know of any pilot that takes the responsibility for safety and their passengers for granted.
AB: What about the current debate regarding the I.N.S. and flight training?
Driggers: I did some flight training after coming out of the military, so I'm very sensitive to the needs of flight training. I think the need for flight training is greater than its ever been. We're going to wind up with a severe shortage in some form in this industry, whether its pilots or technicians. The pilots can make the whole thing come to a halt in a hurry.

People can come from anywhere in the world to this country and get a degree in nuclear physics or in medicine or how to fly an aircraft or how to drive a truck. One of the great things of this country is the ability to have such a high level of institutions of learning that people from all over the world want to come here.
AB: What about the capacity issue that was so prevalent a year ago?
Driggers: There are certain things that will become limiting factors to our industry: lack of places to put airplanes down is certainly one; lack of pilots is another. Along with adequate people to operate air traffic control, but in my mind there are ways around air traffic control - free flight, RVSM, other things that will allow us to tackle capacity once we're in the air. I'm convinced that there's a lot more room up there than we allow ourselves to use; we've just got to find out how to use it more expeditiously. I'm not so sure there's a lot more room on the ground. New runways, new taxiways are paramount.
AB: What about another hot issue, insurance?
Driggers: We had a Global Express in for some work, and it was pointed out to me that the outboard leading edge without the labor to install it costs more than the helicopter I flew in Vietnam. Now, how many of those things do you think we need to ding before the insurance companies have to react? We're going to have to help our members learn what the insurance companies want us to do to become more insurable. We've got to reduce the exposure rate.

One of my big agendas [as chair] is something I believe strongly in: the NATA Safety 1st program. We're instilling with this program a sense of pride in people. Since we implemented Safety 1st, we've got sessions where employees get together and share ideas. They're thinking more about safety. We went to a system where all of our line personnel wear a whistle; somebody who does this for a living figured out that the sound that a whistle makes is not duplicated by anything else on a ramp. When you hear a whistle, you stop tugging. It's so simple, yet it really works. We haven't had a serious line towing incident since we started wearing the whistles.

The vests you see highway workers wearing; well, one of our guys came up with the idea to wear them on the line. As a pilot, one of the hardest things you ever do comes on a rainy night somewhere and you try to see the line service guy with a wand. They wear these vests now, with the NATA Safety 1st logo on them which they wanted. Our line service people jump out at you like a billboard.