A Bigger Tent for All Business Fliers

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What comes to mind when you think of the National Business Aviation Association? If you say the NBAA represents traditional corporate flight departments with full-time professional pilots flying turbine-powered aircraft, you would be correct. At least that describes the core of the NBAA. But Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the hugely successful association, says that picture has to change.

The way Bolen sees it, a conventional business flight department just can't effectively lobby in Washington against the airlines and other groups that want to burden business flying with new restrictions and costs. That's why he wants anybody and everybody who flies any type of aircraft to band together under the NBAA banner to promote and protect the business of flying for business.

The NBAA was born in 1946 and officially founded in 1947 as the Corporation Aircraft Owners Association. The formation of the association grew out of a crisis not unrecognizable from today's conditions -- a dire shortage of airport and airway capacity to handle both airliners and "independent" airplanes, as business airplanes were labeled by the news media at the time. The Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers cited one bad-weather winter day when only 69 of 175 scheduled arrivals at La Guardia actually landed and just 52 of 175 scheduled departures actually took off, to note the scope of the problem. And every prediction was that conditions would only grow worse with rapid expansion of both airline and independent fleets.

The founding companies of the association were major corporations who had the resources to operate their own airplanes. Many of the names of the companies attending the original meetings are familiar still -- General Electric, BF Goodrich, Corning Glass, Bristol-Meyers, and so on. These companies feared they would be squeezed out of the airway and air traffic system that was in the process of transitioning from one built and owned by the airlines to a national system under the control of the CAA, the predecessor of the FAA. And airport capacity was stretched to the limit at major cities and the airlines were not eager to share runway space.

The new association's efforts paid off and business aircraft gained equal access to the new rapidly expanding air traffic control system and network of airports. Threats to airspace access reoccurred over the years with restrictions on unscheduled operations at major airports such as Washington National, O'Hare and La Guardia, but the NBAA was instrumental in keeping those airports open to business aircraft crews who made reservations for slots. When all of general aviation IFR flying was restricted following the firing of the air traffic controllers, NBAA helped keep the system open to the high flying turbine airplanes its members operate while much greater restrictions fell on the piston airplanes at the lower altitudes. And NBAA has been effective in minimizing restrictions on business airplanes following the September 11 attacks.

From the beginning the association was very specific about what was a business airplane and what wasn't. Companies that operated only single-engine airplanes were not allowed in. And private pilots didn't qualify, either. Member companies needed to have professional pilots with commercial licenses. The association was determined to set corporate flying apart from the rest of general aviation.

Though some of the early leaders of NBAA may have just been plain snooty about light airplanes, the real reason for the focus on state of the art equipment and pilot qualification was safety. The accident record for both business and airline flying in the late 1940s and 1950s was abysmal compared to the past 20 or 30 years, and if corporate aviation were ever to fulfill its goal of becoming an efficient tool of business it needed to have the best possible safety record. It would be impossible to rank airport and airspace access ahead of safety as the major objectives of the association because both are paramount.

Again, the NBAA has succeeded in helping to make corporate aviation very safe and essentially on par with the airlines. Operators who abide by NBAA guidelines and use only full-time professional pilots who train regularly at recognized schools always have a better safety record than others flying the same type of airplanes. The NBAA, and the business jet industry, typically parses the accident statistics to show the "corporate" safety record versus "private or business" flying, or charter, and the corporate is always better. And there is no comparison of the corporate safety record to the rest of general aviation because the gulf in safety is so great.

NBAA and industry have also worked together to promote business flying with hugely successful meetings and conventions around the world where operators gather to examine the latest the manufacturers have to offer. Income from its tradeshows has made the NBAA a very well-funded association, but it's not a one-way street because the industry has benefited from the concentrated gathering of prospects to sell its wares, and all are helped by the lobbying success the association has had to help protect business flying interests.

Though the association has grown beyond anything the visionaries who gathered at a New York hotel in 1946 could have ever imagined, Bolen says it is not enough. In fact, he believes that many of the very core principles of the NBAA are now working against it in the current fight with the airlines over assessing user fees on all who fly in the system. The way Bolen sees it, the very success of the big companies at the core of the NBAA -- at least the impression that big companies are the core -- works against all of business flying when lobbying Congress. Actually, companies who operate a single airplane outnumber the traditional big corporate flight departments on the NBAA membership roles, but that is not the perception either in aviation, or in government.

The problem with this big company perception is that no entity in the country, other than maybe Congress itself, is less admired by the public than big corporations. We all want to root for the little guy, and GE, IBM, Exxon Mobil and the like just aren't sympathetic. For Bolen to appear before Congress to explain why these companies can't afford to pay new fees to fly their multi-million dollar jets in the ATC system just doesn't work. And with oil companies as NBAA members the problem is even worse. And the airlines know it. That's why in their advertisements they use Exxon Mobil as the specific example of why fat cats in their jets should pay more. With reports of Exxon Mobil's record profits, and a new price posted at the pump daily, Congress can only win points by beating up on the company and its flight department.

The only way Bolen can see to modify this situation is to bring everybody who flies for business under the NBAA tent. There are thousands of small companies and entrepreneurs who operate airplanes as a tool in their business. These small businesses or partnerships create jobs and help grow the economy, and using airplanes is key. While the big corporations may span the globe in their jets to manage giant diverse enterprises, the more common use of a business airplane is to fly around a compact region that is not served by the airlines. Typical business flights last about one hour and 15 minutes. And these small companies are not despised by the public, and thus are listened to in Congress. As Bolen points out, every Congressional district has many business aviation-related jobs including the companies that use airplanes, plus the FBOs and others that support their flying.

Bolen is a zealot on this issue, but I'm glad not to be in his shoes. I understand why NBAA needs to move away from dominance by traditional corporate flight departments, but I wonder if the whole range of business aircraft operators can fit under one roof. It makes me think of a club where the golfing members resent the tennis players who also think too much of their money goes into the swimming pool. Clearly NBAA has had enormous success with its focus on turbine airplanes flown to the highest possible standards and that success could be at risk if Bolen's dream comes true.

But Bolen says the public has already lumped us together. When a non-airline airplane comes to the public's attention because it is making noise overhead, has crashed, or is taking the runway ahead of an airliner, nobody cares whether that airplane is a charter, business or corporate flight. That's hard to argue with. Even a Gulfstream is nothing but a "little airplane" to the news media and the public. And it's a given that anybody in any non-airline airplane is wealthy, at least in the public's perception.

To make Bolen's vision of all business aircraft operators gathering under the NBAA banner come true the association is increasing its advertising and direct mail promotions, and it will hold its first Light Business Airplane Exhibition & Conference in San Diego next March 12 to 14. Only companies can join NBAA, but any size or type of company or professional partnership qualifies. And those companies can operate any type of aircraft for business purposes, including piston singles. Dues are modest and scaled by the size and type of your operation.

Maybe the big traditional flight departments can coexist with individual business airplane operators. Perhaps NBAA can help to elevate the professionalism and safety of the businessman pilot. I hope so. But no matter what happens, it's impossible to disagree with Bolen on the key point -- everybody who flies for business already faces the same risks of denial to airport and airspace access that caused the NBAA to be formed in the first place. If you want to join, go to nbaa.org.