Strategies, options & perspectives

 - July 25, 2007, 5:23 AM

Our community will face greater change in the next 10 years than we experienced in the last 50. We will see new communications, navigation and surveillance equipment, as well as changes in piloting requirements and procedures. A new class of very light jets (VLJs) will emerge, and owner pilots will be operating them in airspace previously the pur-view of professionals. Most significant, however, will be fundamental changes in our nation’s air transportation system.

When there is an opportunity to shape the future, we must be sufficiently involved to be heard. Conversely, we need to discern those situations where change will happen in spite of our input. In all cases, we have no choice but to make the most of the situations we face.

Consider DRVSM, a development in which the force of change was overwhelming. When the FAA first proposed DRVSM several years ago, many operators argued against the new standard. Some said compliance would cost too much; others felt it was unsafe; and some said there was no need for packing aircraft closer together. Many expected the FAA to yield, or at least bend. They believed the compliance date would slip, or that there would be sufficient loopholes so non-compliant operators would escape being unduly disadvantaged.

But the FAA prevailed, as knowledgeable industry experts said it would, and all who expect to operate from FL290 through FL410 must be RVSM certified by next January 20. Operators who hoped for some reprieve are not only disappointed; they are also facing delays due to busy maintenance shops and backed-up FAA paperwork.

Many of the challenges facing business aviation are known. For example, terrain avoidance warning systems (TAWS) must be installed in turbine aircraft by the end of next March. Operators who fly in Europe face a number of equipment requirements associated with mode-S surveillance. All providers of fractional ownership must comply with FAR Part 91 Subpart K or Part 135 by the middle of next February.

The most challenging changes, however, are those that have yet to surface as regulations. With some imagination, as well as a realistic look at what has happened in the recent past, we can make assumptions about what lies ahead.

Regulations that surfaced in Europe, such as RVSM and tighter demands on required navigation performance, have migrated to the Western side of the Atlantic. With the formation of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Americans should assume that Europe will play an increasing role in shaping the way congested airspace is managed. Time will tell whether EASA will be a dominant player in establishing other standards, such as certification criteria for aircraft. It behooves the U.S. business aviation community to keep a close watch on what is happening in Europe, and to urge the FAA to maintain its rightful place in the pantheon of aviation gurus who design the rules under which we operate.

As mentioned earlier, the most profound change involves our nation’s approach to aviation as an essential form of transportation. Since January the FAA, in conjunction with NASA and DOT, Department of Commerce and TSA, has been engaged in an effort to devise a national air transportation policy. Working through a newly created group known as the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), the best and the brightest in government have reached out to the aviation community to explore the potential role of aviation over the next 20 years. The JPDO’s mission is to provide the Administration, by December, a statement of policy on air transportation and a plan for benefiting our nation through an optimum application of civil aviation resources.

Several themes have emerged, the most profound being that our nation’s reliance on the traditional “hub and spoke” model of the legacy airlines is unable to serve the public’s demand for business travel. In the words of those engaged in studying network phenomena, the system is not scalable. Adding bigger aircraft or more flights to ever larger hubs simply exacerbates the problem so well known to today’s airline traveler, where the average door-to-door speed for a typical 500-mile trip is less than 90 mph.

A solution that is emerging focuses on the wide use of smaller aircraft, such as VLJs, in a highly distributed network of service providers offering on-demand transportation (and possibly scheduled flights) to smaller general aviation airports, bypassing hubs altogether. NASA technologies developed as part of the agency’s Small Aircraft Transportation System are designed to facilitate high-volume operations to GA airports that currently have neither low approach minimums nor control towers.

Knowledgeable experts such as Robert Crandall and Don Burr (founder of PeopleExpress Airlines) think such a transportation model is feasible initially using the Adam A700. Others also agree that VLJs fitted with SATS technology can create a new dimension to air travel. In many ways, a future on-demand transportation system such as Crandall and Burr envision offers the capabilities of business aviation to a wider segment of the travel market, which adds validity to what we in business aviation have long advocated–that our form of transportation has immense value.

A significant challenge facing our community is understanding how an emerging small aircraft transportation system employing VLJs would affect our operations. Such is the role of strategic planning, where the first step is accepting the fact that change is coming.