Terrorism takes toll on the flow of new pilots

 - October 3, 2007, 9:29 AM

Some flight schools have gone out of business since September 11 though the actual number is elusive.  A National Air Transportation Association spokesman said a member survey taken two weeks after the terrorist attacks yielded shocking results. NATA’s membership conservatively lost between $300 million and $500 million during the period when all flight instruction and VFR flying were  banned. “One member estimates his company’s losses at $50 million,” he told AIN.

“Before September 11, our flight instruction program averaged between $6,000 and $10,000 a day,” Phil Poynor, vice president and general manager of Farmingdale,
N.Y.-based Nassau Flyers, said. “Afterwards we dropped below $100 a day until the resumption of operations on October 13.”  He explained that the $1.6 million annual operation historically makes its money from April through October. “Losing September and October was devastating,” he said. “If flight schools go out of business it’ll be because our own government won’t sit down and talk to us. Driving a bunch of legitimate businesses bankrupt isn’t going to help stop terrorism.”

Ed Farrell, managing director of Long Island Flight Training, also located at Farmingdale Republic Airport, said his company lost about 35 percent of its business. “We’ve had several students quit, and inquiries have dropped to zero,” he said. “We had Small Business Administration and FEMA loans offered to us, but we’ve taken a big financial hit. We don’t need a loan, we need a grant.” Republic Airport was closed for more than a week, according to Farrell.

In Salt Lake City, Larry Wright explained airspace restrictions shut down his charter operation for three days. “We lost about $6,000 a day,” he said. Wright owns American Aviation, which also operates a flight school. “The flight instruction program lost about $2,500 a day for 13 days. We’ll recover, but it will take at least two profitable years to make it up.” He said his student enrollment remains fairly constant because his company does flight training for the Salt Lake Community College flight program. Generally speaking, academic institutions have a built-in buffer in terms of student enrollment.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., typifies most academic flight programs in that its student enrollment has been only minimally affected. ERAU was mistakenly identified in the initial days after September 11 as having graduated one of the hijackers. It was reported, also incorrectly, to have a large population of foreign students.

According to Chancellor Tom Connolly, there’s a misconception about ERAU’s foreign student population. “Only about 12 percent of our students are from out of the country, which is typical for U.S. universities. Most of them are enrolled in engineering technology or maintenance training. Only about 2 percent of our flight students are foreign, and out of that perhaps half a dozen are from the Middle East.” Connolly said student enrollment has stayed constant. “The only effect seems to have been that about nine of our Middle Eastern students have withdrawn because their families want them back home until things settle down. They’ve all said they want to return.”

Perhaps the only common denominator across the country is everyone’s desire to head off future terrorist attacks, but the methods in use or being discussed are as diverse as there are fertile imaginations in positions of authority. One of AIN’s staff members, a flight instructor, received a telephone call from his state police asking if he had any suspicious contacts. No one else interviewed around the country had heard of that happening, though flight schools are a different matter.

Many flight schools, ranging from mom-‘n’-pop operations to university professional pilot programs, have been subjected to FBI and local law-enforcement inspection of records, interviews and other precautionary measures. Throughout the FAA there’s talk of stricter controls over pilot training for all candidates, especially foreign students. Congress has been discussing the idea of requiring all flight students to pay for a criminal background check before they can begin training. The CIA and FBI would review the information gathered.

But Phil Boyer, president of AOPA, among others, has taken a strong stance against such measures. “It was the failure of those very government agencies already tasked with checking the backgrounds of people entering the U.S. that permitted the terrorists’ entrance into the country,” he said. “Such legislation as written would penalize an entire industry that has no direct responsibility for who is allowed to enter the country. The financial burden of a background check will cause many of those with an interest in learning to fly simply not to try at all.”

Background checks notwithstanding, the questionable future of the national airspace itself may stifle enthusiasm for learning to fly.

It would be nice to be able to explain the intricacies of operating in enhanced Class B airspace and areas of temporary flight restrictions (TFR), but the reality of the situation is that the rules change often and ambiguity reigns. It was impossible to find anyone in the FAA who would say with unquestioned authority what can and cannot be done. Everyone simply pointed to the published notams without the offer of any interpretation.

In fact, many in the industry suggest off the record that TFRs were drafted by the National Security Council and handed to the FAA to implement. Whatever their origin, if you talk to pilots actually operating in New York, you’re going to hear a different story from what you will get from someone in Denver or Los Angeles. It seems that a good relationship with your local FSDO and ATC facility can be more important than your ability to read the notams. Take the plight of the business jet pilots based at an airport within enhanced Class B airspace or in a TFR.

Within the industry there appears to be consensus regarding currency flights and the no-flight-instruction provision: provided the crew is current at the time of the flight, flying touch-and-goes does not qualify as “training” per se and is therefore not under training flight restrictions.

It is important to understand no one from the FAA would confirm or deny that opinion, yet there are pilots doing it in some areas around the country while others are being denied elsewhere. Before any flight within enhanced Class B airspace that could possibly be interpreted as instructional, including touch-and-goes for currency, it is recommended that you contact your local FSDO and get their input.

The horror stories abound. Poynor said, “Farmingdale is in the New York area and we have had to deal with three TFRs. We’re within the original 25-nautical-mile TFR centered on JFK. Then recently the FAA activated a lesser 18-nautical-mile TFR centered on JFK. We’re 17.3 nautical miles from Kennedy but they cut a keyhole so that we’re just outside the 18-nautical-mile TFR, but our outer marker falls right on the line, adding even more confusion. Finally, there’s also the original three-nautical-mile TFR over Manhattan. Just try to figure out how to comply with the different sets of requirements.”

According to Farrell, at Farmingdale, which is in New York’s enhanced Class B airspace, there are no VFR operations allowed. Yet in Salt Lake City’s enhanced Class B airspace, Wright reports that VFR solo flights have been allowed for some time, but no non-instructional VFR flights are permitted. He said if you find yourself VFR outside the airspace on a non-instructional flight, you either have to divert elsewhere or file IFR. Ironically, if you tell ATC on the radio you’re an instructional flight then you can get in. It ends up being an honor system.

At one point it was estimated that the prohibition of VFR flight within the boundaries of the 30 enhanced Class B airspace zones had grounded as many as 41,000 aircraft. It is also estimated that as many as 30,000 flight students and more than 2,500 flight-training operations across the nation have been affected by the various restrictions.

After six weeks, VFR pilots trapped at 27 airports in enhanced Class B airspace were allowed to depart to another destination. The notam authorizing the flights stipulated that pilots were required to operate their aircraft in a “normal manner and avoid circling or loitering.” Release of aircraft at the remaining three ECB-restricted areas (New York City, Washington and Boston) was still being sought at press time.

As if there wasn’t enough confusion, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has once again proven to be a foe to general aviation. Already at odds with the city’s aviation community because he wants to shut down Meigs Field in the city’s business and financial district, Daley has fired another salvo at general aviation.

He issued an edict that there will be no flight training at any of the Chicago-owned airports. While O’Hare and Meigs don’t have flight training, Midway, the city’s central airport, has several long-time flight schools that are in serious financial trouble at this point. Daley remains mum about when, or even if, the restriction will be lifted.
Local pilots were reluctant to be quoted, fearing they would incur Daley’s wrath, but they had strong opinions on the subject. “Something has to change,” one individual said. “There’s no VFR or IFR flight training. Midway is funded by federal grants, and that requires the city to abide by federal rules and not discriminate against one class of operator.”

Perhaps the most chilling effect will prove to be that in one 24-hr period the industry went from an “airlines vigorously hiring” mode to a “vigorously laying off” mode. Historically, when the airlines aren’t hiring, new student starts are depressed. And everyone from the airlines to the OEMs is laying off personnel.

Boeing will cut approximately 12,000 employees from its commercial airplanes division by December 14 in what it calls the “first round of layoffs” prompted by the terrorist attacks. Approximately one-fourth will be through attrition, retirement and the laying off of contract employees. Two more waves will pare off as many as 18,000 more.

The $15 billion federal airline bailout money will solve short-term financial problems, but it will not prevent about 100,000 layoffs and the cancellation of an estimated 20 percent of all scheduled flights. The burning issue is whether customers will return in sufficient numbers.

Meanwhile, airline pilots have begun to flood the market. Ted Hobson, president of www.aviationemployment.com, a Web site where individuals can log on and search for available aviation jobs worldwide, stressed, “Remember, this business is cyclical. There is always going to be  demand for air travel.” He suggested this cycle was artificially induced by the terrorists, but he is confident people will start flying again. He stopped short of predicting when.

“Many of those on furlough will eventually be hired back, though some will leave aviation for good. The truth is that the industry was slowing down before September 11. Hiring pretty much peaked last summer and was slowing down. Interestingly, we’ve seen a slight increase in charter demand, probably due to airline schedule reduction. I suspect that will flatten out again once the public feels confident and gets back to flying the airlines.”

Hobson also pointed out that many regional airlines haven’t laid anyone off. “Routes that were suddenly unprofitable for 200-to 300- seat airliners were suddenly open and profitable for the lower seating density of regional aircraft,” he said.

When asked if it was likely corporate aviation would turn to furloughed airline pilots rather than hiring from within its own ranks, Hobson suggested it was unlikely. “You have to remember the critical thing about airline pilots: everyone knows they’re going back to the airlines the first chance they get. Few companies will be penny-wise and pound-foolish. You spend a lot of money fitting a new pilot into a flight department, and it’s not cost effective if they leave a year or two later.”

Stetson Orchard, director of The Crew Network of Jupiter, Fla., agreed. “My impression is that corporate aviation believes airline pilots don’t have any incentive to stay here. I think most flight departments will be reluctant to hire them. However, some corporate pilots who may have had excessively high salary demands based on the airline hiring frenzy have probably dropped back to a more realistic salary expectation. Taking that corporate job looks a lot better today than it did two months ago.”