When terrorists plunged their hijacked airliners into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon last month, it had an immediate effect on business aircraft owners and operators, and will likely have a profound influence for years to come.
When the attacks began on the morning of September 11, dozens of business jets were en route to the U.S. from departure points around the globe, and hundreds of domestic flights were either in the air or preparing to take off.
At New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, one of the nation’s most active business aviation airfields, onlookers had a front-row view of the terror.
According to Doug Shaw, president of Atlantic Aviation Flight Services at Teterboro, the FBO’s lobby was jammed with crews and passengers that morning. But the first to take note of the disaster were workers atop Atlantic Aviation’s new hangar. They began screaming and pointing toward the Manhattan skyline, where black smoke was already beginning to smear the clear blue sky behind the 110-story towers. When the second aircraft hit, said Shaw, it was instantly clear that what they were witnessing was a terrorist attack.
Atlantic, like many East Coast FBOs, was in the midst of its usual morning scramble, with passengers arriving for the start of the workday and others departing for destinations around the globe. “The first thing we did was secure the airplanes,” said Shaw. “Then we locked down two of our three gates and called in extra security guards.”
One pilot said, “It was a pilot’s worst nightmare come to life, and you can’t wake up.”
FAA Closes Airports and National Airspace
The gates at Atlantic weren’t the only thing locked down. At 9:25 a.m. EDT the FAA’s National Command Center in Virginia ordered all aircraft in the U.S. to a ground stop, and further ordered that all airborne aircraft “land immediately at the nearest suitable landing facility, regardless of destination.” The decision grounded the nation’s fleet of some 14,000 business aircraft, and hundreds of others bound for U.S. destinations from abroad were diverted.
Canada quickly followed the U.S. lead and at 10 a.m. Transport Minister David Collenette ordered the shutdown of Canadian airports. At the same time, the Canadian aviation system prepared to accept aircraft diverting from their original destination following the U.S. airspace shutdown. As of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, more than 150 international flights originally headed to U.S. cities were on the ground in Canada, including 44 in Halifax, 37 at Gander, 35 at Vancouver and 27 at St. John’s.
Some 30 transient aircraft were grounded at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, a 30-min drive north of New York City. According to assistant airport manager Peter Scherrer, another 30 airplanes based at Westchester County were en route to that airport but were grounded elsewhere when ordered to land.
Ironically, the airport had scheduled a disaster drill September 22. The drill was canceled.
At Teterboro, more than 100 business aircraft were grounded. At Jet Aviation’s operation alone, 20 of its own aircraft were grounded, along with 30 transient airplanes.
With the grounding and closure of airspace and hundreds of aircrew and passengers stranded, FBO staff, fractional program managers and on-demand charter operators scrambled to find hotel space and ground transportation for their clients.
“Some of the aircraft were close enough to their destination to land there when the FAA began ordering the aircraft grounded,” said Gary Hoffman, senior v-p for Executive Jet in Columbus, Ohio. “Others weren’t so lucky and whenever it was possible we helped make arrangements for them to continue by land,” Hoffman told AIN. “They depend on us to make things happen for them, and if we can’t accommodate them, then our responsibility is to create options.” And so they did, making telephones and e-mail Internet connections available, arranging for hotel accommodations, booking rental cars and arranging for other ground transportation by bus and rail.
NBAA Web Site Keeps Bizav Informed
The National Business Aviation Association put its considerable Internet and Web site resources online less than an hour after the first 767 burst through the side of the North Tower.
The Washington-based association regularly monitors CNN, and moments after seeing the second aircraft slam into the South Tower, NBAA air traffic control representative Robert Lamond went directly to the FAA command center in Herndon, Va. By 10 a.m. NBAA was publishing situation updates on the half-hour on its public Web site. At its own headquarters, the association was helping facilitate lifeguard flights and with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) was establishing a link with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross to determine how its members might help with rescue and relief.
But even as it was providing information directly related to the terrorist attack and the subsequent government actions, NBAA was faced with a less tragic but no less real crisis of its own. The association’s premier event and major source of revenue, the annual meeting and convention, was scheduled to begin on September 18 in New Orleans. Nearly 5,000 booth spaces had been sold to more than 1,000 exhibitors, and attendance was expected to reach nearly 30,000. Some U.S.-based exhibitors already had crews and equipment in place or en route to New Orleans.
The association’s first reaction was one of stubborn refusal to bow in the face of terrorist threats. Said Olcott the day after the attacks, “The city has told us it is open and the convention center said it is open and NBAA is welcome. The convention will go on as planned.”
But it became obvious as the day wore on that in light of the scope of the tragedy and the extent of the emergency steps being taken, NBAA’s board of directors would have to reconsider that initial position. Dozens of exhibitors, large and small, called to say they had key executives stranded all over the world, with no idea when they might be able to resume their travel. Others pointed out that customers, a vital ingredient to any trade show, were in the same bind and that attendance was likely to suffer. By Wednesday afternoon, the day after the attack, it was obvious that if the show did go on, it would be without a growing number of major players.
One of the first to opt out of the convention was Jet Aviation, a major provider of business aircraft maintenance, refurb and completions, on-demand charter and FBO services. A spokesman, obviously shaken, said the West Palm Beach, Fla. company felt it was appropriate under the conditions to focus its efforts on support of its existing customers. He noted that one of these customers, with offices in the World Trade Center, believed it might have lost as many as 1,000 employees when the two towers collapsed. Jet Aviation urged NBAA to reconsider its decision to continue as scheduled with the convention.
Nor was Jet Aviation alone. Cessna Aircraft announced it would cancel its participation in the convention, and that it would be “reallocating its resources for humanitarian relief.” TAG Aviation USA also announced it would not participate, as did Gulfstream, Raytheon and Bombardier.
NBAA was between the proverbial rock and hard place. Its own bylaws and those of the District of Columbia, in which NBAA is registered, require it to hold an annual meeting of members and meeting of the board of directors before November 28. Those same laws would also not allow a new date before October 17. The meetings have traditionally been held in conjunction with the trade exhibition of manufacturers and vendors.
Late on the afternoon of September 12, the board announced its decision to cancel the New Orleans meeting and convention. Instead, it would reschedule the member and board of directors meetings as separate events to be held in Washington.
OEMs Offer Relief Assistance
Dozens of business aviation industry leaders offered their resources to the emergency relief effort. Cessna was one of the first.
It offered a fleet of Citations, Grand Caravans and light singles and by the end of the first day was ferrying blood and emergency workers for the American Red
Cross and FEMA. Gulfstream offered FEMA the use of a Gulf-stream V and Gulfstream IV. Canada’s Bombardier offered the fleet it had prepared to send to NBAA–a Global Express, a Challenger 604 and three Learjets–as well as six other pre-owned aircraft that had been scheduled to demonstrate individual aircraft optional equipment.
Pilatus, in Colorado, made available four PC-12s and offered to contact its customers whose PC-12s were in air ambulance configuration. The Red Cross accepted Raytheon’s offer of aircraft and crews and the company’s pilots made three flights the day after the attack. “With FedEx grounded, we were the first choice,” said a spokesman.
On Wednesday, the day after the attacks, the FAA announced a two-step recovery plan to resume operations in the NAS. The first would require all airport authorities to report to the local FAA ATC manager that they were in compliance with more stringent security measures. When enough airports were in compliance, the FAA would allow a resumption of flights. Also on Wednesday there was a limited reopening of the NAS to allow aircraft diverted to continue to their destinations or to be repositioned in anticipation of a more normal operation. On Thursday afternoon, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta ordered a phased reopening of the NAS to commercial Part 121 and cargo operators at 11 a.m., saying, “We will re-open airports and resume flights on a case-by-case basis, only after they implement our more stringent levels of security.” The authorization also included Part 135 on-demand operators, leaving more than a few Part 91 crews and owners frustrated, and occasionally angered.
NBAA’s Web site, handling levels 20 times above normal, was swamped with complaints by its Part 91 members.
On Friday morning, one pilot noted that “it seemed like everything was moving along smoothly when [a notam] grounded Part 91 until further notice.” While he wondered if perhaps the FBI had some reason it could not reveal, he questioned why Part 91 would be singled out while Part 135 operators were allowed to continue operations. “It seems fairly clear to me that 135 is currently the weakest link out there [in terms of security]…and not just by a little bit!”
A contributor to NBAA’s Air Mail was “infuriated” when a Part 135 King Air “departed with foreign…passengers they didn’t know to some destination in the U.S. and yet Part 91 operators can’t carry people they know and carry every day.”
Another Part 91 operator had a simple explanation. “Some ignorant policymakers, along with the FBI and CIA, consider us to be comparatively uncontrolled.”
At the same time, NBAA was urging the FAA to allow Part 91 operators to resume flying, and advising its members that suggestions that would encourage the FAA were more helpful than simply demanding that Part 91 be allowed to fly.
FBOs Initiate More Strict Security Measures
Meanwhile, at FBOs, managers began putting security measures into effect mirroring those newly instituted by the FAA, including screening with handheld detectors, reduced access to runways, additional uniformed security guards, identification checks of employees and vendors, and searches of all airplanes before boarding by passengers.
On Friday, September 14, IFR Part 91 operators were officially allowed to begin flying. But not before at least one pilot noted that another Part 91 operation–Wal-Mart– had been released to fly as early as Thursday afternoon. “Did they have the authority from the highest levels of the U.S. government, or did they find…a loophole in the system?”
Wal-Mart’s flight department manager, contacted by AIN, admitted they had flown, but added that since the day of the attacks, the company is not talking about how it does business, including its flight department. He also noted that the authorization to fly was not a secret.
IFR Part 91 operations were authorized with certain conditions: no deviation from the flight plan was allowed, and neither was airborne cancellation of IFR clearance.
On Monday, September 17, a business aircraft crew at Teterboro Airport reported that while Part 91 aircraft were being allowed to depart, authorities were screening crews and implementing the new and more stringent security measures now demanded by the FAA.
Reagan National Faces Permanent Closure
As of Tuesday, September 18, Reagan National and Chicago Meigs were still closed, though FAA did allow departure windows at Reagan National on September 15, 16 and 17 to allow the repositioning of aircraft grounded there. Sources at the airport said the FAA has taken an “if and when” attitude toward the airport reopening, and speculate that if it does reopen, flights in and out will be severely restricted in terms of numbers and routing.
Part 91 operations, as of September 18, were not permitted within a 25-nm radius of the Reagan Washington National Airport and the John F. Kennedy International Airport VOR/DME, respectively.
A spokeswoman for Signature Flight Support, the only FBO at Reagan Washington National, said 74 transient business aircraft were stranded at the facility when the NAS was shut down. The airport opened only for departures for three hours on Saturday, six hours on Sunday and four hours on Monday. All the transient private aircraft or tenant aircraft at Signature were expected to be flown out by 4 p.m. on Monday, when the window closed, said Signature v-p Mary Miller.
As a result of the terrorist attacks, the formerly relaxed border security between Canada and the U.S. is likely to become a thing of the past.
Shortly after the attack, U.S. Customs notified operators that the General Aviation Telephonic Entry (GATE) program was being closed. All subsequent flights entering the U.S. across the Canadian border would be required to stop at a designated border inspection port of entry “until further notice.”
Likewise, the CANPASS program allowing U.S. business aircraft advance entry approval into Canada was suspended. As of September 18, GATE and CANPASS remained suspended.
If there is any ray of sunshine in the dismal skies left by the terrorist attack, it is mostly speculative. Some on-demand charter operators were expecting a jump in business when the NAS was reopened.
SkyJet, Bombardier’s business aircraft charter reservation system, had its best month ever in August, with revenues topping $1 million for the first time.
A spokeswoman said a lot of charter operators were expecting a jump in reservations when the skies opened again, but admitted that SkyJet itself had yet to see any increase through its own system.
On the other hand, Todd Spangler, v-p of charter/sales for Executive Jet, said the Columbus, Ohio company began receiving charter requests the day of the attack and as of September 13 had prioritized more than 100.
Some on-demand charter operators reported a sharp increase in inquiries and bookings, but most believe that the most positive impact on business aviation will come later. In the coming months, the advantage of ownership or charter is expected to become more attractive as business travelers find seat availability reduced on commercial airlines, as they face the prospect of protracted check-in times, and come to perceive that business aviation offers a higher level of safety.
Gary Hoffman, senior v-p of Executive Jet, predicted the company’s NetJets fractional-ownership program will probably see an increase in interest following the attacks. “As people rethink their priorities, some who travel extensively and place an emphasis on safety will see business aviation as a safer way to fly.”
Steve Phillips, director of marketing for Bombardier’s Flexjet fractional program in Dallas, agrees. “I think we’ll probably see an increase in business by people who see business aviation as more convenient or safer, or both.”
Joseph Carfagna, an aircraft broker in Franklin Lakes, N.J., said his office received a call out of the blue on the day of the terrorist attack asking, “What do I need to learn about corporate airplanes to get one.”
Bryan Comstock, president of Jeteffect, believes it is too soon to be making predictions. But he noted that within a day of the terrorist attack, one customer with whom he had been talking for several months made an offer on an airplane, and just hours later another customer made a counter-offer. A third customer who had had his Falcon 900B on the market for some time suddenly decided that he would keep it. “What’s better,” asked Comstock rhetorically, “nine million dollars
in the bank or peace of mind? Sometimes that’s what it comes down to.”
Most industry insiders and observers were naturally reluctant to forecast a benefit emerging from such a tragic loss of human life. But a few companies apparently saw the attack as a business opportunity.
“Does anyone else find this as offensive as I do?” asked an NBAA member who received a blind e-mail solicitation from a business aircraft lease broker barely a day after the terrorist attack.
Val Trent, president of Seattle-based National Charter, agreed. Trent said his company was being “spammed” by aircraft sellers and brokers and on-demand charter operators–“seven faxes from the same company. Some people,” he concluded, “have no conscience.”
Business Aviation Affected On Many Levels
It is easy to report the short-term impact that the terrorist attack had on business aviation. Certainly it brought business aviation to a standstill for nearly a week. At a personal level, it was frustrating and horrifying and left a taste of bitter anger in many.
Without doubt, the heightened security will change the way business aviation travelers have traditionally made their transition from the ground to the air. And it will apply to business aviation across the board, from FBOs and aircraft management companies, to on-demand charter operators and traditional Part 91 corporate flight departments.
The day when the VIP could simply drive up in a limo and be waved through the gates at any aviation facility is a thing of the past, said Flexjet’s Phillips.
Demand for business aviation is going to increase, predicted Carfagna, “but the economy may put a cap on what people are willing to spend.”