Exiting chair says access is top priority

 - October 14, 2009, 12:13 PM

“Interesting” is perhaps an understated word to use in reviewing the tumultuous recent period the business aviation community has gone through, but that is the word outgoing NBAA chairman Jeff Lee chose to describe his two-year tenure, which ends at this year’s annual meeting. Lee, IBM’s director of flight operations, took over the post from Ken Emerick in 2007 and has led the board through several stiff challenges to business aviation. “The unprecedented challenges from all sides have really shaken up the industry,” Lee told NBAA Convention News. “The attacks from Congress and the White House and others have challenged the validity of what we do without understanding what our membership looks like.”

It has been nearly a year since the heads of the “Big Three” Detroit auto manufacturers flew to Washington seeking bailout funds and inadvertently triggered a firestorm of criticism directed toward business aviation and its perceived “fat-cat” image. “I think there is a misunderstanding among the broader community–certainly among those who are elected to represent us–and in the media of the importance of business aviation and general aviation as a whole to the community,” said Lee, who believes that change in business aviation’s perception and understanding by the public should come from its members. “We do a great job teaching our aviation managers about safety and security and operations maintenance, how to be efficient and compliant with regulations, but we’re not very good about helping them understand how to interact with local communities, how to interact with their elected representatives. It’s not our comfort zone and yet, as we go forward, this is going to be important for our growth and our clarity as an industry.” 

Another serious issue NBAA faced during Lee’s term is the ongoing debate over user fees–as proposed, to pay for FAA reauthorization–which threatens to place financial burdens on the business aviation segment. “I still feel very strongly that general aviation has to pay [its] fair share,” said Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who has long backed additional user fees for general aviation and has been a leading advocate of a $25-per-leg surcharge for all turbine-powered aircraft.
Current bills under consideration in the House and Senate call for a short-term limit on general fund government support, giving the Obama Administration more time to work out the future financing of the nation’s air transportation system. “I’m pleased to see that the congressional bills that are in place now seem to be refocusing on improving the airspace, the tools out there and the NextGen agenda rather than getting caught up in the fight about who pays for that and how it is paid for,” said Lee.

“[The argument] really is about access to airspace and making sure our members have that access rather than ceding control to an outside board that might be dominated by other entities including the airlines,” he continued. “Nobody says GA shouldn’t pay its fair share. We could argue about what that is, but obviously both these bills include a significant increase in the federal excise tax for jet fuel and gasoline for general aviation, and I think we are happy to pay that. We know that we should pay our share, so we are not against that.”

The Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) was another challenge to NBAA as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) attempted to place airline-like passenger restrictions and regulations on private aviation. The TSA received more than 7,000 comments opposing the security measures, submitted both directly and through public meetings. “I think as a business aviation community, frankly, we outdid ourselves,” said Lee. “We were loud and clear to the point that TSA had to hear us and sit at the table.”

The agency invited aviation associations including NBAA to participate in meetings in an effort to make the security regulations operationally feasible. “Again, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the threat caused by GA,” said Lee. “Nobody is against security. Security has been integral to business aviation since day one because we’ve all been about industrial security and protecting our principals as we travel around the world. I’m proud to say that, from a security perspective after 9/11, many of our operating members haven’t made fundamental changes in how they do business because frankly it was pretty darn good to begin with.”

The looming carbon trading schemes currently under consideration are another topic that Lee predicts will have a large effect on the industry. “The environmental issues and how they impact aviation going forward are a concern. We want to make sure that we do our fair share, but I think it should be in balance with how important business aviation is to the country, to its economy,” he said. “We want to make sure these programs don’t ‘kill the golden goose’ or damage our industry beyond repair when there are balanced approaches to all of these programs that need to be looked at.”

As Lee prepared to hand over the board leadership this week to his expected successor, Pat Cunningham, PepsiCo’s director of flight operations, he looked back on the bigger picture. “I think when you look at the various things we’ve been focused on, whether it’s safety issues or security issues or funding issues or even the No Plane, No Gain [advocacy program], it’s about preserving access to the airspace and to airports for our membership. I think we understand it’s important to be safe and to be secure, and we want to be good partners in that going forward, but all of these elements are really after the same thing: preserving that access so that companies that are members of the association can use these airplanes in the furtherance of their businesses.”