Guarded optimism for the year ahead, despite a number of looming concerns on several fronts, was the dominant theme expressed by leaders of the major general aviation (GA) associations in a town hall forum discussion yesterday morning at Heli-Expo.
Helicopter Association International (HAI) president Matt Zuccaro noted that HAI continues to enjoy robust membership and strong financial health, evidence of a surging rotorcraft community. That said, however, he also expressed concern about restrictive policies targeting helicopter operators.
“One issue that’s concerning us quite a bit is noise legislation,” Zuccaro noted, pointing to recently mandated North Shore helicopter route over Long Island due to noise abatement concerns, and a similar debate now under way in Los Angeles basin.
“The FAA was, in fact, mandated by legislative initiative to do something they didn’t really want to do. Some neighborhood people get together and call their elected officials, the elected officials lean onto the FAA to the point where the FAA is not left with much discretion, and they’re forced to issue regulations.”
Support in Washington
Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), noted the strong support GA receives from congressional lawmakers through the House and Senate GA Caucuses, but expressed concern about the renewed debate in Washington, D.C. over user fees and privatization of the national air transportation system, as well as a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling for extending the tax depreciation schedule for GA aircraft, including helicopters.
“The business aviation community is actually entering 2014 feeling about as optimistic as we’ve felt in a number of years,” he added. “[However], as I’ve said a couple of times before, in Washington D.C., it can be really hard to kill a bad idea. A lot of these ideas are coming forward again.”
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) president and CEO Mark Baker called attention to ongoing efforts by his organization and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) to see the FAA enact the third-class medical exemption for private pilots.
“I think we’re going to see some movement from the FAA pretty soon,” Baker added. “It’s been exactly two years since the petition went in.” Baker also expressed hope about the ongoing battle to preserve GA operations at Santa Monica Airport, following the recent “small victory” in seeing the U.S. District Court dismiss a city lawsuit questioning the government’s claim to airport land.
EAA chairman Jack Pelton focused most of his presentation on promoting enthusiasm for aviation and bringing young people into the industry. “There’s an ecosystem that involves all aspects of aviation. We believe that we have to work hard at EAA to make sure [aviation] is sustainable and inviting. “What we want to focus on is how to take young people and introduce them to that career path,” Pelton added, which should also alleviate concerns about a lack of pilots and other qualified aviation personnel in the years ahead.
Jens Hennig, operations vice president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), pointed to the slew of newly introduced and recently certified rotorcraft displayed on the show floor at Heli-Expo as a sign the industry is rebounding nicely despite ongoing economic and legislative concerns. “All segments are starting to turn the corner and deliver more aircraft,” he said. “We’re really trying to build ourselves out of this. Create demand, innovate new things, so that the operator community–our customers–is eager to buy the next aircraft to meet the utility and needs they have for their operation.”
National Air Transportation Association (NATA) president Tom Hendricks emphasized that his organization, like HAI, is composed primarily of members from small businesses, and they continue to express uncertainty about the environment on Capitol Hill and the state of the economy. “We’re seeing some positive signs out there across our different lines of business, but people remain cautious,” Hendricks added. “Business owners are reluctant to take risks until we’ve addressed our fiscal condition as a nation.”
Following a panel and audience question and answer session, Zuccaro closed the town hall session by calling attention to an empty chair onstage, accompanied by a simple floral arrangement, in honor of National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) president and CEO Henry Ogrodzinski, who passed away in January.