My humble opinion: Modify the IOC format to attract more attendees

 - November 1, 2006, 4:10 AM

Each year, hundreds of pilots and managers from all over the U.S. attend the International Operators Conference (IOC) to learn the latest tips about how to cross thousands of miles of ocean or jungle safely and efficiently when they are headed to and from exotic destinations around the globe. Having attended the past four conferences, I’ve had the opportunity to meet dozens of pilots, vendors and flight department managers, all eager to share what they’ve learned flying outside the U.S.

With all due respect to the people who spend months gathering data and to the speakers at each conference–Roger and Pat, Mark, Dave, Bill, Tom and all the rest of you–from my humble position as a Hawker driver, I think the IOC could benefit from a little tweaking. Let me share a couple of ideas that might be worth considering to make next year’s show even better.

A Truly International Show

During the first day of this year’s conference, someone called for a show of hands to learn how international the attendees were. It became clear very quickly that fewer than a handful were from outside the U.S. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to confirm that NBAA is holding an annual event that focuses on U.S. pilots looking for ways to make their escape from the states as smooth as possible and their entry to foreign domains as easy as traveling between Atlanta and Miami.

Unfortunately, as the IOC continues to point out, U.S. pilots who head out across the pond are likely to figure out quickly that they are no longer in Kansas. As our European correspondent confirmed, while traveling around the globe may at times be a challenge to U.S. crews, coming back to the states is a piece of cake.

For crews of foreign-registered aircraft, however, flying to the U.S. is more often than not an excruciatingly bureaucratic experience and there is really little at the conference for crews of non-N-registered airplanes. This could, of course, explain why no one from outside the U.S. attends.

Certainly foreign-based operations, like flight operations here in the U.S., are facing the same kinds of problems as their U.S. counterparts, including operational updates from hundreds of countries occurring almost daily. No doubt that sort of laundry list makes finding the right speakers for the IOC a challenge, to say the least. But let’s face it, the pilots flying the line are still the best source of information

about what works, what doesn’t and how to give the folks in the cabin a seamless, non-adventure-packed trip.

As I have learned through my own corporate experience, we pilots can be a tough audience; we are highly opinionated but often when only a few people are around to hear. Although IOC chairman Roger Rose reiterated the conference goal of “share the knowledge” on the first day, some pilots arrived on site apparently expecting the conference speakers to feed them new ideas to take back and immediately integrate into their flight operations. Few seemed to sense the need to share their own experiences with anyone else unless they were questioned specifically. That’s unfortunate, because the pilots who fly internationally really are the IOC.

One of this year’s speakers, Alan Kiburtz, a GV pilot with Airflite, Toyota’s flight department, made mention of the fact that for the past few years he’d simply been a member of the audience. During the session on the Far East, however, Kiburtz stood in front of the large audience and offered a superb, detail-packed description of “flying around in Japan.” He spoke in chronicle form and highlighted the talk with his photos from the cockpit along the way, such as taxiing out for departure at Narita. When asked how he happened to find himself on stage in front of 450 people, Kiburtz replied, “I was asked.”

An East Coast Challenger pilot mentioned that the young pilot who sat next to him asked a million questions during the IOC, but asked none of the presenters. “I was happy to help,” this pilot said, “but it seemed a shame that he was the only one who heard my explanation to his questions.” As a pilot and a writer, I am well aware of pilots’ occasional distrust of the media, but I think the greater fear and problem for the IOC is people’s fear of speaking in public.

So here’s my free advice, for whatever it is worth.

Interactive Discussion

One of the requirements to attend the IOC should be at least one decent story about some aspect of a flight department’s international operations that can be shared with the group. For those who dread public speaking more than they fear an engine melting down at 36,000 feet, these anecdotes could be delivered electronically in a format the association could gather up and publish on the Web site. And for those who think the bulletins already stored on the Web site should suffice, I disagree. Considering that there were nearly 500 participants at the IOC, a few dozen experiences, many from the same small group of pilots, is simply not enough.

Next, I’d break the large group down into a number of smaller groups, with a facilitator to start the discussions and keep them going. This is where some more of those war stories that everyone really learns from might be told. If everyone feels more secure sitting in a circle or around a large round table, so much the better. The goal is to share–or pry–the information necessary to make the IOC’s goal of knowledge sharing a reality.

If attendance drops off because many simply can’t face 25 or 50 of their fellow aviators, then so be it. Better the conference is attended by 200 people with knowledge they are willing to share on the spot than by 400 who sit mostly in silence. Despite the fact that creating many small groups will generate its own set of problems, it seems that to be most effective, the conference needs at least to evaluate that direction for the future.

NBAA should consider an IOC in Europe for those pilots traveling into and out of the U.S. and throughout Asia and Africa. We don’t know if foreign pilots stay away from the IOC because there is nothing of value to them or if there is nothing of value because there is no foreign audience. Either seems unacceptable to me.

Another topic raised by pilots at the IOC is the amount of sales activity present there. Certainly no one would argue that vendor support is a necessary part of producing a conference that can offer near-gourmet food at a price that is low enough to ensure continued improvement in the attendee numbers and not so low that the association loses money on the venture.

It seems to me the vendors are organizing the panel discussions because few regular line pilots, other than the already swamped IOC volunteers, want to take on the task. Until there are more pilots like Kiburtz willing to take on a small piece of the work, I think vendors have a right to talk about how they fit into the overall international flying picture. While it is true that the vendors are motivated by their jobs to some degree, many I’ve met are also motivated by an altruistic gene. They want to be there to add to the knowledge base.

I’d also ditch the current evaluation format. Numbers on a scale may offer trends, but little else. Is an all-five speaker perfect while an all-four is less than that? I doubt it. More qualitative questions would be more effective. The only reason anyone even fills out the evaluations, I think, is to try to win a door prize. That may be a great motivator, but I doubt it really makes attendees think much about what they write.

The IOC is a great international recurrent training forum. But it is time the conference evolved from one of lectures accented by a mere handful of questions into more interactive discussion, where people walk away convinced that they would never want to miss another IOC because of the practical knowledge they are taking back to the hangar. But participants need to give to receive if the IOC is to be truly a great event.

If you have different ideas to improve the way the IOC is conducted or if you’d simply like to tell me that mine are no good, you’ll find me at rmark@ See you next year in Tampa.