Strategies, Options & Perspective

 - October 2, 2007, 10:58 AM

It is good news that the joint program and development office (JPDO), formed recently at the direction of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, is crafting a national policy on air transportation. Many voices, among them mine when I served as president of NBAA, called for a vision and mission statement by the U.S.
government that identifies air transport in all its forms as an enabling technology for achieving our nation’s economic and social objectives. The President’s Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry called for such a policy in its final report, issued last year. The JPDO, which includes representatives from the departments oftransportation, commerce, defense and homeland security in addition to the FAA and NASA, is working to meet a December 31 deadline for defining the government’s future role in air transportation.

Early last month, as president of General Aero Co., I had the privilege of participating in one of the JPDO workshops to identify strategies that would apply to the role of transportation in addressing future needs of the nation. We were tasked with reviewing, and then challenging or augmenting, transportation strategies developed by government leaders during a similar JPDO workshop a few weeks earlier.

Workshop participants included representatives from major airlines, aircraft manufacturers, government and the general aviation community. In attendance was Jim Coyne, National Air Transportation Association president; Brian Finnegan, Professional Aviation Maintenance Association president; and Ron Swanda, senior v-p of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, among others.
Many of the participants represented the new breed of service providers who are exploring the role of very light jets in on-demand and perhaps scheduled air transportation, possibly using the technologies NASA is developing in its multi-million-dollar research effort known as the small aircraft transportation system (SATS).

My presence reflected the work General Aero has undertaken in the area of very light jets and its contractual obligations to NASA in studying the effect of these types of aircraft on the National Airspace System. In addition, I serve on the board of the National Coalition for Aviation Mobility (NCAM), a corporation to oversee work done by public/private partnerships known as SATSLabs.

Workshop participants were divided into five study teams. Each team, provided with a detailed picture of what the political, economic, ecological and social world might look like in 2025, was asked to identify national priorities that would apply to that overall environment. Once priorities were developed, each group identified transportation strategies that would achieve or support priorities relevant to their scenario. These directions were presented to the other teams to determine whether or not ideas that were recommended for one scenario would serve the nation’s needs if the real world of 2025 more closely followed a different scene.

The government has no special insight into which, if any, of the five scenarios might actually apply to the world 21 years in the future. Nor do the government entities that constitute the JPDO assume that the future elements will actually occur. Each exercise is meant only to provoke thought and to explore options that affect the ability of transportation to support our nation.

It is premature to say how the findings of the workshop will shape air-transportation policy. The JPDO will conduct several additional gatherings of the aviation community in the next few months as it collects data and analyzes comments. Clearly there is much work remaining.

I am encouraged that strategies recommended by the entire group recognized that our nation’s air-transportation system consists of more than just the scheduled airlines. General aviation will be a significant factor in bringing the ebb and flow of commerce to the four corners of our nation. The group acknowledged that new travel applications using the unique features of very light jets, such as lower costs per mile, lower capital costs and the ability to serve many more airports economically, are likely to emerge.

Furthermore, there was general agreement that our air-transportation system is an asset essential to the nation’s well being, and that we need to formulate policies now related to infrastructure, global harmony and interoperability, and address issues that will advance safety and security. While more exploration will be required before a recommended national air-transportation policy emerges, the initial efforts are encouraging.

More Good News
Activity levels are increasing for operators of business aircraft. Fractional ownership flight hours are up, as are activity levels for many traditional flight departments. Sales of pre-owned aircraft are firming, and manufacturers report that sales of new aircraft are improving, thanks in part to accelerated depreciation and a recovering economy. Challenges facing legacy airlines have also contributed to a movement toward business aviation.

A recent telephone survey conducted by the Air Charter Guide found that on-demand air carriers operating under FAR Part 135 were experiencing 34 percent more business than this time last year. Of those companies reporting more business, activity levels were up an average of 40 percent. For those experiencing a downturn, business dropped an average of 13 percent.

Clearly, air transportation in all its forms is essential to our nation’s well being. Increasing acknowledgement of that fact by policymakers in government and leaders in industry is good news indeed.  

Jack Olcott, president of NBAA from 1992 to mid-2003, continues to advocate the advantages of business aviation as president of General Aero Company, located at Morristown Municipal Airport, N.J.