Schedulers and Dispatchers 2013 Report

 - March 1, 2013, 1:05 AM

At NBAA’s annual Schedulers & Dispatchers conference, held this year in January in San Antonio, more than 2,400 registered attendees from 30 countries received a hearty Texas welcome to the Alamo City. While this year’s conference ranked as the fourth highest in terms of attendance–a number that show organizers speculated could have been affected by both the Presidential inauguration and by the national flu epidemic–it did set a new record for exhibitors with 425 FBOs and other flight support providers demonstrating their services to the flight department members who make up the majority of the conference’s clientele.

That record crowd of exhibitors, which packed two joined exhibit halls at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center astride San Antonio’s Riverwalk, included the major fuel suppliers and many of their dealers, which traditionally account for a large portion of the booths at S&D. The Shell, Phillips 66, Epic and World Fuel enclaves on the show floor occupied entire aisles in most cases. Avfuel alone had more than 50 members of its branded service provider network co-exhibiting at this year’s conference. “Our dealers recognize that S&D provides a perfect venue to connect with flight departments and showcase their individual personalities and capabilities,” said Marci Ammerman, the Michigan-based fuel supplier’s vice president of marketing. “Every year we see more interest regarding exhibiting at this valuable industry event.”

Also present were all the FBO chains ranging from the industry giants such as Signature Flight Support, Landmark Aviation, Atlantic Aviation and Million Air to smaller networks such as Ross Aviation, Tac Air, Jet Aviation and Wilson Air Centers. Numerous single-location providers and airport authorities were also in attendance.

At the conference’s opening session, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen looked to the start of the new session of Congress and used his podium to issue an impassioned plea for S&D’s domestic attendees to contact their representatives, requesting they join the general aviation caucus. He recounted aviation-friendly legislation the previous session of Congress was able to pass, such as the reinstatement of the Barr program, and the oft-delayed FAA reauthorization, and credited those successes to the industry’s engagement with legislators on both sides of the aisle over the last four years. During the session of Congress that just ended, those efforts resulted in nearly 40 percent of lawmakers in both houses joining their GA caucuses, a level that Bolen said must be achieved again in the new session to provide support for the industry.

“One thing I have learned after nine years of coming to Schedulers and Dispatchers is that the people who come to this conference are doers. You guys make things happen, so I am coming to you today to ask you to get it done,” he told the audience.

For many attendees, the opportunity to interact face-to-face with fellow industry members in one place is worth the price of admission alone. “The S&D is a good [place] to meet people and establish strong connections in the aviation industry,” said first-time conference attendee Kenan Chaplin, the recently named fuel sales coordinator/crew scheduler for Connecticut-based FBO and charter operator Key Air. “I have a lot of conversations on the phone with different people; to see their faces and to kindle that strong connection further just helps that relationship grow. I’m already looking forward to next year, seeing these people again and learning new ways to keep the industry going.”

According to Mike Nichols, NBAA’s vice president of operational excellence and professional development, approximately 10 percent of this year’s attendees were S&D first-timers, and the conference organizers went to great lengths to welcome the newcomers. On the evening before the official opening, a first-time conference visitor orientation was held to give those attendees an overview of how to get the most from the conference. The S&D committee also established an ambassador program under which veteran show attendees volunteered to serve as guides, greeters and information providers on the show floor.

Education and Training

Education has been a major component of the conference since its inception. This year S&D saw a slate of 32 educational sessions that served to enlighten attendees on many aspects of flight department operations. “Believe it or not, after 28 years this is my first Schedulers & Dispatchers and it’s been a real eye opener,” said Betsy Wines, vice president of customer service and human resources at Teterboro, N.J.-based aviation service provider Meridian. “You don’t realize how difficult a job the schedulers and dispatchers have and how important communication is between the schedulers and the FBOs. The more they get to know each other, the more information they share. We are all on the same team, we all have the same end goal and that is to get your boss to his destination, so I think this show really just showed me that.”

For the second year, organizers brought back the conference training initiative, a subset of educational sessions focusing this year on risk management and the increasing financial responsibilities of the flight scheduler or dispatcher. Eight of the sessions in San Antonio dealt with risk-management issues and four with tax matters. Those who attended them and met the application requirements received conference training recognition from NBAA. Other presentations included specific information on topics such as flight operations in South America, India and China, cross-border issues, selecting the best international third-party suppliers, international regulatory restrictions, FBO expectations and in-house trip planning.

In a session on the opening day of the show, consultants John Enticknap and Ron Jackson, the principals behind the Aviation Business Strategies Group, proposed to a group of industry leaders that the FBO industry is shifting from a price-sensitive business model to one based on providing an exceptional customer service experience. “For FBOs to compete on price is an archaic way of doing business,” said Enticknap. “In today’s tough business climate, FBOs are operating on very thin margins, yet the cost of doing business continues to rise.” He said FBOs must continue to find other ways to differentiate themselves, such as through superior customer service. Looking to the remainder of the year, Enticknap predicted that most FBOs should experience steady growth in the range of 4 to 6 percent based on increasing flight activity. “However, more efficient aircraft and the practice of tankering will make 2013 another challenging year for the industry,” he noted. “If an FBO achieves a growth in business of 6 percent or more, it will be a star performer.”

Overall, the mood at the show was optimistic, according to outgoing S&D chairperson Karen Steinkamp. “The energy and the enthusiasm level was great, and it seems like every year it keeps on getting higher and higher,” she told AIN. “This year we had a record number of exhibitors, including 53 new ones, so to me that speaks a great deal to optimism.” At the luncheon that concluded the conference, Steinkamp handed the S&D committee reins to vice chair Spring Adamo, flight logistics lead at FirstEnergy, who will lead preparations for next year’s 25th anniversary edition. Schedulers & Dispatchers will mark its first return to New Orleans in 20 years, from Jan. 14-17, 2014.