It would have been impossible to open the 62nd NBAA Convention without squaring off with the 500-pound economic gorilla in the room. NBAA president Ed Bolen didn’t mince words: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been quite a year.”
There was no place to go but up as Bolen introduced a series of guests, from FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, Forbes’ publisher Rich Karlgaard, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers president Tom Buffenbarger and Arnold Palmer, the legendary golfer and unabashed bizav proponent. Palmer had even premiered three new TV commercials produced to help counter some of the Air Transport Association’s efforts to reinterpret the truth about the business aviation industry.
The morning began with the dedication of this year’s show to the late John Winant, the association’s first president in 1971, a man Bolen said, “More than any other individual was responsible for NBAA being what it is today.”
Babbitt believes in the need for a safety management system (SMS) that offers whistle blowers immunity for exposing unsafe conditions as a critical element in reaching the next level of safety users expect. “When you have so few accidents and only a few data points, the trends don’t always jump out at you,” he said. “There are tons of data available, but right now we can’t get to it. SMS will allow us to see the precursors of accidents.” Babbitt was adamant about the relationship of the economy to safety. “We must avoid the temptation to cut corners because the economy is tight. If people are going to be punished for revealing a problem, accidents will happen, equipment will be lost and people are going to die.”
Forbe’s Karlgaard–a general aviation pilot and aircraft owner–explained the perfect storm of the last fall and spring that sent the economy into a tailspin. “What was most confusing was the Treasury Department allowing Lehman to fail after saving AIG. No one understood the rules. President Bush was on the way out and no one knew what was going on.”
Karlgaard thinks history shows us the path, if we’re paying attention. “Think of the companies started in the recession of the ’70s,” he said. “It was a time of incredible entrepreneurial success. Fred Smith started FedEx in 1970, Southwest took its first flight in 1971, Microsoft began in 1975, Apple in ’76. These kinds of recessions clear out things that don’t work. We won’t be in this forever. Consider global growth: China 8 percent, Brazil 5 percent, India 6 percent, Australia 5 percent.”
The president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Tom Buffenbarger, said we should be mad about not only how some members of Congress have portrayed business aviation, but that some of them are hypocrites in the way they portrayed “the image of business jets as toys for fat cats.” He said all users need to relentlessly communicate with their legislators about the value of business aviation. Buffenbarger understands the industry well. He’s on the road 250 days each year on union business, most often flying on the organization’s Learjet 60.
He let the audience in on a secret tool to help move the industry forward: “Call (202) 546-1411. That’s the switchboard at the White House.” He urged everyone to call and leave a message for President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Immanuel, telling him how important a visit to Wichita could be to view the man-made devastation there. “By the way, you won’t find that number in the phone book.”