NBAA Convention News

Industry poised for takeoff

 - October 22, 2009, 7:09 AM

Mid-show through this year’s NBAA Convention, the general mood, at least among exhibitors, was one of both cautious optimism and lowered expectations.

Total registered attendance at the close of the convention yesterday was 22,516, according to the NBAA. Yesterday, the show closed with 21,807 registered. The attendance at last year’s convention after all three days was 30,811, so it appears unlikely that this year’s total will be anywhere close to that. On the other hand, those attending NBAA ’09 came expecting a convention that reflects the current economic crisis and its impact on business aviation.

According to Rob Harshaw, president and CEO of Heads Up Technologies, it really is a matter of perception. “Most people tend to look at the glass as half full or half empty; I’m just happy if nobody turns it over.” With that in mind, Harshaw said the show “exceeded my expectations, particularly in terms of business-to-business activity.”

Harshaw founded Carrollton, Texasbased Heads Up 25 years ago and as do others with tenure in the industry, he knows that “It is going to come back.” And he added, “When it does, we want to be in a position to accelerate.”

Severine Cosma, head of marketing and communication for Zurich-based aviation group Comlux, had something of the same take. While attendance was down, she said, “We had a lot of suppliers stopping by to talk with us about our next A320 completion project.” She also recalled the EBACE convention in Geneva in May, “right in the middle of this crisis” and comparing it to this NBAA show slightly more than five months later, added, “There is a feeling of growing confidence.”

Luis Carlos Affonso, senior v-p of Brazilian OEM Embraer Executive Jets, was reflective. “I was very curious about the level of activity as an indicator of the state of the industry,” he told NBAA Convention News. At the mid-show point, he said, “It has been a good show, given the current economic scenario.”

As for interest being translated into contracts, Affonso pointed out that these deals are not done in a moment. “It takes time to translate interest into reality.”

Martina Wellman, head of customer service for Sky Harbour Aircraft of Goderich, Ontario, would have liked to see more people, but on the other hand, she suggested that the economic malaise may have been beneficial, at least in one respect. “It seems to have weeded out the tire kickers,” she said.

Jack Olcott, former president of NBAA, said he has been to every show since his first one in 1974. Olcott was in a somber mood.

“I’m a passionate believer in business aviation,” he said, pointing out that the convention is a barometer of the business aviation community, reflecting both reality and expectations. And it has been gratifying to see both NBAA and GAMA working together, he said, and to see people like Arnold Palmer promoting “No Plane, No Gain.”

Million Air CEO Roger Woolsey wasted no time voicing his evaluation of NBAA 2009. “I am thrilled with the show, for real,” he declared. And while he admitted that the numbers may be down, it’s not necessarily bad. “In the past, working one of these shows was a little like ‘speed dating.’ This year, we have more time to spend with serious customers.”

Walking around the exhibit floor here in the Orange County Convention Center, it’s difficult to ignore the number of empty exhibit spots. As NBAA points out, however, this year’s number of exhibitors–1,075–is a healthy 91 percent of last year’s 1,183. It could be a lot worse. Perhaps it is more realistic to compare 2009 numbers with those of the 2002 show that broke records with its 27,785 total attendees and 1,011 exhibitors.

So perhaps, after the hall is cleared, the aircraft have departed from Orlando Executive and all the attendees have returned home, this year’s NBAA Convention will be remembered as a glass half full, rather than one that was half empty.