The appearance by the CEOs of the Big Three automakers before Congress in November 2008 touched off a wave of anti-business aviation sentiment that included a proposal that any companies accepting government bailout money would have to get rid of their aircraft.
The business aviation industry soon found itself with a big target on its tail and as a highly visible object of ridicule and scorn by legislators, the media and the general public. "Clearly, between November of 2008 and the launch of No Plane No Gain in February, we saw policymakers and opinion leaders disparaging the use of business aviation," said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen.
"Since then, we have seen them not just go neutral, but go to the point where they are saying publicly, 'I want to be identified as a strong supporter of this industry. I want to publicly say I not only support this industry, but this industry is good for America,'" he added, noting that more than 120 people in the U.S. House of Representatives have joined its newly formed General Aviation Caucus. In the Senate, 31 members have joined that body's new GA caucus.
In October 2009, a little less than a year after the three automakers flew to Washington from Detroit in individual company aircraft, Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue signed a proclamation saying aviation is critical to the state of Georgia, and he highlighted business aviation. Since then, 12 other governors have signed legislation extolling the virtues of business aviation.
"And finally, this year in April, we had the House and Senate pass a joint resolution commending business aviation for its response to Haiti," Bolen said. "That suggests to us that our message is getting through, our message that business aviation is essential to our nation's job base, to the economic vitality of small communities, to the productivity of companies and to our emergency relief.
"So we think that the [No Plane No Gain] program is having a profound effect," he added. "And it's a program that we had specifically targeted at policymakers and opinion leaders."
Nevertheless, Bolen stressed that everybody in the business aviation community needs to become an advocate for the industry. "For almost six years now, NBAA has been talking to the business aviation community about the importance of everybody in our community being an activist," he explained. "We've always felt that we are a large and significant industry. But unless and until our community becomes active and engaged, mobilized and outspoken, we don't make our size and significance felt."
NBAA believes that the business aviation community can shape its own destiny by making all of its individual and collective voices heard. He said this was made clear when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) proposed its Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) in October 2008.
NBAA and AOPA immediately got the comment period extended so that it would carry over well into 2009. According to Bolen, NBAA specifically asked that the TSA hold public hearings around the country, "that they go out into the community and hear and feel and see what our community thought about [LASP]."
'We Made a Difference'
NBAA attended and spoke at all five hearings. "But I think what we as a community were able to do was we were able to show our size, our significance, our commitment to safety and security, and also our common sense," he recalled. While TSA was expecting 100 to 150 people per session, the business aviation industry had more than 300 at every one.
"We ultimately generated over 7,000 comments to the docket," said Bolen. "We asked for and received congressional hearings on the [LASP], and we feel that we made a difference. And this is what happens when the entire community gets involved. The fact of the matter is, NBAA can lead, we can define, we can facilitate the work of our members, but we can't do it without our members' engagement."
Bolen also recalled that in 2006, the Air Transport Association (ATA) revealed a plan to shift $2 billion of airline taxes onto business aviation during FAA reauthorization deliberations, and figuratively seize control of the ATC system. He said ATA spent more than $20 million "effectively trying to disparage and destroy business aviation. Our community responded, and today user fees are not part of the FAA reauthorization bill."
The airlines attacked business aviation, he suggested, because they didn't think the business aviation industry would answer the call. But the community did and it made a difference, he said.
"So I think what we are seeing," he explained, "is the community is recognizing that when they get involved, when they write their congressmen, when they talk to their family and friends, when they organize and attend airport or regional events, when our community gets involved, we can make a difference."
Bolen said that the ATA thought it "could roll business aviation [on the user fee debate] because they're never organized, they don't respond, and we did. And it made a difference. Our community engaged in the user fee fight."
But he warned that even if the current FAA reauthorization is passed, which now seems more likely, user fees will not go away. "My feeling is that user fees are a really bad idea," Bolen said. "And in Washington, it's almost impossible to kill a really bad idea."