Interview: NBAA's Bolen warns of renewed fight over user fees after midterm elections
After coming to the job in the midst of a recession and at a time when a number of high-profile crashes involving business airplanes dominated the headlines, NBAA president Ed Bolen this year is presiding over a convention that very well could turn out to be the association’s biggest ever. Exhibit space has been sold out for over a month, the static display at Orlando Executive Airport is brimming to capacity and the excitement surrounding the show can be seen, heard and felt everywhere in and around the convention center.
Still, Bolen and his leadership team face some important challenges. Chief among them is the fight over user fees, which Bolen said he expects to heat up again after the midterm Congressional elections. Making sure the integration of the new breed of very light jets goes smoothly is also a concern, though Bolen said he thinks the worries about VLJs blackening the skies are overblown. Both cases involve battles between bizav and the airlines, who are failing to see eye to eye on either issue.
Just before the convention kicked off, NBAA Convention News sat down with Bolen to talk about his expectations for the show as well as the status of NBAA-sponsored events in other parts of the world, specifically Asia and Latin America. Excerpts from the interview can be viewed online at AINtv.com
What’s the big story here in Orlando, what do you anticipate for the show?
Technology is always the big story at any NBAA show. And we’re also seeing a number of new airplane announcements, a lot of certification updates and also a lot of whiz-bang stuff that we haven’t heard of yet that will be unveiled. And that’s really always the excitement and the real thrill of going to an NBAA Convention.
Are you seeing the show continuing to grow in terms of the number of people attending and exhibitors?
Yes. Last year we had the move from New Orleans to Orlando and we still had outstanding attendance. In the lead up to the show this year we were running 18 percent ahead of last year in terms of attendees pre-registering. So we feel really good about that. And the exhibit hall–over a million square feet–sold out weeks ago. So, there’s really a lot of enthusiasm about what this show will look like in terms of exhibitor and attendee participation.
New Orleans continues to have issues getting back on track with the reconstruction. Are we looking at going there anytime in the near future?
Pulling the plug on New Orleans last year was a really difficult decision–and unfortunately it was one that really wasn’t a decision. We couldn’t do a show there. But we stated at the time that we hoped to go back and we’re working with the city to see what our options are. We want to make sure that when we do a show it’s an NBAA-caliber show. People have come to expect certain standards and we’re going to deliver on that. But we’d love to do that in New Orleans. We’re really encouraged about what is happening at the convention center there. A lot of the restaurants and hotels are coming back. So we’re optimistic, but there’s some more work to do. [The next NBAA convention scheduled for New Orleans is in 2008.–Ed.]
Is Las Vegas off the list?
Las Vegas is a great location. We like Las Vegas for several reasons. First of all, there’s always great attendance when we are in Las Vegas. We also really like the idea of having a show in the West to balance the times when we hold shows in the East. We think that gives a great opportunity. We do have a challenge with Las Vegas, and it relates to airport capacity. When we did the show there two years ago a number of people had to keep their airplanes in Kingman, Arizona, and that was a real challenge for us. So, we’re trying to work with Las Vegas to see what type of airport infrastructure options we have. At this point no decision has been made one way or the other related to Las Vegas.
This year ABACE [the Asian Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition] is in Hong Kong in February, and then two days later the Japanese regional business aviation forum is in Nagoya. People are asking why you are holding two shows back to back in the same region.
First of all it’s a big region. And it’s a growing region. Our thought on Hong Kong is that we’d like to build on the success that we had with our Shanghai show. That was really the first Asian business aviation show and it was a success and so we want to build on that success with a Hong Kong show. We think that Hong Kong in February is going to be an ideal time of year in a very cosmopolitan, easy-to-reach location. But we also want to go to Japan, since everyone will be over there with their airplanes. Japan, as you know, has always served as a kind of gateway to the Asian market. By extending it two days we’ll be able to touch yet another part of that vast and growing region of the world.
Speaking of Japan, is there anything happening to improve access? We’re still looking at fairly long periods to get clearance to go in and high fees.
Access to Japan has been a top priority for NBAA for over a decade. The work that NBAA has done to try to get more slots at Narita and access to Haneda–trying to provide exposure to Nagoya so people are aware of that option as well–has been a constant push, not just by NBAA but also our partners at the Japanese Business Aviation Association.
We’ve been frustrated that the progress there has been slow. We feel that in some cases the Japanese have really missed a golden opportunity because we think that there’s a lot of excitement and growth in business aviation in Asia and that if Japan doesn’t embrace it they may lose their spot as the gateway to Asia.
But by being in Hong Kong we have an opportunity to continue to stimulate the excitement that’s taking place in other areas in Asia. Also, by going to Nagoya, we are going to reemphasize our commitment to trying to work with the Japanese government to make Japan an exciting business aviation hub, at Nagoya, Haneda or Narita, and hopefully all three.
LABACE [the Latin American Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition] seems like it hasn’t been growing, and this year it was canceled due to a problem at the airport. What’s the future for that show?
This year we hoped to do some tweaks to the LABACE show that we thought would stimulate more interest. For example, one of the things that we hear people love about EBACE is having the static display and exhibit areas next to each other. We tried to do that this year in São Paulo but unfortunately airport construction made that a moot point.
We’ve not given up on the idea of a Latin American show. We want it to be regional in nature, and we’re talking to people in Brazil about that. They’re aware of our interest in having something that goes well beyond Brazil and pulls all throughout the Latin America community, and we’re hoping to be able to find a formula that allows that to succeed.
Let’s talk a little about user fees. How effective has the business aviation community been in staving off the airlines’ desire to apply user charges across the board?
The user-fee issue came to the forefront about a year and a half ago. That’s when the FAA started talking about potentially needing to change the funding stream and suggesting user fees might be an alternative worth exploring. That’s been followed up with airlines jumping on the bandwagon and pushing the idea that all airplanes ought to pay the same regardless of whether it’s an Airbus A380 with 550 people on board or a single-engine turboprop.
NBAA, along with the other general aviation associations, has been pushing to make sure that our community understands that this threat is very real, and that there’s something we can do about it. We can engage on Capitol Hill. NBAA has spent a lot of time and effort developing a Contact Congress resource that allows the community to reach their members of Congress, and several thousands of people are doing that and it’s having an effect.
We are beginning to hear from Capitol Hill that they want to know more about the issue, that they’re aware now that there are two sides to this. We’ve also seen that the administration, which had talked about putting forward their fee proposal last spring, has delayed that until next year. Now, I don’t think that anyone should take that as a sign to say that the user-fee fight is over–far from it. We think it is going to be every bit as big and every bit as serious as it ever was. But I think a political calculation was made that said we don’t want to have a war in the aviation community before the elections.
Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t have the war after the elections. And so I would simply say our community has got an opportunity to shape its own destiny. To do that we’ve all got to understand what the issue is and be fully engaged. I think we are making some progress, the awareness is certainly going up on Capitol Hill and in the community, but we’ve got a long way to go.
One of the emerging operational issues is the integration of the very light jets into the system, again with the airlines complaining these types of airplanes are going to cause them problems by their sheer numbers. How is that issue shaping up?
I think there’s a lot of excitement about the VLJ, and that’s been reflected not only in articles in aviation publications but in the mainstream press as well. If you look at the forecasts, they certainly range from the very conservative, some would say pessimistic, to the very, very optimistic, numbers that we’ve never really seen in this industry. Where on that spectrum will the reality be? We’ve had the first two airplanes certified, and they’ll be introduced into the system shortly.
For those who are trying to suggest that there will be some major problem integrating them I would simply say that the FAA Administrator has said that it probably will not be a problem trying to integrate them. A lot has been made about the congestion in our airspace and this exacerbating it, but the reality is most of the U.S. has got ample capacity. There are just a few choke points, and the conversations I’ve heard about the operating models of air taxis is that they want to avoid the most congested airports and airspace. They’re trying to take people off the highways to hard-to-reach secondary markets.
So I think it’s been overblown and I think people are missing the point as well that these very light jets have the ability to take off and land on very short runways, they can fly efficiently below 30,000 feet, they can even go over 40,000 feet, so they don’t really need to fly in the most congested airspace or go to the most congested airports. I think that any concerns about VLJs negatively impacting congestion are probably being perpetuated by those who are not interested in what’s best for business aviation.