AINsight: Industry Needs To Keep Focus on the Future

 - October 19, 2018, 7:47 AM

In the waning hours of business aviation’s largest gathering of the clan—otherwise known as NBAA-BACE 2018 in Orlando, Florida—many attendees and exhibitors were gathered asking each other the inevitable questions: Was it a good show for you? Was the traffic on the booth or at the aircraft static display what you expected? Did you close any deals? Depending on the type of product or service being offered, the responses were probably Yes/Maybe not/A few, but less than I would have liked. The unseasonably hot Central Florida weather and typical high humidity had attendees dashing for any available shade (or exhibit tent) in sight, although many unlucky souls might have found that the only respite that was readily available to them came from a logoed baseball cap and sunshades. The weather was hot, but there was optimism in the air, with plenty of aircraft sales momentum that only a year-end deadline and some available inventory can bring.

Throughout the cavernous halls of Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, NBAA-BACE 2018 participants were greeted with a virtual smorgasbord of aviation technologies, products and services, and at least 40 images into the future of business aviation. A welcome addition to the BACE event this year was a celebration of NBAA’s “Top 40 Under 40,” highlighting the contributions of a remarkable group of young, high-potential individuals who are making key differences in their organizations and in the industry as a whole. 

Talent in general—YoPro (Young Professional) talent in particular, and more specifically the lack of available talent—was a front and center hot topic in many of the conversations I was involved with at NBAA-BACE. Despite many early warning signs that “the moment” was coming, the talent storm seemed to take many by surprise, both with its suddenness and deep impact.

Talent” seems like the wrong term to describe what is really a more fundamental challenge. Business aviation needs people—and without a doubt, more people—to advocate for, and to be working to support, more customers.  With the near-constant hiring of flight, maintenance, and operations professionals by commercial air carriers, the competitive pressure on business aviation employers is intense, relentless, and broad-based. This pressure on the talent pipeline has necessitated creative, more expansive, and more expensive recruitment and retention strategies across the business aviation sector.

Some might say the talent problem is a simple problem of economics: pay people more and we’ll attract more people. While pay and benefits have always been motivators (despite what corporate HR tried to train us to believe), it will take more than money to solve the people predicament that we are facing. In the near term, a bonus or pay increase might stem the outflow of people to the commercial airlines. Longer term, more needs to be done to fill the pipeline with people who will reinvigorate business aviation, and make it more available to a much broader group of customers. 

For those like me who took the time to walk the halls and observe the people at the NBAA-BACE convention center or on the apron at the aircraft static display at Orlando Executive Airport, it pretty quickly became painfully obvious that the talent problem is not going away anytime soon. Looking beyond the 40 banners of smiling, energized, and youthful faces, we collectively have much to do to bring a more diverse, more inclusive, and more youthful group of people into the business. Engaging youth in the industry, and exposing them to the exciting technologies and opportunities that an aviation career offers needs to be a top priority of business aviation leaders, not a “got it done and checked the box” one-time effort on a bottomless to-do list.

Part of our industry’s challenge is pretty simple: it’s time to reclaim some high ground, which should be pretty natural for many of us used to operating in thinner air. Simply put, it’s high time to bring back aviation’s image of “high tech.” Despite all the 21st century rhetoric about how leading edge we are, sometime between the end of the Space Shuttle program and the boom/bust, the notion of aviation and aerospace as high technology seemed to fade out of our collective consciousness, just as venture capital flowed from hardware-based industries to software-enabled service businesses and cloud-based information systems.

While information technology may be currently “IT,” I would suggest that it’s up to each of us to embrace the notion that aviation technology is where it’s “AT”—and where things are clearly going. Don’t believe it? Participants at the recent conference in San Francisco and walking the halls of NBAA-BACE 2018 didn’t have to look far to see into the future. It was right in front of them.

We are already witnessing a major spike in investment in a wide variety of urban air mobility initiatives that promise to radically and permanently transform the way people perceive, and experience, air travel. This is not about to disrupt business aviation as we know it today, especially in the short term. Given the limitations of current battery technologies, there is little doubt that the earliest breakthroughs in the way people travel by air will be for short-distance, intra-city missions of 50 miles or less. To be clear, we are talking about ultra-short-haul, point-to-point flights with only a handful of people on board. Initially operated with a human pilot, assisted by unprecedented levels on onboard automation to enable even higher levels of safety, and powered by hybrid or electric motors, these urban air mobility vehicles will transform the way people travel within cities in the not-so-distant future. Pilot projects (an odd term for a technology that promises to one day take many drivers out of the front seat) are already in work in far-flung centers including Dallas, Texas and Dubai, UAE, with some of the big names in civil aerospace like Boeing, Embraer, and Bell already involved. 

Although perfecting these advanced technologies will take time and massive levels of human and financial capital, the industry’s rotors are already spinning. While some high-profile and no doubt newsworthy missteps are unfortunately almost a given, there is little doubt that the practical conveniences and affordability of urban air mobility will ultimately drive consumer acceptance. This will pave the way for longer range, higher capacity air vehicles that will likely then begin to transform short-haul inter-city travel, affecting business aviation in a fundamental way.  Why is this important? The United Nations estimates that by 2030 (which in aerospace investment terms is not too far from tomorrow), fully 60 percent of the world’s people will live in 46 so-called mega-cities with a population of 10 million or more, and other highly concentrated urban areas. Congestion gridlock on the ground is a challenge for around the world, and one that is best resolved using a multi-modal approach. Quiet, fast, near-silent, and zero-emission urban air vehicles promise to be part of an ongoing solution to paralyzing urban congestion.

Weaving aviation, aerospace, and IT technologies together, these emerging technologies—already evident today—will attract the best, the brightest, and the most loyal people to our industry, as they seek fascinating work, attractive pay and benefits, and opportunities to advance the art and science of air mobility.  That’s something to look forward to.