I attended NBAA 2012 last month in Orlando as a representative of my new company. That made the fourth or fifth time I’ve attended that show and, I have to say, this one was remarkably smaller. There was a good deal of discussion about it around the floor; but, no real answers as to why.
Of course, the Superstorm had just bashed the Northeast; so, there were a great many exhibitors and attendees whose plans to attend were cancelled for them by Sandy. Still, the storm couldn’t account for the smaller exhibit hall the much less crowded aisles.
In years past, I have been unable to fully traverse the exhibit hall in a single day and actually see everything. I certainly could not walk the whole floor and be able to return to a particular booth easily. This year was different. I was able to walk the full floor on the first day. On the second day, I was able to easily return to booths I had visited briefly on the first day. With my sense of direction, this speaks volumes. Even the exhibitors were remarking on it. They have something of a subculture of their own. They all go to the same events; so, they know who is usually there and they notice when one of their number is missing. While I certainly cannot call to mind all of the usual suspects who were not there, there were certainly a great many of them.
So, the question, of course, is “why?” Why were so many exhibitors and attendees absent? As we’ve noted, surely the storm kept many away, but that cannot be the only reason.
Speculation was that there were many factors, including the election and the anxiety surrounding it, general financial unease, continued poor industry perception, and cost-cutting. No one could assign a larger portion of blame on one factor or another although there was not shortage of attempts to do so.
Even with fewer exhibitors and apparently fewer attendees, the show was, as always, a productive time of creating new relationships and renewing old ones. Educational opportunities were fantastic and industry discussions informative. The after-hours events were spectacular and enjoyable. For awhile, the high stress of the jobs we do and the forces acting upon us could be set aside for a little dancing and unwinding. All in all, the meeting was a success, I believe. Still, I am curious about the numbers.
So, tell me, did you attend this year? If not, why not?
This time, maybe literally.
I had thought I would write an article today on the NBAA convention in Orlando last week; but, I changed my mind. Instead, I want to talk about doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
Business aircraft, those symbols of corporate greed, executive excess and the exploitative one percent are jam-packed these days….with diapers, blanket, flashlights and mittens. That’s right, the evil, pencil-mustachioed villain that is Business Aviation has taken time away from tying hapless maidens to train tracks and has done what it always does – risen the occasion. Flight departments, FBOs, aircraft owners, and general aviation associations all over the country are donating their aircraft, their time, and their resources to shower the Northeast with relief supplies.
About two weeks ago, residents in that area were left numb and overwhelmed. They watched helplessly as a massive storm turned her eye on them, devoured everything in her path until she reached them, then took everything she found there, as well. They stood in the flooded, muddy, wreckage of their homes not even knowing where to begin, what to think, or how to process what they were seeing. I wasn’t there, but I know what they did. You see, I’m a Katrina survivor. My son and I lost very nearly everything to her. I was a renter with no flood insurance policy – no one would write one. (That actually turned out to be a good thing, but that’s a different story.)
Since The Storm, I’ve met pilot after pilot who flew into New Orleans bringing food, water, medical supplies and doctors in the days following landfall. These men and women then flew patients out of the city to places where they could get medical attention. The pilots worked hideously long hours, ate insufficiently and infrequently, slept when and as they could. And, guess what. They are doing it again.
Since I cannot possibly name all of the organizations, companies and individuals who are donating whatever they have and can, I won’t name any. (Well, except maybe organizer and communicator Jersey Girl Jo Damato, but mostly because I really want someone to get her a Devils jersey with Jerzgrljo on the back.)
You will never know who got the flashlight you dropped off or the blankets you sent over. Those souls who received them will never know you. However, as one whose life was salvaged by the kindness of strangers, I can guarantee you that they will be thankful for you every day for the rest of their lives.
Maybe some of the local media coverage of collection sites and donated flights will counteract the poisonous stories of the past few years. Maybe it won’t. Regardless, business and general aviation will bring medicine, food, and supplies to the Northeast just like we did to New Orleans, just like we did to Haiti and just like we do any other time we are needed…even if CNN isn’t watching.
Perhaps “fancy-pants” is an acceptable description for a professional journalist to use. I’m not a professional journalist; so, I wouldn’t know. Stacy Warden is, though, and in her article this week, she seems to think it’s acceptable. She also seems to think that misleading titles are acceptable. “RIM could sell its business jet to save $1 billion” implies that the sale of that Falcon 50 nets a billion dollar savings. (Must be a really tricked out Falcon 50.) Okay, so in the article she ‘fesses up that the savings are actually the result of a great many cuts, not solely from the aircraft sale. And, she grudgingly admits that RIM uses their two Falcons to keep up with 175 markets in 27 countries. But, let’s not dwell on that. That little tidbit makes the aircraft look like valuable business tools rather than executive perks as she (and far too many other journalists) would have us believe. Let’s skim right over that so we can get to the business of being outraged on behalf of the 5,000 workers “canned” by RIM.
You want to talk about workers getting “canned?” Okay, let’s. Let’s start with flight department closures. Let’s talk about charter companies with lost sales and with fewer aircraft to manage because potential clients and owners don’t want to deal with the bad press. Let’s talk about the hundreds of American professional dispatchers, pilots, schedulers and mechanics who walked in one day to find themselves unemployed. Let’s talk about lost fuel and ground service sales. No need to pay those line service guys. Cut ‘em loose. Airplanes that don’t fly don’t need refurbishing; so, paint and interior shops are idle. Those workers have to go, too. And, finally, let’s look at aircraft manufacturing. Hawker Beechcraft saw sales plummet from 4,272 in 2007 to 1,865 last year. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs in Wichita alone. Remaining employees deal daily with the stress of wondering when the ax will fall. Reports this week, though, indicate that China’s Superior Aviation Beijing is in talks to purchase the historic American aircraft manufacturer.
Regardless of whether or not the jobs stay in the United States, the profits won’t. American industry is weaker. The American economy is weaker. Ohio – the Birthplace of Aviation. North Carolina – First in Flight. Remember them?
The fact is that, yes, sometimes the business tools that are business jets are misused. The tandem truth to that fact is that, more often, those aircraft are used exactly as intended and they allow executives, managers and sometimes regular employees to be more productive than they would be using scheduled service.
The greater fact is that those “fancy-pants jets” and the rest of the general aviation industry provide hundreds of thousands of American jobs. They feed, clothe and house American families. The inconvenient truth for the ill-informed and biased is that the jobs – blue-collar, white-collar, skilled and unskilled -created by jets, turbo-props, pistons and rotor-wings support communities. They help support cities. They contribute to the support of our economy. Without them, we are all weaker.
We are general aviation and we all have colleagues who have been “canned” as a result of the false public perception perpetuated by articles like this one. Who will be outraged for us?
Friends of mine live in a cul de sac in a quiet neighborhood. A couple of weeks ago, at around six on a Sunday morning, they were playing fetch with the family dog in the front yard. The ball went into the street and so did the dog. She was hit and killed. Even though they’d played there all the time and never had a problem, was it the smartest thing to play fetch near a street? No. When you consider the setting and the time, did it seem to be the most dangerous thing? No. The risks were low and had never been an issue before; so, they ultimately faded from mind….with tragic consequences.
This German shepherd often stayed with me when her family was out of town; so, I grieve her death, as well. I’ve been angry and assigning blame in my grief. But, I’ve also been thinking. I’ve been thinking about how often we create unnecessary, risky situations. We’ve done it so often before without consequences that we don’t even see the risk anymore. This brought me around to pilot fatigue and the article I published last week.
The only people who believe that there is a lot of money to be made in aviation don’t own charter operations. They don’t own aircraft. They don’t manage them. They don’t deal with personnel costs and they certainly don’t deal with the FAA. I’m not telling you anything new when I tell you that our margins are small and are not keeping pace with costs and inflation. As a result, we have to do more with what we have. Crews are cross-trained. Schedulers work around the clock. Everyone pulls their own weight and then some. In the end, people get tired. And when they get tired, they make mistakes.
To really make the most of a fleet of two pilot aircraft, you need at least three, if not four pilots per plane. But, unless your planes are flying 150 hours or more a month, who can afford to have that many extra pilots sitting around? I don’t know of any small charter operators who can. As a result, if a trip fits legally with everything else on the board, you have to sell it. You have to make hay while the sun shines. That’s what I was doing one day when my coworker Tiffany said, “Jon Anne, (pilots) aren’t machines,” reminding me that “legal” and “wise” are not the same thing. Study after study shows how fatigue degrades judgement. That day, I was setting my crew up for fatigue.
We’ve all done it. We added on one more leg, sold a trip starting as soon as the crew was legal to take it, flown them every minute of the allowable flight time, used every second of that 14 hours. The instances of catastrophic consequences have been so small, that we forget about them. The risks fade from our minds until one day an MD-80 runs off the end of the runway in Little Rock, an ERJ hits a fence in Cleveland, a Hawker crashes in Minnesota. Our intentions are good; but, we forget about the risks until it’s too late to do anything about them.
My friend loved that dog and will never forget that she was the one who threw the ball.
In my article last week, I concluded that we must keep ourselves sensitive to pilot fatigue because the cost of being wrong is simply too high. We must remember it every time we pick up the ball, even when the risks are small.
Every flight, every day is packed with variables that present some risk to the successful completion of that flight. One variable we can actively mitigate is pilot fatigue. Articles on the topic have been in the mainstream media for months, with new rest regulations coming for airline pilots. The new regulations address only crew rest requirements, not with other factors (like the interruption of circadian rhythm and physiology)that contribute to fatigue. Length of the rest period is important, but we must also beware of other factors.
Dozing off in a meeting could be a career killer. Dozing off in the cockpit could be a killer, period. Insufficient rest is obviously a major element of pilot fatigue. A friend who flies for a major carrier explained how their rest time worked. In theory, they had eight hours with that rest time beginning at a set time after the aircraft landed and ending at a set time before it departed again. In reality, they had far less than the eight hours. Let’s say the hotel van is 30 minutes late and it’s another 30 minutes to the hotel. The crew now has seven hours of rest available. Going back to the airport, the crew has to fit their schedule to the hotel’s shuttle; so, if the crew needs to leave on the half hour but the van leaves on the hour, they leave an hour and a half before they need to be at the airport. The crew now has five and a half hours of rest time. Throw in some time searching for dinner or breakfast and how much actual “rest” time is that crew getting? Not much. How was this airline crew rested enough to fly? The new regulations have rest time basically starting and ending at the hotel. When the regulations go into effect, they will give the crew a much better chance at actually getting meaningful rest. While rest requirements for Part 135 are already greater than those for airlines, the shuttle, drive time and food issues are easy to forget when planning rest periods for our crews, as well. Also easily forgotten are the fatigue contributions made by interruption in circadian rhythm and by physiology.
Humans are diurnal with circadian rhythms oriented to sleeping at night. Aviation is a 24-hour industry; so, of course, there are going to be times when flight schedules directly oppose sleep schedules. With the exception of red-eyes and international flights, most scheduled service flights coincide with normal sleep schedules. However, for maximum crew scheduling efficiency, crew schedules contain some number of CDO or nap lines. Friends flying for both regional and legacy carriers have told me that the inconsistencies of those lines can be brutal after awhile. Freight flies largely at night; so, I suppose you could say that the crews could train their bodies to operate on a different rhythm, the way most shift workers do – you know those people who defined Shift Work Sleep Disorder. That might need a little review, as well. Like scheduled flights, most charter operates within normal rhythm, with the notable exception of life flights, which are almost always at some hideous hour. I have yet to hear of a regular charter operator that can afford to hire a full-time crew whose sole responsibility is to fly life flights. As a result, crews have schedules that are all over the clock and all out of rhythm. Most pilots aren’t called on to fly life flights or odd-hour charter flights frequently enough to result in total exhaustion; however, when assigning crews, it’s a consideration the scheduler has to keep in mind.
The most difficult fatigue factor to plan around, I think, is aviation physiology – the element that becomes important when we start talking about weather and heavy traffic – those conditions which require hypervigilance or instrument flying. You’ve heard pilots say that their jobs are 99% boredom, 1% sheer terror. The problem is that the 1% of sheer terror doesn’t happen as a 30-second event. Flying through storms takes time – sometimes a long time. A friend told me of a study done in the 80s which found that one hour of flying in instrument conditions without autopilot equaled three hours of physical labor and five hours of mental stress. (If you have a copy of that study or a similar one, I’d love to see it.) Even with some percentage of error in the study, it stands to reason that hand-flying in instrument conditions is far more mentally taxing and more stressful than engaging auto-pilots in VFR conditions. Assigning crews for trips is typically done several days in advance and I don’t know anyone who thinks about the weather conditions for a trip on Monday when assigning crews for a trip on Tuesday, regardless of the itineraries or the length of the rest period.
Each of these elements presents risk. Any combination of them presents even great risks with the snowball effect. Trying to make a profit in a charter market that offers decreasing margins means that fewer people assume more responsibilities. It means that every penny is stretched into thin copper wire. It means that stress levels go up. In this environment, it is crucial that we pay closer attention to any of the industry variables that present risk. Rest time is one of the easiest variables in our industry to get right – and it’s one of the easiest to get wrong. Fatigue does not usually result in accidents or incidents; so, it’s one of the easiest to take for granted. However, it’s one we must closely control because the cost of being wrong is simply too high.
At a meeting of the American Association of Airport Executives four years ago, a growing trend emerged – airport authorities taking over FBO services.(http://www.aaae.org/about_aaae/aaae_committees/agsa/) While the presentation doesn’t specifically advocate direct competition with FBOs, the mentions of risk-free funding for airports but “ALA & AGSA staff worked together this year to oppose the proposal by NATA to limit the use of DOT small community air service grants on ground handling issues.” So the organization promotes use of government funds for its own members; but opposes the use of those same funds for private enterprises to provide those same handling services. Additionally, the statement “(t)he focus of AGSA has been to support airports in creating their own efficient and cost-effective ground handling services” certainly indicates the intention of promoting airport authority direct competition with tenants.
Airports seeking to provide FBO services often have only one facility on the field. The authorities cite the need for competition or pricing complaints as the reason for the second facility. In theory, this competition benefits the customers, bringing more of them to the field, thus benefiting both facilities. In theory, that’s great. In practice, it’s more complicated. As far as pricing goes, let’s face it, if you look hard enough, you will always find someone unhappy with pricing whether you are looking at FBOs, insurance or bananas.
Years ago, there were several FBOs at Chattanooga’s Lovell Field. During times of economic acrobatics, the free market winnowed the number down to just one. Four years ago, the airport authority put out a request for bids on new facilities. They rejected both proposals they received. Third party feasibility studies (http://chattanoogansforfairaviation.com/) indicate that the airport does not have enough traffic to support two facilities. Regardless, the airport proceeded with plans to install a second one. Perhaps this plan was based on the new Volkswagen plant to be built in the area; however, if that and other regional economic development plans were to have a huge impact on airport traffic, one would think that a private company would have initiated the process on their own and would not be sharing either risk or revenue with the airport authority. Instead, the airport authority contracted Wilson Air to operate a second FBO facility while the airport retains financial responsibility for the site. In effect, the airport authority – the landlord – just put themselves into direct competition with their tenant. I really can’t even think of a non-aviation parallel to this ethical issue.
Even with only one FBO on the field, there is still competition – with upline, downline, and nearby airports. Does an aircraft top off at the local price or upload minimum fuel and top off at the next stop? Is there another field within a reasonable distance that offers substantial savings? The reality is that the Chattanooga airport already competes with every airport on the aircraft’s itinerary.
And if the reason for a second facility is to create competition, how can the competition be fair when one of the competitors receives subsidies that can make up any shortfall? By providing this alternative facility, the Chattanooga Municipal Airport Authority estimated consumer savings of $1.5 million in the first year of operations – a figure difficult to verify. Read another way, that sentence could be that the new facility expects to undercut the existing tenant of 10 years, TAC Air, by $1.5 million. Hmmm. The facility at Chattanooga reportedly lost $300,000 in its first five months of operation, an amount equal to the projected first year losses. (You can request a copy of the financial information related to this project via the Freedom of Information Act. [http://www.chattairport.com/downloads/Freedom_Information_Act.pdf]) The ability to continue operating at a loss is clearly an unfair advantage
I have used Chattanooga as an example only because it has been in the news so frequently; but, there are other airports where this very same thing is happening. In Daytona, there are three FBOs on the field, yet the airport is providing all of the handling services. In Appleton, WI, the airport bought the existing FBO out so they could “better control their destiny.” After spending $11MM taxpayer dollars, they were able to save their air carriers exactly $0.01 per gallon. Moline, IL, bought the FBO on their field, took over fueling operations, and began aggressively pursuing new carriers to service the market offering numerous incentives including ground handling services at a greatly reduced rate. The problem there is that scheduled carriers base service on market performance. In the case of Moline, Airtran/Southwest and Allegiant have discontinued service to the airport.
Airport authorities are competing with their tenants. It would be one thing if they were doing so based on a lack of services offered; but, I was unable to find a single instance where that was the case. The new facilities did not increase the number of services available on the field, rather, they used taxpayer monies to sell redundant services.
I’ve spoken with FBO owners and managers who are now competing head to head with their landlords. These men and woman have accepted the risks of operating a business. They are sometimes successful – as in the case of TAC Air, Signature, Dulles Aviation and Avflight. Sometimes they fail – as in the case of Riverhawk. However, in all cases, they did it within the confines of the free market system. They succeeded or failed based on the economy and their own business acumen. The successful ones are the leaders of aviation private enterprise and these leaders of private enterprise are, frankly, frightened by what they see coming – a business battle they cannot win.
To voice your concern, contact your legislators, the American Association of Airport Executives, the Independent Fixed Base Operators Association, NATA, NBAA or your fuel supplier.
Show your ID at the guard shack, continue through the National Guard base, through the fences and over the cattle gap and you got to my office on the back side of the Smyrna / Rutherford County Airport. While the airport itself was quite busy, back in our hangar the setting was quiet – bucolic, even. I often saw flocks of turkeys or several deer when driving in. One afternoon, I saw this doe and her fawns right next to the road, filling up on soft, spring grass.
In mid-summer, this area was cleared. A copse of trees made way for a dozer pile and it hurt my tree-hugging heart to watch the destruction. However, in place of these trees sprung up a solar farm, one of only two on Tennessee airport properties. Responsible for this project was John Black, the Smyrna Airport Executive Director, recent recipient of the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2011 General Aviation Airport Manager of the Year award for the FAA Southern Region Airports Division.
In a political environment that could be termed as hostile to the general aviation industry, airports are challenged to find ways to replace federal funds either lost or in danger of being lost. John Black’s innovative partnership with Soltas Smyrna, LLC, is a part of the TVA Generation Partners Program in which the TVA buys the renewable generation from the distributor. Installing the panels at the airport presented some unique challenges in that the panels had to be free from glare that could affect pilots on approach or departure; however, according to an airport spokesperson, transient pilots often ask where the solar farm is, not realizing that they have just flown right over it.
In addition to actually generating power, the airport has gone greener with the installation of LED runway lights and with charging stations for electric cars. At this point, it is the only airport in the state of Tennessee to have accomplished both things.
As airlines continue to cut service and as even the essential air service program comes under scrutiny, scheduled service airports face unprecedented funding challenges. Those airports will be looking for increased federal funding which will have to come from somewhere. The logical source is from general aviation airports, currently erroneously portrayed as unnecessary and a toy for the wealthy. It’s time for GA airports to think innovatively, to come up with ways to be completely or at least more self-sustaining.
In the case of the Smyrna Airport, they provide an often more cost-effective option to the Nashville International Airport. With general aviation and National Guard activity, the airport contributes an estimated $42 Million to the economy. The airport also hosts the Great Tennessee Air Show, which drew 50,000 attendees in 2011 and contributed an additional $35,000. The airport usually hosts the event on alternating years; however, they have secured the participation of the US Navy Blue Angels and will be hosting the event again in 2012 on May 12-13. The airport is leading the way in creatively increasing revenue generation while decreasing environmental impact.
In a time when general aviation airports around the country, most notably perhaps in California, are already under attack, it is more important than ever for these airports to reach out to the media and tell their stories. It’s time for general aviation to toot its own horn a little and share their contributions to the community and to the economy.