Thursday, January 29, 2009

"What we've got failure to communicate."

Most of us over the age of -- well, most of us -- will recognize that quote from the movie Cool Hand Luke; it was from the Captain of Road Prison 36 to prisoners after he sapped Luke in front of his fellow inmates. Then he continued, "Some men we just can't reach."

These two quotes came to mind after hearing of the latest political dust up involving a company using federal money to survive and its embrace of business aviation. This case involved Citigroup and it's imminent acceptance of a shiny new $50 million Dassault Falcon 7x, one of a new generation of large-cabin jets offering extraordinary efficiency -- fuel wise and otherwise.

The Obama administration essentially shamed Citigroup into canceling the order, though the company plans to go forward with its intent to sell three of its five existing jets, according to press reports. And the company will eventually get back its $5 million deposit -- when someone else buys that airplane.

But once again, business aviation -- and by default -- all of general aviation is getting an unwarranted black eye.

Although my friend Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, wrote a letter to President Obama righteously objecting to the tone and tenor of Washington demonizing and denigrating business aviation, part of the problem is long term and ongoing.

Our failure to communicate.

Citigroup, like the Big Three Detroit automakers before it, missed an opportunity to at least speak up in its own defense and detail the economic benefits of its ownership and use of private aircraft.

Yes, that communicating is also the job of Ed and the association he heads -- but such statements of fact should not have to wait on NBA, nor any other association. If a company does its work and finds economic benefit in owning an airplane -- from a Cessna piston single to a Citation Columbus, a Mooney to a Falcon, a Bonanza to a Hawker 4000 -- it should be adamant in its assertion of those facts. And an actual assertion, not a tepid defense. In general, business airplanes help their companies be profitable and aren't "perks" like some politicians want us to believe; and companies that operate aircraft tend to be more productive and profitable than companies in the same field who do not embrace private aviation.

Yesterday is was a pleasure to hear the first public speech by Craig Fuller, the fledgling president of the almost-70-year-old Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Speaking to the Wichita Aero Club, Craig said something apropos to this discussion: "Experience taught me long ago that if you do not define yourself, you are defined by your adversaries." He brings an accurate perspective borne of his 28-year history of working in Washington's political arena.

That's part of our problem with Washington these days; we're letting the politicians define us. Of course, it might not have hurt had Citigroup decided to rethink it's plans -- or at least have a plan for selling its logic, just after it accepted billions in funds from the Troubled Asset Recovery Program. By doing so, Citigroup admitted it's a troubled company; it should have known, thanks to the Detroit Debacle of a few weeks ago, that a new jet would just look wrong.

Which points up the need to be smart and ready to argue your fact.

This job of defining aviation realistically so that others can't demonize is is not something limited to the halls of associations; just because we pay dues to AOPA or NBAA or EAA or any other alphabet group doesn't let us off the hook.

Here's what Craig said during his talk: "All of us in aviation have a role to play. We must be engaged in the political process. We must define ourselves so our adversaries don't. We cannot afford to be passive and wait for better days."

Twenty-five years ago, I made a similar statement to a group of communicators representing members companies of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. They had just been told by a senior aviation reporter for a weekly news magazine that the current cycle of opposition to general aviation would eventually abate and things would be fine again.

My message went over like a leasure suit at a debutante's ball: "Whatever we lose in this cycle won't come back unless we fight to keep from losing what they want to take away."

Interestingly, Craig noted that in an election-night poll of people who voted, 62 percent viewed general aviation as important to the nation and its economy and health.

So we have most of the public already on our side.

Don't ever be a failure to communicate what makes general aviation worthwhile to the nation, our economy and our safety. We're far too important. But it wouldn't hurt of some businesses acted more wisely when under the microscope.

An opportunity to be smart is coming this weekend, when the Super Bowl gets played in Tampa. I'm not holding my breath that all companies will be smart. And I know that many of the jets that fly to the area will be owned by individuals -- individuals who should also be willing to speak up about the jobs they support through owning a private aircraft.

We all must define general aviation lest people with points to score define us in ways that portray us inaccurately.

Some we just won't be able to reach. But most we can. And we must reach as many as we can -- including that part of the public who work as politicians.

-- Dave

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mr. President: In the interest of economic recovery, may I offer five ideas from aviation?

Mr. President:

First and foremost, President Obama, congratulations on your inauguration; a nation hungry for leadership stands ready to pitch in and help -- help ourselves out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves in so many areas. And, as you said, putting aside old ways must be part of the marching orders; so must putting to use good ideas, another point you made in your inaugural address a little while ago.

Naturally, different Americans will see benefits through the lenses of their own circumstances, work and lives. Count me as among them as a pilot, past aircraft owner and occasional user of airline services.

It's with that understanding, and in the spirit of advancing ideas that can help the country -- economically, in our security and our relations with others -- that I humbly pitch five thoughts that seem to me to have potential, to offer value from their result.

First, already more than a dozen aviation groups have voiced their suggestion that some $3 billion from any economic stimulus bill go toward infrastructure investments that can advance the much-needed Next Generation Air Traffic Control network -- you might have heard it called NextGen from your DOT transition staff. But to take the idea further than establishing a way to finish the ground hardware and software, to embrace more than commercial interests to general aviation, may I suggest a funding mechanism that provides private aviation with a 50 percent share of the costs they will incur in adding the equipment needed to make them completely compatible with this new system. Whether through tax credits or direct funding, the benefits would be huge.

Only with a complete changeover to the ADS-B and GPS technologies that underpin NextGen by all of America's civil aviation users can our national air-traffic network realize the full benefits of the new system and help reduce delays, reduce traffic conflicts and provide the in-cockpit weather and information. And do so in a time frame that precludes even greater problems in the short term. Private-aircraft owners are ready and willing to do their share -- if doing their share provides real benefits. The initial proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration stretches out more than another decade -- and offers private aviation no benefit to making the

Accelerating the infrastructure investment could make the transition happen years faster, to the benefit of all users, flyers and non-flyers alike. Government sharing the costs will help that transition, provide private users with the benefits absent from the FAA's proposal, and accelerate the savings potential of NextGen to the point that it would more than offset the public-sector investment in private-sector aircraft.

Second, designate some of the economic recovery funds to the development of new airports and the expansion of existing ones. Understand that adding all the capacity possible to the airspace will ultimately fail as a tool for reducing delays and expanding air commerce -- without a parallel focus on increasing pavement on which to put the added aircraft expected over the next 20 years. Physics -- something no politician, not even the recently departed President -- make cramming ever-more airplanes onto existing runways impractical, if not impossible, and beyond a certain point, unsafe.

Further, many a small and medium city could benefit from the economic engines that are our general-aviation airports. Those locations with runways today, ones typically lacking in airline service, remain connected to the broader world of business and the global economy through the movement of private aircraft in and out of their airports. Expanding new-airport construction to cities and towns lacking such runways would provide construction jobs short-term and service and instruction jobs long-term, to the benefit of the nation's economic growth through the growth of the economies of so many small towns and cities now bypassed by the world.

Third, reign in the Transportation Security Administration's creeping regulatory embrace. Recently, the agency, by administrative fiat, imposed new rules requiring private pilots to succumb to fingerprinting and criminal background checks and special badges merely because they base an airplane at airports with airline service -- regardless of the degree of separation between the private operators and the commercial operations.

And the pending proposal known as the Large Aircraft Security Program provides nothing close to the security that it's title seems to promise.

Private aircraft owners don't go to the trouble of learning to fly and the expense of acquiring aircraft to dispose of them as weapons of minor destruction -- and they are too small to be true weapons of mass destruction. The requirement that pilots undergo criminal background checks and fingerprinting injects the government into the role of deciding who can fly what -- an imposition placed on no other mode of private travel. It's unreasonable intrusion, something our Constitution was written to preclude.

Private aircraft owners and pilots don't haul strangers, making moot the proposal's plan for pilots to have private companies vette their passengers against the error-prone terrorist watch list -- an insult, at its least, when we think of being forced to submit the names of our families, our friends and neighbors simply because we chose to fly them with us.

Private aircraft pilots need not have the heavy hand of an intrusive government decide they can't carry a survival kit because it carries a knife, pliers, ax or screwdriver. The whole idea that pilots need protection from themselves or from their friends and families borders on ludicrous -- and it stands to interfere with the legitimate use of airplanes in private flight by private companies.

More and more these days, it seems that the TSA is acting as a surrogate for the airline industry by acting to incrementally reduce the ease and flexibility, the worth and utility, of owning and flying a private plane -- as if, with enough action, we'll all be forced to pay a common carrier.

So please, scrap the entire proposal and send the TSA back to work on something that makes sense, something that doesn't make us all criminal suspects simply because we can fly ourselves. Remember, 18 of the terrorists of 9/11 would have passed the same sort of criminal background checks the TSA would require of us to fly our own planes. Sanity must return.

Fourth, find a way to revamp the management and culture of the FAA itself. For the past 16 years, the value of aviation knowledge seems to have declined within the very agency that exercises the most influence over the aviation industry. The FAA has had two consecutive administrators with only ancillary connections to aviation -- but no first-hand experience in flying, running aviation businesses or aircraft companies, for years hallmarks of a long line of outstanding (and mediocre) people tapped to lead this vital agency.

The FAA's morale and staff retention cannot take another unknowing outsider who qualifies only as a general executive and has no real aviation knowledge. The learning curve is steep, the specifics technical, and experienced knowledge critical. From the administrator down to line inspectors and other enforcement people, the agency's efforts to train outsiders to a level commensurate with aviation's needs has lead to bad leadership, wasted resources and vengeful enforcement actions from officials upset that the people they were inspecting were more knowledgeable than themselves.

If it means creating a way to offer premium compensation to have pilots hired as pilot inspectors, airline operations experts to serve as primary operations inspectors, and experienced aircraft mechanics to oversee and enforce maintenance regulations, that's not compromising the independence of the agency. It's helping to assure the quality and value of what the FAA is charged with overseeing. The days of maintenance inspectors with no aviation maintenance experience must end; the days of non-pilots serving as Flight Standard enforcers must end.

The days of aviation experts and aviation experience returning to primacy must return. And your temperament and potential make you our best chance of seeing that happen in decade.

Fifth, and finally, direct your administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to rescind the labor contract unilaterally imposed by now departed administration Marian Blakey. This contract damaged the quantity of veteran controllers by creating a hostile work environment and encouraging their early retirement. This contract ill serves U.S. air commerce, private aviation and air safety -- and we've not yet hit the big bubble in potential retirements that will surely come if the FAA's hostile management of ATC continues.

Additionally, consider temporarily rescinding the mandatory retirement age of controllers so that veterans can stay around long enough to help professionally train their replacements to a level of excellence currently absent from the process. As currently managed, the FAA is increasingly dependent on forced overtime -- exhausting the existing workforce at many facilities -- and under qualified trainees forced to work position before they are fully trained.

None of these ideas will be easy sells to many; they weren't meant to be. As you said today, the road ahead will be hard; there will be challenges. But the alternative is unacceptable.

These ideas will improve aviation, generate jobs and advance America's most crucial role as a leader in world aviation. Aviators, aircraft owners, mechanics, controllers and their support staffs all stand ready to help you make these things happen.

Just ask us.

The time has come.

Good luck Mr. President, and thanks for your time.

Dave Higdon

Sunday, January 04, 2009

UCAP SFO Meetup A Success

My thanks to the listeners that came out to say hi at our first SFO Aviation Meetup. It was an "intimate" group. But fun.

The allotted two hours quickly turned into three.

We drank coffee, beer, ate french fries, and watched the zeppelin float past.

We should do this more often.