NBAA: Anxious, But In a Good Way
As NBAA's Convention opens today in Orlando, I haven't heard much talk about the general mood of the industry. At AVweb, we've enjoined ourselves from writing stories that contain the word "recovery" or "rebound," not because we're opposed to optimism but because anyone who says the aviation economy is about to turn is probably too clueless to know if it is or it isn't.
At the opening day press breakfast, GAMA President Pete Bunce said his informal poll of exhibitors revealed a mood that's "anxious, but in good way." I take that as another form of guarded optimism, but it also relates to the coming election. Both Bunce and NBAA President Ed Bolen said whoever wins next week will at least put the election in the rearview mirror and futile as it may seem, we'll at least have some new direction to go after the election.
Bunce, however, is not sanguine that the lame-duck Congress in office until next year won't have some surprises up its collective sleeve. He's said this before—like last week at Redbird's flight training conference—and I admire his consistency. The 112th Congress still has to disarm the insanely stupid hand grenade it wired to the national well being in the form of the expiring budget sequestration—the so-called fiscal cliff. This is not a Congress known for its wisdom nor a sense of historic perspective. That's another way of saying anything can happen and Bunce is worried that it will.
The biggest fear is that the FAA will suffer budget cutbacks that will cause it to delay certification work that is already moving at a glacial pace. User fees are bound to go on the table again and that's almost certainly true no matter who wins the election. The complexion of the Congress will change in January and, frankly, I don't think it matters much what the partisan composition is. There are going to be cuts in federal spending and there are going to be efforts to generate new revenue, either via taxes or user fees and not just on aviation. Of the two threats, I think the further delay of certification and oversight work would be far more costly to the industry because it's suffered by the fewest players—the aircraft manufacturers. Many just won't be able to make investments in new airplanes or mods because the return is both uncertain and stretched over such a telescoped timeline as to be immeasurable. They might do better buying CDs. You know those commentaries you keep reading that says the country faces some hard choices? We're rapidly approaching the point where those choices will need to be made and no segment of the economy is going go unscathed.
Nonetheless, Ed Bolen pointed out—rightly—that business aviation has come a long way since the automakers famously flew their biz jets to Washington to ask for a handout. Even the hardcore bizav acolytes had trouble defending that, me included. Without naming names, the business aviation community continually chaffs at President Obama's periodic denigration of business aircraft operators as tax-dodging fat cats while at the same time using the world's most luxurious and expensive business airplane as a campaign tool. I don't know how much traction that complaint gets outside of the industry, but that's where the PR battle is being won and lost.
In my view, it's a split decision. Bolen reported that more companies than ever are using business aircraft but NBAA finds itself in the position of having to defend—not just promote—the use of business airplanes. It's not that the public much cares one way or the other, until airplanes are placed into the tax context. It's dicey business arguing for tax breaks for a thing flying around with gold-plated lav faucets and flatscreen TVs. The logic may elude the typical wage earner who doesn't live in Wichita.
NBAA's new promo campaign is a continuation of its No Plane/No Gain program with new twist that focusses on people in aviation and, by extension, employment. There are posters all over the hall featuring nice photos of people involved in business aviation with the theme of one-in-a-million, followed by the rejoinder that there are actually 1.2 million jobs in the indusry. Many of the posters seem to feature women, which I see is a welcome idea in an industry that needs as many of those as it can get.