NBAA 2007: Evolving Toward an Uncertain Future

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As this is written, the final day of 2007's National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Annual Meeting and convention is well underway. Tired but smiling men and women in business attire are dragging stuffed luggage throughout Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), tying up loose ends and making final passes through the exhibit floor. Last-minute errands are being run, airline boarding passes gathered up and the fortunate are filing flight plans. Elsewhere, vendors and exhibitors are counting coup, toting up the products they've sold.

Too, the association itself is looking at a few numbers. As of the close of business Wednesday, NBAA reports some 31,343 registrants attended this year's event, already making it the second most well-attended in the association's history. And there was still today to go, raising the distinct possibility a new attendance record might be set, besting 2006's 33,088-person high-water mark. Regardless, the number of exhibitors present at this year's show -- 1,152 -- had long ago eclipsed previous years. And approximately 115 "state of the art" business aircraft -- as NBAA termed it -- were on static display at the nearby Fulton County Airport-Brown Field. With those numbers, it's hard for the event not to be a success.

In looking back on the week, a few observations become clear. One, the place is crowded. Thankfully, the GWCC is large enough to comfortably handle the demand. (In fact, only a handful of cities have the mix of convention space, adjacent hotels and close-in airports the association requires.) It's so crowded, in fact, we can go out on a limb and suggest NBAA will exceed previous years' attendance, making this event the largest yet. By those metrics of success, the 2007 edition definitely makes the cut.

But -- and here comes the second observation -- what about the rest of the factors by which we measure successful NBAA shows: buzz, new airframe announcements and "wow" factor? By those metrics, this year's event pales a bit in comparison. Simply put, there wasn't as much "high-fiving" among attendees and exhibitors over their good fortune to be positioned in the business aviation industry's right place and time. Certainly, there are many, many smiling and prosperous people among both suppliers and operators, but they've been wearing the same smile since last year.

But there simply isn't the "wow" factor of 1983, when Beechcraft and Burt Rutan flew a Starship I prototype over Dallas' Love Field. Nor did 2007 remind us of more recent years when companies like Eclipse, Honda or Aerion announced buzz-worthy projects. That's okay, though, because any lack of "buzz" or "wow" present this year allows the rest of the industry's players to catch their breath. It's definitely not a sign of downturn, even if business aviation's recent and explosive growth can't be sustained indefinitely. Besides, those who have successfully ridden out the lean years know well the differences.

Instead of "buzz" and "wow" this year, we've seen maturation: The new projects announced in recent years are diligently being prepared for their respective markets. Announcements at this year's show were evolutionary, not earth-shaking -- unless of course you're someone like Rick Schrameck, president and CEO of manufacturer Epic Aircraft. This week, Schrameck inked a $200 million partnership deal with Kingfisher Airlines, a company headed by Indian billionaire Dr. Vijay Mallya, allowing Epic the opportunity to accelerate the process of bringing the company's aircraft models to market. In many ways, the Epic/Kingfisher deal's combining of resources is the poster child for this year's convention, with Cessna's overtures toward troubled Columbia Aircraft serving as a second example. There are others, of course, too numerous or private to note.

Our third -- and mercifully final -- observation involves business aviation's immediate and challenging future. Yesterday on Capitol Hill, NBAA Senior Vice President, Operations, Steve Brown told Congress the airlines' scheduling practices are to blame for record-setting delays, not the minimal impact of business and general aviation operators. Brown's testimony pointed out the mathematical impossibility of trying to squeeze 57 departures an hour out of a 44-per-hour airport like New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Yet, many in government prefer listening to the airlines and the FAA as they both beat the drum of user fees. As noted so many times in recent months and this week in Atlanta, the user fee fight is still being waged, with many marginal operators and companies adopting a wait-and-see attitude before "splurging" on that new airframe, powerplant or avionics suite.

The bottom line from all of this -- and a conclusion we all can draw -- is the NBAA show is roughly equivalent to a canary in a coal mine: Business aviation is among the very first industries to feel the effects of an economic downturn. With the threat of user fees looming, the outcome still unknown, plus ongoing bad news involving the overall U.S. economy, operators suddenly may be reluctant to commit new investments in aircraft, components and the people necessary to use them. Too, manufacturers looking at large order backlogs -- which involves pretty much all of them -- don't see the need to roll out their "next big thing," preferring instead to concentrate on what products and sales already are in their pipeline.

Was the 2007 edition of the world's largest purely civil aviation event a success? Unquestionably. Did it set new attendance records? Probably. Were there a bunch of jaw-dropping announcements of sexy new aircraft on the horizon? No. Has business aviation's explosive recent growth reached its peak, to fall back to more-traditional levels? It's too soon to tell, but probably not, pending resolution of obvious economic and regulatory challenges. Was there some overwhelming theme and buzz forever to be associated with this, NBAA's 60th annual meeting and convention? Not that we've been able to identify, save for the evolving nature of the industry and its brand.

In fact, we may be forced to wait until next year's event, to be held back in Orlando, Fla., October 6-8, 2008, before discovering answers to these questions. And just as we were this year, AVweb will be there to help find the answers.