By PAUL LOWE
Tom Hendricks, whose aviation career path has taken him from grassroots general aviation to naval aviation, to “Top Gun” fighter weapons school, to flying the line for Delta Air Lines, has slipped comfortably into the left seat at the National Air Transportation Association (NATA).
Hendricks had joined Airlines for America (formerly the Air Transport Association) in 2010 as vice president of safety and security, and was content to spend the rest of his career there. But then he got an e-mail from an executive recruiter asking if he would be interested in the CEO position at NATA, which became open when Jim Coyne announced he was stepping down.
“The more I researched about NATA the more excited I became, for a couple of reasons,” he said during a recent interview. “The opportunity to lead an organization was attractive to me, and then the opportunity to get re-associated with general aviation and get closer to the operations was also exciting.”
So he underwent the process of interviewing with NATA’s executive committee and the board of directors. “After every interview I became more and more impressed with the members of the board and I became convinced that they’re afflicted with the same disease that I am, which is aviation and airplanes and these great machines that we operate. The similarities were greater than the differences, because we all have a passion for aviation.”
Hendricks acknowledged that moving from Part 121 airline operations to an organization that consists of a lot of relatively small companies gave him pause.
Common Industry Concerns
“Going in, I was concerned that the differences could be dramatic and that I’d need to spend a lot of time getting up to speed on those,” he confided. “I certainly do.
“I need to hear our members, our business owners, our operators and understand what their challenges are. But I’m still struck by the similarities across the aviation spectrum that we all face. We’re all concerned about excessive legislation, regulation that doesn’t add value, doesn’t increase safety or doesn’t increase security.”
Hendricks is convinced that everyone in the industry is doing the best he can to keep a viable business model going in a challenging economic environment. And he thinks the industry today has strong leaders across the spectrum–including airlines, including business aviation, including people represented by GAMA and AOPA and the members of NATA.
“We should take this opportunity to make sure that the public and our policymakers really understand how critically important the entire aviation system is to our economy in the U.S. and to the economic recovery that we hope to see coming soon,” he said. “So I think there is an opportunity for us to provide a strong voice, I think there is an opportunity to unify around big issues and make sure we are speaking to our legislators, our regulators and the public as one, and to say we have a wonderful system here.”
Hendricks pointed out that while aviation enables everyone to be mobile, it also enables the economy to grow, and provides a lot of jobs. “And we don’t want to mess this up because we’ve taken a lot of it for granted,” he said. “Thirty years ago we got dressed up to get on an airplane. It was a big deal because it cost a lot of money to go flying. And now it’s become ubiquitous.”
Characterizing aviation as the “physical Internet” that connects all of the different sections of the economy, Hendricks asserts that public policy is going to have to play a really big part to make sure we have a viable and healthy aviation system across all spectrums. “It’s not a zero-sum game among the airlines and FBOs and service providers and manufacturers,” he said. “We’re all in this together, and it’s a great opportunity for us to consciously make sure this is a viable and healthy system for the good of the economy and the good of the country.”
When asked about the security differences between commercial aviation and general aviation, Hendricks volunteered that he is a big fan of Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole. “He has brought great leadership to the TSA,” he said. “He’s moving down the path of a risk-based approach to security. And we have fantastic security. So, general aviation has got to be part of the security layer in our security barriers.”
What about the long-gestating Large Aircraft Security Program and the foreign repair station security rule?
“If those were easy they would have been done already,” Hendricks explained. “Those are complex areas. The foreign repair station issue speaks to sovereignty in foreign lands. We currently enjoy a positive surplus of trade of more than $2 billion with repair station activity.”
He said a visitor to Todd Duncan’s shop in Lincoln, Neb., would see aircraft from around the world getting repaired there. “So we have to be careful that we don’t hurt businesses in the U.S. that are bringing in repair work from outside the U.S.,” he explained. “It’s a complex issue. Some of the arguments have been made on emotion and not necessarily on the facts out there.”